Sunday, May 31, 2009

Remember the Alamo? Texas Conservatives Won't Jump On The Latina-Bashing Bandwagon

As the Dallas Morning News reported yesterday, prominent Texas Republicans are not jumping on the racism bandwagon being pulled by extremist conservative Republicans over the Sonia Sotomayor nomination. Republican Senator John Cornyn has come out strongly against this smear campaign driven by stalking horses Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh (who, by the way, have not been elected by anybody to anything lately. Just saying.) Cornyn's colleague, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said to be running for governor of the Lone Star State in the next cycle, has chimed in as well, trying to limit the damage to the Republican Party that these dumb-asses with fat media contracts are doing (and by the way, who cut off Dick Cheney's Zoloft supply?) Today on CNN's "State of the Union" she separated herself from the lunatic fringe by saying clearly that the debate should be based on Sotomayor's record, not on labels applied to her by others.

This, by the way, was also the position taken by the very influential Republican Senate Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch on NPR Friday morning. Hatch took the opportunity to say that the tenor of the confirmation process that we are stuck in and with (otherwise known as "being Borked") was invented by liberals, which is not precisely true: many conservatives hated Bork because he was a judicial activist, but they did not have the influence necessary to take him out without help from the liberals. In other words, if they could have Borked Bork alone, they would have, but they were stuck in the role of Greek chorus. But Hatch, although he still seems bitter about the Bork battle, said that he had voted for Sotomayor back in 1998, and that he hoped his colleagues would "take the high road" -- even though he would not be surprised if they did not.

But back to Texas. I wish Senator Hutchison would say something stronger, but not slandering Sotomayor and asserting that she intends to be fair is a good start. What happened to Elizabeth Dole when her campaign took the low road against Kay Hagen in November should be instructive to all: there are some things that centrist swing voters, most prominently Christian women and Hispanics who are conservative on some issues and not on others, do not think ought to be part of the conservative repertoire: discrimination, dishonesty and character assassination seem to be among those things. And they don't seem to think it is ridiculous identity politics to vote their consciences on these matters.

I would also like to take the opportunity to say that I have always liked Kay Bailey Hutchison, despite the fact that we have strong disagreements on some key civil rights issues. I have always thought she was a class act and I admire her professional achievements in a state and a region that can be politically bruising for women. Senator Hutchison declined to comment on the racism charge in the Dallas Morning News yesterday, when she was asked if she would reverse the no vote cast in Sotomayor's confirmation hearings eleven years ago, and said that she is going to look at Sotomayor's record on 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. "Hutchison has said that the 1998 vote was about Sotomayor's judicial activism as a district court judge," writes Eric Aasen of the News.

Well fine. Because however much I dislike it, this is a legitimate school of legal thought. It's called strict constructionism, for those of you who have been living under a political rock. It assumes that the original wisdom of the founders (all white, all male) foresaw all of the ways their society would evolve until the Last Days (funny that they did not foresee the end of chattel slavery, non-white people being admitted to full citizenship or women's suffrage.) It also assumes that the separation of powers articulated in the Constitution ought to be absolute. But you know what? Sotomayor's view that the Constitution is a living document is also a legitimate school of legal thought. So is the view, which she expressed precisely once as far as we all know, that life experience shapes one's insight into how the Constitution speaks to new problems as well as how it speaks to older, seemingly intractable problems. It is called "critical legal studies," and it is a field that rejects the idea that the law deals with us all equally when it assumes that all of our life experiences and opportunities have been equal. There is nothing in her record as a jurist to suggest that she has thrown key decisions because of her overwhelming empathy for Latina women, but we suspect perhaps that she reads Patricia Williams and Derek Bell with a flashlight under the covers long after Ann Coulter has gone off to bed to rest up for another hate-mongering day.

I have been unable to comment on this matter until now because I am so sick and tired of being told that civil and economic inequality -- whether we are talking about access to marriage or education or to basic services like health care and trash collection -- is merely accidental, or a question of personal virtue rewarded. I am sick, sick, sick of white people and straight people and men (depending on the issues involved) screeching about "identity politics" when those who are being discriminated against have the temerity to object to being discriminated against. And just to speak to one issue that is being raised in relation to the Sotomayor nomination - I live in the City of New Haven, and it is no accident that the overwhelming majority of our police and firefighters are white. No accident whatsoever. And it's also no accident that our police and firefighters do not live here -- a city in which whites are in the minority, even when Yale is in session.

I object as a citizen to the notion that only women, queers and people of color have "identity politics" and that white people, straight people, men reflect the world as it is. Frankly, I object to this idiocy as a historian, because it obscures the ways in which what have come to be known as "identity politics" were invented by those who are now screaming foul because of Sotomayor's comment on the role growing up Latina played in forming her intellect and consciousness. Historical examples I would cite are:

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld the civil right of white people to exclude black people from their company and their commerce. Of Jim Crow statutes, the court argued that "A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races-a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color-has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or re-establish a state of involuntary servitude." We might argue that conservative activists' insistence that they are "color blind" initiates its intellectual history at the moment that its opposite was being expressed: when jurists insisted that actually seeing color and using it as a basis to restrict the access of some citizens to all spaces did not also restrict their civil rights.

U.S. v. Thind, in which an all-white group of Supreme Court Justices explained that the founders intended to only admit "white persons" to citizenship. Lest the Court be accused of judicial activism, in the following year an all-white Congress passed the National Origins Quota Act (1924) that made it illegal for "aliens ineligible for citizenship" to immigrate to the United States, even as temporary laborers.

OK, I could go on, but I want to get back to Texas, a state that might be on the brink of going Democratic (Hat tip to conservative Christian blogger.). Because the stand that Hutchinson and Cornyn are taking is not unrelated to their life experience as white politicians who know that white people can't win in Texas with only white votes. They know that bashing prominent Hispanic professionals who have pulled themselves up from poverty through hard work and sacrifice doesn't pay dividends. If you look at the most recent Texas Census, you will see that a whopping 36% of Texans identify as of Hispanic or Latino, as opposed to 15.1% nationwide. But this doesn't actually tell the whole story, since a fair number of other people of Hispanic descent (many of whom don't even like the term Hispanic since it collapses many histories into a hybrid, pseudo-racial box) are checking other boxes, including "white."

I'm not saying that Hutchison and Cornyn aren't principled. But mightn't their principles also be related to life experience, as opposed to having been pushed from the womb without a racist bone in their bodies? And whatever personal qualities they may be bringing to this -- whether it is fairness, professionalism, honesty -- they are bringing a cold hard fact to the table as well. Attacks on Sonia Sotomayor will be perceived, even by the most conservative Hispanic voters, as racist -- because they are. Whether you agree with the idea that one's life experiences are a path to empathy and knowledge or not, the truth is that she also took that other path to knowledge: Princeton summa cum laude (in history, no less); and Yale Law Review. And it is when facts like this are being disregarded in favor of creating a hullabaloo about a comment made outside the court room that conservative women and conservative Hispanics tend to smell a rat. Because even though some of us are conservative and some of us are not, none of us was born yesterday, Newt.

