Monday, July 27, 2009

A Meditation on Recent History, Belonging and Endurance

I was trying to think of something clever to add to Historiann's list of things to pack as you prepare to take off for graduate school. Medical marijuana? Nicotine patches (especially if you do not already smoke)? Extra courage?

And then I remembered this. In a collection of lectures entitled Writing in an Age of Silence (New York: Verso, 2007), crime novelist Sara Paretsky writes about entering the University of Chicago's Ph.D. program in history:

When I started my doctoral work, the head of the European field committee told entering students that women could memorize and parrot things back, but that we weren't capable of producing original work. In his history of Western Civilization, he included no accomplishments by women.

Thirteen women started the US history program with me in the fall of 1968. I was the only one who returned our second year, and that wasn't because I was a better scholar, or smarter -- it was because the other twelve women all figured out things to do with their time instead of enduring the department's relentless misogyny. I was simply too confused and depressed to work out an alternate career.

Paretsky, as many of you know, has gone on to write fourteen crime novels featuring gritty female private investigator V.I. "Vic" Warshawski, so I guess she wasn't as dumb as she looked, eh?

All kidding aside, it's hard to imagine saying something so terribly cruel and ignorant unless the purpose was to send a blunt message that women were not wanted in the program. Until 1972, long after racial segregation in education had become illegal, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women applying for admission to graduate or professional school -- for any reason whatsoever. The reason that was usually chosen was one's low opinion of women's intellectual capacity as a sex; one's ideas about whether said women would put the education to good use; and/or assertions that men needed education more than women did because they supported families (women supporting families was not unheard of, but was to be avoided at all costs -- unless said women were of color and poor, and then it was desirable that they work at ill-paid labor.) In the late 1970s, when I was enrolled in an Ivy League university that had finally enrolled its first full class of women only four years prior to my arrival, it was not uncommon to hear male professionals and faculty justify their desire to exclude women from graduate and professional programs because "they are just going to marry and have children and they won't use the degree like a man would." The "fact" behind this stance was that demographically "most" women were married, were mothers and had dropped out of the workforce. As someone who had a horror of such a fate, even as a pre-feminist child (I could imagine myself saving damsels in distress but the idea of donning a wedding dress made me frantic), I would think, "Yes, but if they don't let you into medical/law/graduate school, then you would have to get married to make a living, right?"

And when I was at that Ivy League university, I knew half a dozen undergraduate women who were sleeping with professors who had not welcomed coeducation with open arms, but had been happy to open their beds (half of the female academics who tell you they did not have sex with that famous Oligarch post-structuralist are lying, I'm convinced of it.) A decade later, graduate education for women also created an opportunity to recruit highly educated second wives who were younger, and more fun to talk to, than the wives who had typed your dissertation back in the 1960s. As late as the 1990s, in a number of departments I was acquainted with it was not uncommon to hear both graduate students and faculty justify tenured male professors philandering with their female graduate students by pointing out that such relationships had a tendency to result in marriage -- after wife number one got the old heave-ho, of course. I said to one person who explained this rationale to me one too many times, "Yes, but have you noticed that most of them drop out of the doctoral program to have children and never complete the degree?" (since this would often require the awkwardness of recruiting a new dissertation advisor from the ranks of hubby's peers) and the conversation stopped abruptly, not to be resumed.

And have any of you (in real time now!) who slipped in the door of the club despite everything you saw and endured that should have made you run screaming for the nearest military recruiting center, noticed that still, when you are doing a search, and you ask the search committee why there aren't significant numbers (or any) women/people of color in your cohort or in the final candidate pool the most frequent answers are:

a. "There aren't any." (To be followed by liberal and conservative moaning about how few of these individuals in a given field are "in the pipeline.")
b. "There aren't any who are qualified." (Usually not followed by a cogent statement of what the qualifications were that were not met.)
c. "I don't believe in affirmative action."
d. Some comment to the effect that, by asking this question at all, you are revealed as racist/sexist.
e. Complete silence.