To weigh the overwhelming evidence of Sotomayor's scholarly excellence against her willingness to identify publicly as a Latina woman (as opposed to, say, a white man's objective brain in a Latina woman's body?) and find that the latter trumps the former is nothing but racism.

And the Senate delegation from the Lone Star State knows it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Should Have Taken The Car (And Other Radical Notes On Public Policy and Family Values)

In case you were about to get to work this morning, hold your horses. Megan Stack at The Huffington Post gives us a sneak preview of the latest episode in Wasilla's Bristolgate scandal. In the upcoming GQ, hunkalicious high school dropout Levi Johnston reveals that on multiple occasions Todd Palin offered to give Bristol a car if she would break up with him.

Definitely should have taken the car, Bristol. Of course, maybe she figured that if she didn't use birth control, and did have a baby, Todd and Sarah would have to give her a car anyway to take the baby to Baby Swim and Well Baby and Baby Baby. Or that Sarah would forget that it was Bristol's baby, and maybe think it was just another baby she had delivered herself by mistake on a fund-raising trip. Then Bristol would have had both Levi and the car. Talk about thinking ahead!

But back to poor, wounded Levi, who is now said to be interested in writing a book (and you tenure-track faculty think writing a book is so hard! Pish-tosh.) In an earlier interview, shortly after the Johnston-Palin "engagement" was broken, Johnston noted that the "snobby" Palins never believed that he was good enough for their daughter. He also said the greatest misconception about him and his family is that they are "white trash." Now this is not a phrase I would ever use, but I am with the most famous baby daddy in America on this one. He is definitely good enough for Bristol who, if you ask me, is a bit of a fixer-upper herself, and doesn't clean up half as good as he does. And if the Palins think Levi is white trash, who do they exactly think they are? Royalty? I ask you.

I bet if Todd had offered Levi the car he would have taken it.

The latest revelations from steamy Wasilla join the other family values story of the week -- no, not the first Latina to overcome a hard scrabble childhood and be nominated to the Supreme Court, you silly goose! -- but the California Supreme Court ruling to:

a) Uphold Proposition 8; and
b) Allow all gay marriages that occurred before Prop 8 to remain valid.

Hunh? So what this means is that marriage, in California, is only legal between a man and a woman, except when two men (or say, two women) get married in a limbo period between the State Supreme Court deciding that they have full civil rights and the wise people of California deciding that they do not have civil rights. Now, of course, the Prop 8 folks are gearing themselves up to enforce the dissolution of those marriages that remain by another act of wholesome, popular will that will probably also be funded by the Mormon Church. I mean, c'mon. Shouldn't they busy themselves with ending the slaughter of innocent fetuses or something? Or trying to persuade teenagers that using condoms is a fool's game? Or trying to buff up Sarah Palin's image so that she can be the Barry Goldwater of 2012? Get a life, people.

California is clearly digging itself into a very deep legal hole here. My question is, what happens when a gay couple who have married in Iowa move to San Francisco, say, tomorrow? Are they still married or not? Tune in next month as conservatives create more litigation than you can possibly imagine about something that matters less to the economic or political future of this country than you can possibly imagine.

My idea is this: take a leaf out of Todd Palin's book. With two major car companies going through bankruptcy right now, I think California might want to solve this problem by buying a lot of cars and offering them to gay and lesbian people if they promise not to get married. Or buying cars for family values activists if they promise to lay off gay and lesbian people who want to get married. Or both.

How's that for solving two difficult policy problems at one stroke? Why the Obama administration does not hire me is, frankly, a mystery.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Radical Commencement Address

Dear Graduates of Zenith:

You are done, God bless you. The clouds cleared, the sun shined, and we all sat out there and baked. Except it was more like being poached, really. Between last night's rain and today's sunshine, we the faculty, deans and administration cooked slowly, draped in various fabrics, wearing black velvet hats, listening to all the same speeches you heard. And they were very good speeches: (Not So) New President made a big statement about the proliferation of handgun violence and violence against women; Anna Quindlen suggested that you take a crack at fixing the world since everyone older than you hasn't really made much of a go of it. A community organizer from Middletown read a sweet passage from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web that made me tear up. And then you threw your hats in the air, and we all marched away. The woman I was sitting next to pointed to a line at the end of the program that asked the audience to please remain seated "until the recession is over." Ha.

But wait! You have not yet received the Radical Commencement Advice! So here are the things that no one will tell you:

Don't live with your parents if you can possibly avoid it. One young graduate I talked to will be living with his grandmother, which I think is an excellent idea, but in general -- even if it means moving to a second tier city, don't go home. Rent a room in someone's apartment, club together with friends -- anything. But it is now time for you to begin to explore who you would be if no one -- not the 'rents, not your teachers, not the dean's office -- told you what to do or required any emotional energy not freely given. While you are at it, don't live with your boyfriend or girlfriend either. There are a lot of fish in the sea, you know.

Leave a gap in your resume and travel. You may not be able to afford to do this right away. If that is the case, find some kind of shitty job that pays well enough that you can save up $5000 in the next six months, a job that you can quit without feeling any guilt. Then take your money and go somewhere where you will not be blown up and live there for as long as you can. Before you leave, since newspapers have no money to hire stringers anymore, see if you can't make a deal to send somebody stories from Faraway Place. A small-ish paper might actually print your work, having very little to print that doesn't come right off the AP wire, and presto, you have a shot at a really interesting career where eventually someone might pay you to travel. Repeat this cycle as many times as you can before you are moved to commit to some kind of career that makes constant travel less appealing.

Don't go back to school. School is not the best way to learn a great many things, although people like it for the structure and the credentials it provides. But really, although most of you arrived at Zenith as people who had excelled in high school, less than half of you excelled at Zenith. Why is that, do you think? Because you became less intelligent? I doubt it. Perhaps you became less driven, and that is a good thing: there are plenty of careers which can give you a nice life without making you feel driven and you might want to look for one. Or you might want to consider this possibility: we weren't teaching what you wanted to know so you did other things instead. Before you imagine that going back to school is the solution to drift or boredom, see if you can't figure out what you do want to know and how you want to live. Then figure out whether school is the way to get there. But more people go back to school than should, from my perspective.

Try not to get pregnant or father a child by accident. I think this is sound advice for people of all ages, so I thought I would just toss it in.

If, instead of travel, you have always thought you want to transition to another gender, there is no time like the present to get started. I really believe this: you may not be ready to talk to your family of birth about this yet, but everything I read suggests that once you start hormones you become, in some ways, another person. What better opportunity to change your appearance, name, and personality than when you are transitioning from student/dependent/child to the freedom of full, independent adulthood? As I read and search the blogosphere two things really stand out. One is that many transpeople, particularly FTMs, have no trouble finding people to love them, but that getting a partner to stick with you through, or beyond, a transition is a bit tougher, since they often have gender issues too. The other is that the trend is to people transitioning younger, and frankly all of these young people seem quite well adjusted: it's hard to think it doesn't have something to do with making a big social and physical change when they are kind of in limbo anyway, as well as not spending all those years in a body that is fucking with their brains. So I say, go for it. Furthermore, the money that you might have spent on travel could be saved up for your surgeries, doing the same shitty jobs. You can travel later, like most people do.

Being a public school teacher is not a fallback job. It is, in fact, what many people call a career. And it is fine to teach school to really find out if you like to teach, but don't do it because you think you are doing kids in public school a favor by gracing them with time you haven't figured out how to turn to good use. Get a shitty job instead, and if you want to do something pointless, travel aimlessly and twiddle your thumbs in a place you haven't seen before like Plano, Texas. Or the Ukraine.

Get rid of your car unless you need it to get to your job, or you intend to live out of it while you travel the good old U.S. of A. A car is a truly needless expense: with the money you won't spend on a car, even if you own it outright, you could save $5000 for traveling in the first year out of school. If I could get rid of my car I would.

If there is a company you really want to work for, call their HR department and find out where they get their temporary labor from. Then go sign up at that temp agency and bide your time. Better yet, give kickbacks to the person who makes assignments to get you to that company all the time. This is really much better than a stupid, unpaid internship, which will keep you dependent on your parents as you work for free. And worst case scenario, you save money for your travel or your transsexual surgery. But I really know people who got the job of their dreams this way: remember, David Geffen started in the mail room at William Morris.

Try not to acquire possessions. Don't even buy books: you can use the library. You don't want it to be difficult to move, and you sure don't want to worry about what is happening to your stuff while you are traveling. Read from libraries; buy an air mattress; and don't purchase more clothes than you can pack in a duffle bag. This means you can probably move in one cab ride or two trips on the subway with a fold-up grocery cart.

Oh -- and if no one has said it to you yet?


Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Clarence Walker Can't Say Those Things, Can He?" A Review of Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Any of us who know Clarence Walker personally are well aware that he can, and does, say those things. He is the Molly Ivins of the historical profession, a razor-witted, capaciously well-read scholar and critic of scholars, who is often seen at professional gatherings holding court in the hotel bar or leading a large group out to a fabulous restaurant. Because Clarence is my friend, I am immediately disqualifying myself as an impartial reviewer of his new book, Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.) But on the other hand, since he sent me a free copy and I enjoyed it so much, I have to express my gratitude somehow. So in an act of fandom, as well as friendship, I am going to try to persuade you to read this delightful book too.

Now, you may say to yourself, "I have read so much on this topic, and even if I have only heard or read about Thomas Jefferson's black descendants, what can I possibly learn from another book about an ex-president's sex life?" In this case, a lot, because it will also make you think about how history does -- or does not -- get written in the first place.

Now I admit that I have not yet read Annette Gordon-Reed's comprehensive Pulitzer-prize winning book on the Jefferson-Hemings affair (it's sitting on the summer reading pile), but even if you have done so, I am pretty confident that you will find something new in Mongrel Nation that will grab your attention. If Gordon-Reed addresses the rich facts of the case, Walker, providing concise narrative where necessary, pays closer attention to the nature and implications of the dispute. In other words, why does the sanctity of the historical profession -- indeed, of the nation itself -- seem to rest so critically on where and when Thomas Jefferson dipped his wick?

One answer, Walker responds, is the ongoing resistance of powerful white people -- historians and other guardians of the White Republic -- to the notion that racial amalgamation was foundational to the making of the United States. This, he argues, requires historians' attention to their privileged role as producers of the past. In the course of this small book, he asks us to reconsider certain fundamental precepts of our profession that necessarily create the epistemological scaffolding within which facts are, or are not, meaningful. Among the assumptions he takes on are: that people always mean what they say (Jefferson's writings about his revulsion for miscegenation, particularly in Notes On The State Of Virginia, have been a constant rebuttal to an alternative history of Monticello); that the history of family is the history of order and respectability (equally strong evidence suggests that respectable families remain respectable in part by lying about and condoning the sexual escapades of family members); that private convictions are consistent with public evidence (I have two words for you -- Strom Thurmond); and that one can usually frame and interpret evidence by generalizing about historical phenomena, identities or power relations (all sex between white men and black women was rape; mixed-race people always identified, and were identified as, socially and culturally black; white men who established the foundational principles of democracy told the truth, kept their promises, and were ruled by reason, not lust.)

Among other important interventions, Walker provides one of the more insightful critiques I have seen as to how we might understand the web of exploitation, violence, love and choice that framed sexual intercourse between white men and black women in the plantation world. All sexual encounters are framed by power and individual circumstances, he argues; and nearly everybody lies about sex to protect their reputations. The Jefferson-Hemings debate, he points out, is perhaps one of the longest family values campaigns in American history. And it is one of the most foundational, since Jefferson's defenders have firmly sutured his reputation as a father and a husband to his role as father of the nation. Walker does not disagree with them in this; but he does disagree that that nation fathered by Jefferson and his contemporaries was a white one.

Those of us who are devoted readers of Walker's books (a rather large subset of whom have also been entertained over food and drinks by his biting wit) know that he can, and does, say "those things," and he puts them in print too. Walker is an equal opportunity smasher of shibboleths. In We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism, a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2001, he took on the cultural and academic politics of his own field with a sharp demand to replace ideology with archival labor. He doesn't believe that history should cut its coat to serve any political fashion, right or left, and it is a joy to see such an independent intellect go to work on the Jefferson-Hemings affair. So if you are putting together your summer reading list, here are a few reasons to put Mongrel Nation at the top of it.

It's short. There is something to be said for a book that can give you a great argument, a concise summary of everything written on a topic to date, some great laughs, and that can be read in one sitting. More historians should try this: it could do a lot for the profession.

It's an elegant example of how to do historiography without being dull. Need I say more? Historiography is dull to many people, but those of us who love it think it doesn't have to be. And yet, how many of my own students have dropped off to sleep after asking a simple question which I respond to by going into raptures about the debates in the field?