Academia is not the same club that it was back in 1968, to the extent that anyone who said what was said to Paretsky would know to keep such thoughts to himself and act on his contempt for women in another way. But it is still a place where belonging is a struggle for many of us, and one of the skills to develop as an academic is to cope with that. Sometimes, it will be so exhausting that, temporarily, you can't go on. You know you will soon, but not now, because you have reached the end of your capacity to endure slights and the ongoing suggestion that you do not belong.

And for moments like that, young graduate students, I recommend you pack a Sara Paretsky novel.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Post Is Not About Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Attempt To Enter His Own Home In Cambridge, MA

As news about Professor Gates' confrontation with the Cambridge Police Department was breaking -- or was it shortly after the President spoke so forcefully about it? -- a friend turned to me and said: "Do not blog about this."

That may be some version of what Michelle Obama was thinking as she saw her husband embark on what I thought was a humorous, candid and incisive commentary on the events surrounding a wealthy Harvard professor, his friend, being schooled by the police. (As an aside: if Obama were a blogger, he would have known not to use any derivative of the word "stupid." Feminist bloggers know the content of what they are trying to say dissolves as (male) conservatives leap to censure them for disparaging such noble whitemale institutions as American policing or the Varsity Sport That Must Never Be Mentioned.) If there had been a thought bubble over Michelle's head, it would have said something like: "Oh Barack, do not be honest with white people about this thing. They cannot handle it." And indeed, it seems that we cannot.

Black commenters have spoken eloquently about the class and racial dynamics attendant to Professor Gates' arrest, particularly here and here. I think white people have very little to add to some parts of this story, and so I would only like to thank the President for having said an honest and true thing. Why, even if I didn't agree, it's such a relief to hear a President do that! I don't even think the word "stupid" is a fatal flaw: my guess is that it was a place-holder for "racist" in the way people often substitute a non-descriptive word for the descriptive one when trying to speak about repetitive, painful events (Spouse: "How was the department meeting?" You -- a seething full professor who has just been treated like she knows nothing about her own field by a bunch of people not in her field -- "Oh, it was just stupid." And you say that because if you said "It was so sexist" you would have to experience that stab of knowing that nothing you do, ever, will cause them to stop treating you badly; that you will always have to endure it.) And of course, there were many layers of racism in this incident: from the anonymous white person who called the police in the first place, to the white officer unwilling to appear intimidated by a wealthy black Harvard professor's rage, to the news media choosing to depict Professor Gates in handcuffs screaming, or with a mug shot, rather than using any one of a number of portraits that are commonly available (In less than half a minute, I downloaded the one in this post from his academic web page.)

So I want to talk about and to that anonymous white neighbor. Because I am a white neighbor of black and brown people, one who lives in an urban university environment, and there are a few things I have learned.

Primarily what I have learned is that white people put black people in danger every day, an insight that was crucial to southern women's activism against lynching as early as the 1930s. I have learned that while many of us believe racially integrated neighborhoods are desirable, and some of us actively seek them out, no one talks to white people about their responsibilities for reigning in the racism that inevitably follows when white and black people come into proximity with each other. There is no doubt in my mind that white people put black people into danger all the time as a result of their good intentions, and that being aware of this is a full time job. I worry, for example, every time a close friend of mine I have known since college -- a major property owner in the neighborhood, with an Ivy degree, wealthy, and a football celebrity -- borrows my lawn equipment, because to your average cop he is just another _________ (fill in the blank) walking down the driveway and up the street with someone else's electric mower.

This kind of awareness is very painful to come to terms with, as was the time I was driving a black job candidate around Zenith, stopped to ask directions, and saw the white man in his pretty suburban yard hurrying his children into the house -- until he noticed that there was a white woman getting out of the driver's side. I could feel his relief as an almost physical thing between us. As one of my friends said later about the job candidate, "I guess it's something he should know about what it would mean to live here." Of course he did already -- it was me who had to learn it.