It calls out the racism that is part of the wallpaper of American history, but also argues that anti-racist historiography may be part of the problem too. Walker's position on the politics of the profession is not going to satisfy those who want to do any kind of ideological work with history by drawing grand generalizations. Past worlds were just as complex as contemporary worlds are, and many of the objects of our inquiries habitually began each day as did Lewis Carroll's White Queen, by holding two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time. Mongrel Nation is an excellent model for taking apart larger themes in the profession that become politicized because their nuances and contradictions make scholars uncomfortable.

Furthermore, when historians who claim to base their work on nothing but fact get the rug whipped out from under them by another set of plausible facts, what prevents them from standing corrected rather than claiming -- hypocritically -- that such evidence is simply not conceivable because of the "character" of the individual involved? Or, if neither side can claim irrefutable facts, what causes historians to insist that the story told by the historical subject in question must be defended at all costs rather than reinvestigated? Sexuality, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is a particularly nasty location for such disputes, because historians also come to see their own interests as intertwined with preserving the "respectability" of their subjects from the criticisms of what such historians view as venal, agenda-driven interest groups. The Jefferson-Hemings affair, for which DNA testing is but the icing on what appears to be a chocolate cake, is a particularly good example of this kind of struggle. By addressing the many human impulses that historians bring to the table, and uncovering the kinds of cosmic repression that has been necessary to the ongoing denial of the Jefferson-Hemings affair, Walker builds a historiographical argument about the importance of slavery and miscegenation to a broader national history.

Clarence Walker makes you laugh about the most serious things. Who else would suggest that Jefferson's many theories about black sexuality were not based entirely on racism and/or the limitations of eighteenth century scientific knowledge, but on "fieldwork" (p. 41)? Suggest that anyone at all should be looked for in the "woodpile"? Or drop in the word "coochie" as part of a sentence summing up his argument?

Clarence Walker would, that's who. And as for the last two quotes, you're going to have to read the book to find them. This white girl can't do all your work for you.


(Persuaded? Buy Mongrel Nation here. One of my readers wrote me an irritable note asking me why I keep shilling for, so if this review ripped a little skin off you, you can recover by going to Powell's and making a politically correct purchase.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

If You Try Sometimes, You'll Get What You Need: How To Think Like An Administrator

Gary Olson's recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, hilariously titled "How To Join The Dark Side" (hence my choice for an illustration) is a useful take on how to think about becoming a university administrator. What I like best about it is that it avoids a common stereotype (administrators are failed academics, or worse, not intellectually inclined at all when lacking a Ph.D.) and takes university administration seriously as a career that intelligent people train for and enjoy. Furthermore (and this is the kind of thing no one talks about in academia) it suggests that an academic career might entail several stages, in which one's life could be plotted as ambitiously as a Jane Austen novel. A career might begin with the majority of one's efforts devoted to establishing one's credentials as a scholar and a teacher, really learning those jobs inside and out as well as deriving satisfaction from them, and then one might, by design rather than failure, gradually turn (through committee work, chairing, and appointment as a dean) to learning how universities work and eventually running one of them.

Gordon argues that colleges and universities need to make such career paths available to faculty at the earliest stages of their careers, both through short stints that allow tenure-track and tenured faculty to "try on" administrative work, and through workshops that help them imagine their careers creatively.

Indeed, if you look at the careers of certain prominent women who have become college and university presidents (the ones I personally know best are Mary Maples Dunn and Drew Gilpin Faust), you can't help but recognize two things. The first is that both are well-respected intellectuals, who have great scholarly accomplishments to their credit. The second, if you take a look at their careers, is that both women had a plan. They didn't get stuck in the muck and the mire of struggling with administrators, but rather, took an interest in trying to shape and learn about the institutions in which they operated. Eventually they acquired the skill and knowledge to have a major impact on higher education.

This is undoubtedly on my mind since I had a big meeting yesterday with a group of administrators at Zenith about a set of important issues that I cannot, of course, go into. And yet, in tandem with the Gordon article, it caused me to think that there is yet another underrated skill in the academy that no one teaches you how to develop: how to think like an administrator.

This is not the same thing as, for example, being taken over by aliens, although many of your colleagues will tell you it is. Rather, it requires something good historians and other social scientists value enormously in their work, which is being able to see someone else's point of view and taking interests into account that are not a narcissistic reflection of your own local departmental issues or intellectual proclivities. It also requires the simple understanding that administrators are problem-solvers, and you, my colleague, can choose to be a problem solver too, contributing helpful and constructive suggestions that help move your agendas forward by persuading people that what you want can contribute to the larger vision. Or you can choose to be a problem. Take your pick.

To wit, the Radical's Five Basic Guidelines For Thinking Like An Administrator, a particularly useful skill in a time of declining resources.

Be firm and clear when expressing objections, but don't be abusive or accuse the administrator of bad faith out of hand. One former administrator I know told me that if s/he ever wrote a memoir it would be titled I Am Outraged That..! since a great many emails that s/he received began with those words. First of all, imagine if your dean, or someone from the provost's office, called you repeatedly to yell at you or tell you what an ignorant, lying ass hat you are. Wouldn't you be inclined to take official action? I would. You can take a firm position without accusing an administrator of bad faith, stupidity or personal animus. This will reward you in two ways. First, s/he will be grateful to you for acting like a colleague instead of a raging lunatic, and s/he will be more inclined to listen sympathetically to what you say. Second, it creates an opening for said administrator to provide a broader explanation for what is going on, and whether you are actually affected by it. This policy maker might either choose to acknowledge that the policy or decision in question sucks for you and that s/he is sorry about that; or s/he might explain some ways the policy doesn't exactly suck for you and how you might take advantage of it in some way you had not yet considered.

Give people the benefit of the doubt: sometimes they lack knowledge for a reason. One of the things I find endlessly frustrating, as chair of an interdisciplinary program, is that after years of sending detailed memos to various administrators about the creativity and unique contributions of interdisciplinary programs (ok, I'll be honest -- our program), few of them (exactly one, in fact, who I currently work with) seem to to understand many of the basic facts about what we do and how we function. And yet, if you think about it, administrators change pretty rapidly over time, and we faculty are in charge of institutional memory. Ergo, we actually know things that they don't because we have written a couple decades worth of reports, but they haven't read a couple decades of reports. Like the patient with no long-term memory, every day brings exciting new information for the best administrators, because if they are fast-track they did something else less than five years ago. This requires patience, restraint and tact, as you explain the same things over and over. Take new administrators to lunch and explain what you are about before you end up in a room trying to negotiate an issue and explain what you do at the same time. I know this is a good tactic, because at Zenith, more often than not they listen -- and they buy the lunch.

Administrators are not failed academics. They are ambitious people who probably work twice the hours that we do, and who understand that their task is to create lively, well-organized structures that convert the research we do into the basic elements of the industry collectively known as education. Their work makes teaching concrete, converting it into commodities called curriculum, majors, and degrees that can be sold to students, whether at Yale, Zenith or the University of Phoenix. Oddly, faculty sometimes seem to think they could do these things entirely on their own if need be. Whether each individual administrator does a good job or not is another question, but often what seems like a poor administrator is only a symptom of a dysfunctional administrative structure. S/he could even be someone who just doesn't agree with you. No matter: does it help your cause to treat him like a Judas goat or a nitwit? No. It causes this person not to return your phone calls, which will really not help you get want you want. Which leads me to my next point:

You can't always get what you want. Sing it, Mick. Sometimes people genuinely disagree with you and you have to suck it up, and sometimes there isn't enough to go around. And honestly, why should you always get what you want? It may be all well and good at the department level to work avidly for the destruction of those who oppose you (not) but university administrations are like the state in one respect. They are arenas in which multiple interests compete to define the mission of the whole. There are winners and there are losers, but there is a third category too: compromisers. Don't forget that many administrators genuinely regret not being able to serve everyone's needs, and that when you can offer them a creative choice that allows them to make the most out of limited resources, you may achieve a partial victory. Don't forget either that although you may take your own needs very personally, the decisions they make aren't personal. Learning to lose gracefully can pay forward, in the sense that you might be perceived as a reasonable person down the line who is worth talking to and capable of compromise. In other words, you live to fight another day.

Administrators, like God, help those who help themselves. Get your reports in on time. Apologize when you can't. Asume that if someone doesn't understand what you have just said that you need to say it better, not that the listener is an idiot bean counter. Follow directions when you are asked to submit something, because whoever is asking for the document actually wants the information they are asking for: it is an act of respect to give it to them, not an act of integrity and your intense regard for academic freedom to withold it. Don't assume that, as a chair, it is beneath your dignity as a scholar to take the time to learn to read a budget so that you can explain at the end of the year where all the money went. Don't assume that your field is entitled to resources until the end of time just because you are famous, or because the field you are in has been around for a hundred years or so.

Oh, and let me provide what ought to be an unnecessary example of why no blog post, and few conversations, should be illustrated with actual descriptions of what happened in a meeting: you are likely to only represent your own point of view and your own interests in such a narrative. Furthermore, how would you like it if you went out of your way to try to have a meeting that was fair and collegial, and the administrator paid you back by leaving the meeting only to spread gossipy opinions about what an ass hat you are, or how the whole institution is doomed because of your hare-brained ideas about how things should be? You wouldn't like it, would you? And yet you would be surprised how often this happens to high level administrators. I suspect the root cause of this is often faculty wanting to claim inside knowledge of processes that they actually have no control over, covering up the fact that they have agreed to something that will upset some faculty colleagues, or wanting to enhance the myth of their own superiority. So think about that the next time you elaborate on some conspiracy theory as if it were actually true, or tell tales out of school to disassociate yourself from an outcome that makes institutional sense.

And remember: If you try sometimes, you just might find -- you get what you need.

Monday, May 11, 2009

It's a Girl! A Recent And Partial History of the Nomination of Women To The Supreme Court

The aging Supreme Court was but one motivation for Democrats to unify behind Barack Obama last fall, but it was a big one. In the next eight years, barring an unexpected death or retirement, "Court watchers" (as those of us who care about such things are called in the media) expect up to three vacancies among the tightly divided Supremes. I'm not sure anyone was counting Associate Justice David Souter, 69, as one of the three potential vacancies. But he is setting a good example for the legal world (not to mention all of us in the academic world) by not hanging around until he has to be scraped off the floor to write an opinion.

And so, we await Barack's first nominee.

As during the last ideological upheaval in 1980, the Obama administration is hinting that the next Associate Justice will be a woman, and probably for the same reason: to firmly suture "women" (a majority of whom support abortion, aka, "the right to choose") to a liberal/moderate political agenda. Leading nominees are majority, but not entirely, female; several are of color. My current fave raves are Sonia Sotomayor, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit; Elena Kagan, Solicitor General, U.S. Justice Department; and Cass Sunstein. The Second is a strong route to the Court, so I would say Sotomayor is a leading contender; Kagan clerked for Thurgood Marshall and has just sailed through a confirmation hearing; and I love Cass Sunstein but -- aside from being a man which probably makes him a poor pick if you have already made gestures toward saying there should be more women on the court -- he is a liberal public intellectual, which means a nightmare confirmation hearing. There's nothing like having written a lot of smart books to get Jeff Sessions' back up (does anyone but me ever mistake the new ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee for Orrin Hatch? I find the resemblance uncanny.)

But let's get back to the nominating process itself, and the Ghosts of Conservatives Past which happen to be occupying my home office right now. Article Two of the Constitution (section 2, otherwise known as the "appointments clause" says that "The President may also appoint judges, ambassadors, consuls, ministers and other officers with the advice and consent of the Senate. By law, however, Congress may allow the President, heads of executive departments, or the courts to appoint inferior officials." If you are a conservative, you know where I'm heading, because you read the Constitution very carefully: but do the rest of you give up?

OK. Focus in on the word "may" -- it's the third word of the sentence, and what this implies is that while no one but the President is encouraged to submit a nomination, no person, or class of people, is prohibited from doing so either. In other words, this right does not belong exclusively to the President, even though we behave as though it does because it is, well, tidier and more practical to do it that way.

You can nominate a Supreme Court Justice too! This was what the Reagan administration had to come to grips with in 1981, since it was one of the several ways conservative outrage manifested itself against the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor. O'Connor, you may recall, was nominated to fill a vacancy left by Potter Stewart (no relation to this blogger), a conservative shilly-shallier who first voted against the right to privacy and then changed his mind to vote for Roe and against the censorship of pornography. The choice of O'Connor, a nomination that fulfilled a Reagan campaign promise that his administration would oversee the appointment of the first woman Supreme Court Justice, at first seemed like a no-brainer.

But O'Connor, a stalwart Arizona Republican, was not acceptable to the right wing of the party because she was suspected of being "soft" on abortion and the Second Amendment. Not only did O'Connor refuse to say whether she would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (White House aides pleaded with her, if she had to conceal this information, to at least say that she thought the ruling was "bad law," a Republican catch phrase by now) but she had missed an opportunity to cast a purely ideological vote against women's right to choose when serving in the Arizona State Legislature.