Coming to terms with slights, and ones that can turn into a dangerous situation in a heartbeat, is something every person of color in America deals with and knows more about than virtually any white person: I don't care if Republican senators like Jeff Sessions says it ain't so, it is so. Sonia Sotomayor is absolutely correct on this point. And to my mind, white people have a responsibility to come to an awareness about this. and act on it as a moral responsibility. To wit:

About two years ago, I was about to leave on a trip; my partner had taken the car somewhere else, so our driveway was empty. As I opened the door to a small hallway that leads to our back door with a bag of garbage in my hand, at that precise moment, a man standing at the door popped the lock with a screwdriver and stepped into my house.

I was, needless to say, surprised, and so was he. I said, "what the fuck are you doing in my house?" He said, very politely, "I'm so sorry," turned around, closed the door, and walked swiftly down my driveway. I came shooting out the door, shouting some version of what I had already said as he turned the corner of the driveway and disappeared. Needless to say, I was very frightened, and probably would not have behaved so aggressively if I had not been.

I called the police. It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, since my neighborhood suffers from a lot of petty theft that I suspect is endemic to neighborhoods full of students from the 'burbs who can be pretty casual about locking up: laptops next to open windows disappear, bicycles are liberated from back yards and so on. I described the thief the best I could: around 5'8" (my height); medium-complected African-American; shaved head; round preppy glasses; middle-aged; dressed in a tennis shirt, pressed chinos and white sneakers. He looked," I said helpfully, "Like a college professor." What happened next was instructive: the investigating officer put the description out, and asked if I wanted to ride around and look at a variety of men who were being braced around the neighborhood for my inspection. I did, and with sinking heart, I saw "suspect" after "suspect" who looked absolutely nothing like the description I had given. They were tall; they were short; they were twelve; they were old; they were dressed like bangers; they were dressed in rags; to a man, they had full heads of hair, mustaches and beards; none were wearing glasses, and so on. Oh yes -- all of them were, as far as I could tell, Latino, which in Shoreline generally means Mexican or Puerto Rican.

As I tried not to be sick with shame all over the officer's front seat, I thought three things. One was, I hope to Heaven they have not picked up one of my friends or one of the next door neighbor's children (who were routinely picked up by the police after a purse-snatching in the neighborhood.) The second was, how easy it would have been for me to say, "That's him!" either in honest error or not and cause someone a world of trouble that was beyond humiliation: being taken to jail indefinitely, a lost job, being kept out of school, being found guilty of another misdemeanor. And the third was, this is what racial profiling looks like. Unless I or someone I know has been violently assaulted, I must never, ever call the police again for something so small if I am going to be a responsible citizen of this neighborhood. Letting someone get away with attempted robbery, a person who was completely non-violent (which experienced burglars are), is absolutely worth not humiliating ten other people who the police are using this opportunity to intimidate and shake down for evidence that they are committing some other petty crime.

This kind of event is, of course, part of what police mean by being in control, and what the officer was doing when he arrested Professor Gates who was guilty of nothing more than saying angry, nasty things at the top of his lungs as a crowd gathered. When a police officer makes an arrest like that he is saying, "See? I can do this. I can make your life a living hell for an hour, a day, or longer. I require deference." The desired result is how many black men describe living their lives: a constant state of uncertainty as to what the police will actually do in any given situation, resulting in the need for profound deference and elaborate forms of self governance at all times (don't run, wear too much jewelry, show money or speed when driving; make sure you dress nicely, cut your hair, avert your eyes, carry your company/university ID at all times.) A policeman intimidates so that he does not have to use violence (hence, making the risk of violence to his own person greater.) This can be best accomplished when a large number of people already believe that a policeman could become violent at any moment, for any reason at all. And why do the police not do this to white people as much as to black people?

Because, God help us, we white folks believe the police are our friends.

So Mrs. Cambridge White Neighbor, what should you have done? You should have stopped and asked the gentleman who was trying to get into the house if he needed help -- and did he want to use your cell phone to call a locksmith (hint: burglars don't jimmy the front door in full sight of everyone.) If he had no business getting into the house, he would have left. If he did have business in the house, he might have said, "No thanks -- I think I've got it!" Or, "We've had so much rain, are your doors stuck too? " Or, "Yes, thank you, I need to call my wife -- hi, I'm Skip."