The Reagan White House went into gear to defend the nomination, but it was one of several issues that inflamed the conservative base against Reagan in the first summer of his presidency. As a letter that went out over the president's signature on August 3, 1981 explained to an enraged conservative foot soldier from Illinois named Marie Craven:

What actually happened occurred when [O'Connor] was a Senator in the state government. A bill had been passed by the Senate and sent over to the House calling for some rebuilding of the football stadium at the university. The House added an amendment which would have prevented the university hospitals from performing abortions. But the constitution of Arizona makes it plain that any amendment must deal with the subject of the original bill or it is illegal. For this reason, the Senate, including Mrs. O'Connor, turned it down.

Reagan then reassured Mrs. Craven of his own absolute opposition to "abortion on demand or whim or because we think the child is less than perfect." He also reassured her that the only exception he favored -- abortion to save the life of the mother -- fell under the constitutional right to self-defense, surely one of the more peculiar interpretations of the Second Amendment in the twentieth century.

In other words, the argument being made was that O'Connor was a superior candidate for the court because she had acted in the interests of upholding a strict reading of the state constitution. Not only was this crucial to the judicial temperament conservatives wished to see on the highest court (a philosophy that soon became colloquially known as "strict constructionism") but, as Reagan also pointed out to Mrs. Craven, were O'Connor to oppose abortion prior to being confirmed, she might be disqualified from any challenge to Roe that might come to the Supreme Court during her tenure.

I doubt that Mrs. Craven bought it, and neither did a lot of other conservative men and women, but Reagan's emphasis on separating the public interest (the law) from private morality (ideology) is an interesting window into policy tensions that were unresolved eight years later. Organized conservatives continued to press the president on school prayer, bussing, flag burning and a host of other issues that they sought to see resolved by executive order. Reagan's correspondent Marie Craven was from Illinois, epicenter of STOP ERA and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. This is an important factoid, since in the coming weeks the White House was bombarded with letters, cards and telegrams, not only opposing the O'Connor nomination, but nominating Mrs. Schlafly herself as the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. "All my instincts tell me the O'Connor nomination could be a devastating blow to the Reagan presidency by tearing apart his supporters and friends," one desperate aide scribbled on the top of a telegram that questioned O'Connor's position on abortion and gun control.

The record also shows that Bob Dole helpfully nominated his wife, Elizabeth. As Director of Public Liaison, Elizabeth (soon to be the first woman Secretary of Transportation) was at that moment on the front lines of the attempt to control movement conservatives' threats to rip apart the party if the President did not enact, by Executive Order, what they were beginning to call a "values agenda."

Supporters and friends begged Reagan to withdraw the O'Connor nomination, citing the power of the grassroots conservative movement that claimed responsibility for his victory in the first place. Why, then, aside from appearing to be an administration adrift (which it was) was the nomination left standing despite the ideological issues at stake? A July 31 memo to the President has the answer: Mr. Conservative himself, Jesse Helms, agreed to withdraw his opposition to O'Connor, and had invited O'Connor to visit with the conservative Senate caucus that he chaired. And who was responsible for Helms' about face? Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Helms said he "expected to receive 'flak from other Senators,'if he supports the nomination," the memo reads, "but gave the impression that he is now leaning that way. Apparently Senator Goldwater has worked on Helms, because he mentioned that Barry had requested Helms' help with the nomination."

And guess what? Movement conservatives knew wha they were talking about: Sandra Day O'Connor was not reliable on abortion. Would the nominaiton have succeeded without the blessing of Jesse Helms? Who knows. But it is indisputable that he was critical to resolving this political crisis, and putting an Associate Justice on the bench who came to epitomize the Court's thoughtful center.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Got Him!"

This was the text message I received from one of my co-workers this evening, and I rushed to the computer as soon as I saw it. Stephan Morgan, Johanna Justin-Jinich's murderer, turned himself in earlier this evening at a convenience store in Meriden, CT, which is a couple towns south of Middletown off I-91. Morgan had been on the run since 1:00 P.M. yesterday, when he gunned down Justin-Jinich inside the campus bookstore. We learned today that he was interviewed by police outside the scene and then sent on his way. Deprived of his car, however, he wasn't likely to get very far even if he wanted to, which was part of why we feared that he was still lurking on campus, waiting to do more damage. That fear escalated when journals detailing his plans to launch a killing spree at Wesleyan following Justin-Jinich's murder were discovered.

Today, family in Massachusetts had sent a personal message through the media asking him to surrender. Because of their pleas, or the driving rain, or his fear that he too would be shot on sight by police, he turned himself in.

For the archive, here is the New York Times account, which synthesizes the events leading up to the murder, written by Robert McFadden.

While the story will continue for months I am sure, my posts will stop for the weekend while I stand back, gain some perspective, rest and breathe. You can go to Wesleying for weekend coverage, although they are taking a lot of hits and you may have to be patient. I also want to praise the staff at Wesleying for their coverage over the last 48 hours: your blog has been smart, concise, non-sensational and informative. I still think this is some of the best writing on campus, and I am not just comparing you to other students.

From one small academic blogger to all of you: nice work, comrades. Let's all get a good night's sleep and get up tomorrow to cope with the rest of our lives.

Two Important Updates on Murder of Johanna Justin-Jinich

This story suggests that, prior to gunning her down in cold blood yesterday, Stephen Morgan had been stalking Johanna Justin-Jinich since 2006, but also that there is evidence that this attack was part of a broader plan to harm Jewish students and Wesleyan University. No wonder they want us to stay home until they can locate this guy.

I also want to notify everyone that the original picture of the perpetrator that I had posted below has been removed, since a commenter informed me it was incorrect. I believe this, since when I originally received the picture and googled the name, I came up with an academic at another institution who bore a striking resemblance to our "perp:" Johanna's murderer is not, I repeat not Stephan Morgan of Cornell, who I hope will receive apologies from more people than me (but for what it's worth, you can have mine too, Professor Morgan.) The new photographs being circulated are below:


12;15 Update: This clear color image was just contributed by the first two commenters to this post, via Wesleyan's official security updates.

Hat tip.

Zenith Campus Lockdown: Watching, Waiting and Meditating on Violence Against Women

Well we have a suspect in yesterday's campus shooting at Wesleyan, and there he is on the left. For whatever posts remain in this series, I am forgoing my normal pseudonym for the college, "Zenith," because none of my commentary should be perceived in any way as not-real, or as making light of what is a difficult and shocking situation. Furthermore, I have been alerted by my site meter and by at least one comment that people in our extended community (including parents) are checking this blog for actual news about the brutal murder of Johanna Justin-Jinich.

I'll tell you right up front: I don't know anything that you don't know.

This picture will probably become iconic as the tragedy plays itself out to its predictable finish, where we find out through an attorney, or through a deranged group of documents, that this man "had" to kill Johanna because he "loved" her. The image depicts the perp, marching through Broad Street Books, probably shortly after the murder. In his right hand, which you can't see in this photograph but you can see in others, is a handgun. I do not know whether it is the murder weapon or not, since we are being told that evidence processed at the scene gives the police reason to believe that he is armed. I can only guess -- and I want to emphasize that it is only a guess -- that this means the gun abandoned at the scene (along with the wig he wore to disguise himself long enough so that he could ambush his victim successfully) did not match the ammunition that killed Johanna.

Advocates of the unregulated, Constitutional right to carry a concealed weapon will, undoubtedly argue that Johanna's life might have been saved if everyone in the store had also been carrying, or if Johanna herself had been well-trained in the use of a handgun and was able to draw and fire first. And I just want to tell you in advance: you are completely and totally insane. At no point yesterday, as we stayed in our locked building wondering if a killer was coming up the hill to continue his work did any of us (and at least two of us do know how to handle a weapon, however imperfectly) say to another, "Gee, too bad we don't have a loaded handgun at the office." Turning our university into a shooting gallery won't restore our sense of safety, I'm afraid.

For those of you who don't have fantasies about turning the whole world into the OK Corral, the suspect's name is Stephen Morgan and he is 29. He is (we are now told officially) Johanna's ex-boyfriend from her hometown in Colorado (a former teacher? The reason she was sent to boarding school in Pennsylvania? A summer fling who couldn't let go?) The name "Johanna" and rumors of an angry ex popped up quite early in the crisis on a student blog, which caused me to assume initially that the murderer was another student. I am glad to say that is not true. It also allowed me to stop worrying on at least one other count: I know another female student who was brutally attacked by a male student a couple weeks ago. Although he was expelled, he apparently returned a few days later to throw the fear of G-d into her again because it was, of course, her fault that he had been expelled. But let me qualify what I just said by saying that relief like that is fleeting, because in the end it doesn't matter whether it is a student you know or don't know. They all have friends, families, teachers and webs of people who will mourn them.

As I said above, news I cannot really promise you, however, only my own thoughts and a sense of the climate here. The administration appears to be fully in charge, and the faculty and staff are at home, many of us riding an emotional roller coaster, waiting for news, and fielding phone calls from family and friends. Most of us know nothing worth knowing, although I suspect that Johanna's friends know a great deal about what preceded the tragedy that they are wisely not telling anyone for the time being.

Should this play out as such tragedies often do, eventually I am sure we will hear from someone -- the perp, a defense attorney, shocked relatives and friends of the indicted man -- that he killed her because he "loved" her.

The police are saying that they are "interested in talking to him" because they "believe" he shot her. So let's emphasize: the police are not committing to Morgan's guilt, but they believe in it enough to publish his picture. And if, by any chance, you should see him, or if you met him through Johanna, no matter what he says, assume he is dangerous. Unless Wesleyan is being way overly cautious, the police must have some reason to believe that Morgan -- or whoever the shooter is if it is not Morgan -- is still in the Middletown area, because the campus is still locked down. We got another message at 6:45 this morning telling us not to come to campus, but even if I went to campus I don't think I would know anything. Last night the library was closed, as were several dining halls. The student center was kept open, but then swept at some point. According to this student blog, which is doing a pretty good job of collating the local news and not spreading unfounded rumors, the police stormed one of our seedy motels on the edge of town last night and questioned someone, but no dice.

I'm going to risk speculation here: they can't find him because he's already dead. That is often how these things end.

Things in the larger Wesleyan community are, as far as I can tell, perfectly under control, in the sense that the administration has a plan and is keeping us informed. Simultaneously, we are in complete disarray because we can't do our jobs and we have no idea what, of our tattered classes, can be recouped at this point and how. The end of the semester has its rituals: faculty meetings, thesis presentations, office hours, take-home exams, and a million other things. Everything is on hold for now: with no library, how can they finish their work, even if they are able to concentrate -- and since I can't, I doubt they can either. Many of them will, I am sure, be going home today if they are able to do so.

But can I say one thing? I am sad, but I am also angry. I am sick, sick, sick of men beating, brutalizing and killing women and children, of boys brutalizing their girlfriends, of fathers raping and killing their wives and daughters. All these years after second wave feminists first raised this as a fundamental problem in our culture during the 1970s, the media, the police and our judicial system still treats each of these things like an isolated incident of individual pathology. And there seems to be no organized feminist movement left to insist, in contradiction to this vapid construction, that the hatred of women by men is a systemic cultural and political problem in the United States. I am sick of men who think they acquire ownership rights to women because they fall in "love" with them, men who think that "love" entitles them to do whatever the hell they please to keep women under their control so they can "love" them even more. I am tired right now and have nothing eloquent or intelligent to say on the topic, but if this short rant feeds your feminist outrage too, go to this post by Historiann about the Loyola University tragedy, where Daddy decided that his life wasn't worth living and then imagined that the rest of the family would be better off dead too, a not uncommon scenario. I end with a quote from Historiann's post:

Just curious: how many women and children (especially girl children, as in this case–2 women and one girl were the victims here) have to die before someone notices? One woman is accused of a child murder out in California, and that’s all we hear about all day long. But husbands apparently have carte blanche when it comes to murdering the women and girls who lived in their homes?

What’s your guess, friends? (Are you holding your breath?) If 2,100 women and children are killed simultaneously on live television by their male partners and fathers, even if it’s not by jetliners crashing into buildings, do you think anyone will notice then?


10:00 update: documents have been found. The community has just been informed that "Although [the suspect] apparently had a direct link to the victim but no other connection to the Wesleyan community, we have now been made aware that he expressed threats in his personal journal toward Wesleyan and/or its Jewish students.

10:55 update: A group blog called Jezebel reports that, according to friends, the late Johanna Justin-Jinich's "passions included writing, her work in public health, and women's issues. She had volunteered at various Planned Parenthood offices in Colorado and Connecticut and had a summer internship lined up on Capitol Hill with a women's organization."

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

This Is What You Do: A Shooting On Campus

Over two years ago, on April 17, 2009, after the Virginia Tech shootings, I wrote this post. Towards the end I wrote:

So far, two faculty members have been identified as among the dead, one of whom may have tried to block the classroom door to give his students time to escape through a second story window. Another faculty member, interviewed yesterday on NPR's Fresh Air, described barricading himself in his office as he heard the gunfire below, listening to students and faculty being shot and not knowing where his two children (enrolled at Tech) were at that precise moment. And I know that I am thinking about this because the human mind grasps precisely what it can handle and no more but: am I the only college teacher wondering whether I would have the courage to try to save student lives in such a pointlessly horrible situation, knowing that mine might be taken in the process? Or the flip side: have you imagined the agony of hearing or watching students being murdered while knowing that you were powerless to do anything to help them?

Well, one of the things I know now is that mostly it isn't that dramatic. What happened at around 1:30 today is that my administrative assistant came to my office and said calmly, "There has been a shooting on campus. A woman has been hit and the shooter got away." The shooter is, we think, her ex-boyfriend (it turned out the suspect is an older man from her hometown), and it happened in the middle of the campus bookstore. No one around me panicked, and I thought calmly, "OK, I am responsible for these people. What do I need to do?" We locked the doors and windows and went upstairs; two of us called the people who were not at the office and told them not to come in. Then we waited up on the second floor.

A student came by for office hours. We invited him in, I talked to him for a bit, and sent him home. He had no idea anything was happening.

We read our email alerts, deleted messages from our cell phones, and waited some more.

We watched as Public Safety cleared Foss Hill, where the students were holding their annual Spring Fling. The celebration -- a festival of music and partying (in 1972, the Grateful Dead came!) which marks the end of classes and the beginning of reading period -- had just begun when the shooting occurred. Coincidence?

Then we waited.

There was a police car outside our building, blocking off one of the streets, with lights swirling: the officer stood next to it with his hand on his gun.

And we waited.

After an hour, we all agreed to go home, and to leave in a group. Those of us old enough to have taken feminist self-defense classes in the 1970s rehearsed the classic moves to defeat a patriarchal aggressor: Jam the heel of your hand upward into the nose! Preferably hard enough to drive the cartilidge into the brain! Sharply slam your knee into his patriarchal nuts!

This all assumes that you even get to Feminist Move #1 and he doesn't just shoot you dead on the spot.

But as I say, it really isn't that dramatic. We saw each other safely to our cars, which were in a parking lot behind the DKE house, where the brothers had assembled some appropriate beverages, music, and were playing with the many wiffle ball sets they pass down from generation to generation. My friend Dr. Victorian noted brightly that had we known there were so many strapping young men available to protect us, we might have left earlier.

I came home and found out that the student has died; as I understand it, she was shot five times. There may be a second student who was hit.

Then I cried.


You can read everything I know about it here and here and here. When I first wrote this post, I had heard rumors about who had been murdered, but was not sure. Since then it has been confirmed: the murdered student's name is Johanna Justin-Jinich, and I have inserted her picture above. As of 8:30 P.M., while the police claim to know who her killer is, they have not released his name.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Will Barack's Little Dog Bo Be Next? Annals of Tearoom Journalism

I was going to write about something completely different today. Then, when pulling together my URL's for that post, I ran into this commentary at Gawker headlined: "Bill O'Reilly Wonders Why Gay New York Times Reporter Acts So Gay."

Needless to say, I clicked, since it is part of my DNA to click on all things that promise gayness.

Apparently Jeff Zeleny, a New York Times reporter who is, in fact, gay, asked Barack Obama what has most "enchanted" him about being President in the first 100 days (along with what has surprised and humbled him.) Media Matters was the first to report what millions of Fox News viewers saw shortly afterwards, which was an exchange between Bill O'Reilly and Bernard Goldberg that you can view for yourself here, along with Zeleny's original remarks:

Goldberg went on at length about the lack of masculinity displayed by the reporter as O'Reilly chuckled in a particularly manly fashion. Goldberg then asserted that no one would have asked "John Wayne presidents like FDR, Truman or Eisenhower if they were 'enchanted.'"

I do beg to differ.

FDR's upper class manners were not infrequently perceived as and mocked for being effeminate, and in retrospect, the Fala speech, given in the midst of the 1944 campaign, is pretty camp by modern standards. "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons," Roosevelt lamented on his weekly radio broadcast with deadpan humour:

No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. [laughter] Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks — but Fala does resent them. [laughter] You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I'd left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. [laughter] He has not been the same dog since. [laughter] I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself — such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog [laughter].

We also know that Alice Roosevelt, a right-wing Republican, America Firster and a daughter of the vigorous Oyster Bay branch (from whom O'Reilly and Goldberg can claim direct ideological descent) used to refer to her Hyde Park cousin as "Feather Duster Roosevelt." It couldn't have been clearer what she meant by that, particularly since she knew what the general public did not: that FDR could only use his legs and lower body for balance. Since Alice Blue Eyes also undoubtedly knew that Eleanor Roosevelt traveled in lesbian company, she may have suspected that her presidential cousin was sexually impaired as well. How better to communicate this in an era when one did not discuss sex in public than to refer to him disparagingly as the soft household equivalent of a feather boa?

But let's leave behind the manipulation of the historical record and return to contemporary homophobia. If you watched the video you know that eventually Goldberg noted that if he, Goldberg, asked O'Reilly if he were enchanted, O'Reilly would probably "punch me in the head;" O'Reilly's corresponding chuckle affirmed that yes, he probably would. Imagine the brawl between these he-men if Goldberg tapped his toe when O'Reilly was in the next stall. I'm fwightened.

But you kept watching I hope. Because although Gawker goes on at length about the offense to Zeleny, if you listen a little more closely the real target is Obama's masculinity and heterosexuality, not Zeleny's. The central question, and the focus of the subsequent discussion, is: what kind of a President would invite, and receive (we shudder at what that means, Mary) an effeminate question from a gay reporter? Indeed, this allegation about Obama was raised as early as February, 2008, accoriding to the Huffington Post, by none other than the Republican National Committee. "An unnamed Republican spokesperson, while making no value judgments on the homosexual lifestyle," HuffPost reported, "other than it being an abomination against God, implied that the photo certainly raised doubts about the Senator's image as a loving husband, as well as his overall honesty." If you click on the link, you will be disappointed: methinks it is Obama, after a meeting with John Edwards (I recognize the hair), and they are embracing, not making out. Charges that President Obama has a gay past have been printed in the National Enquirer and elsewhere.

Don't get me wrong: I'm always happy to find out that anyone is gay (and I tend to be magnanomous and treat everyone I like as though they are my equal in this regard) but let's be clear that these attacks are not about facts or actual gayness. What is going on is an attempt to derail the Obama administration and plan for what promises to be an ugly 2010 election cycle by deploying a familiar political strategy: implying that one's political opposition is not sexually normal. As Andrea Friedman has noted in her prize-winning article, 'The Smearing of Joe McCarthy: The Lavender Scare, Gossip, and Cold War Politics" (American Quarterly, December 2005) homophobic invective charges of effeminacy are common methods of undermining the legitimacy of political figures. I make a related argument in my own prize-winning article,"Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies and Political History" (Journal of the History of Sexuality July 2006) in which I cite Friedman's work. I mention the prizes to suggest to an audience broader than academic historians that these are not fringe arguments, but mainstream approaches to thinking about goon squads made up of the likes of O'Reilly and Goldberg.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.