But you didn't. Perhaps it was because you fear black male strangers, like so many white people, no matter how they are dressed. But my guess is that you were embarrassed. You thought, "This is probably a Harvard professor trying to get into his own house, but if I stop and ask, he's going to think I think he's a criminal just because he's black. And he might think I am a racist! I can't risk that. So just to be safe -- I'll call the police!"

And my point is, Mrs. White Neighbor: safe for who? Why safe for you! Because the police are not a neutral party in such matters. They are not paid to help you navigate the social awkwardness of identifying your neighbors in a racially integrated neighborhood. They are paid to intimidate people who are physically similar to Professor Gates on your behalf, which means you cannot call them and expect that there will be no damage. To save yourself embarrassment or fear, you put a neighbor in a position in which there was a high likelihood that he would be arrested, physically injured or killed. He knew that -- why didn't you? And this is something I have not heard anyone say as a possible explanation for why Professor Gates behaved as he did in this situation.

He was frightened. And if so, in my experience, he was right to be.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Adultery Carnival: John Updike's Couples and the Sexual Revolution

John Updike, Couples (New York: Fawcett Books, 1996). Originally published 1968. 458 pp. $14.95

I don't know whether I meant to bring two books about adultery on vacation but I did, and the contrast between Jed Mercurio's American Adulterer and John Updike's Couples provoked many thoughts about the shift in our sexual culture as seen through this knotty, diverse practice. One important similarity in the two books is what has not changed: adultery generates its own complex rules so that adulterers can evade and break other rules. In other words, the adulterer, although perhaps motivated by a desire to be free, is never truly free.

But the differences are also interesting, particularly since both novels describe the same historical moment, the early 1960s. While Updike's adulterers operate as a community and literally as couples who protect each other, Mercurio's adulterer in chief, JFK, operates absolutely privately, his privacy protected (however imperfectly) by his command of the nation's political machinery. Both books highlight corruption, but differently. In American Adulterer, the body of the president literally rots under the weight of his corruption, even as Kennedy tries to alleviate it by public acts (desegregation, nuclear treaties) and a snowballing sex life that he believes will alleviate these same infirmities. In Couples, however, it is ultimately the community that rots under the weight of accumulated fornication: wives go to therapy to understand their unhappiness (aka, "frigidity") and one ultimately work up the courage to leave her husband. A farewell fuck turns into disaster and two marriages explode, something all the couples have believed impossible because it is against their complex, unspoken code of rules. And in a final act of fate, the Congregational Church in the town's center is struck by lightning and burns to the ground as the whole town watches.

The hand of God, in an act of judgement that expresses her disgust with the lot of them? I think so.

Couples is delightfully dated and a little corny now, as that last example suggests. Like American Adulterer, it evokes the New Frontier of the early 1960s, when anything seemed possible but wasn't, because it was tied to such complex, political deal-making and old ideas that refused to give way. The sexual culture it depicts is a kind of middle-class "loosening" that predated a more popular realization that something dramatic was shifting in a Cold War suburban social structure that had theoretically contained American sexuality forever.

Ha. For those of us who grew up then, Couples offers rich, believable descriptions of the informal backyard parties that came together on long summer days in suburban cul-de-sacs, cook outs where the children stayed up just late enough for the ice cream truck and were put to bed Popsicle-stained while the drunken adults were just catching their second wind. One of the characters, Foxy, drinks and smokes her way through a pregnancy, making me wonder again why everyone is so freaked out about what gestating mothers put in their bodies. (I would like to point out, for example, that the catalogue of learning disabilities that we now recognize only appeared in the generation of children born after caffeine, nicotine and booze were stricken from the expectant mother's diet. Is a little pickling good for a fetus?)

Some of Couples' dated quality is not so delightful. The reader sometimes stumbles across a casual, non-ironic liberal racism that both takes her breath away and, I would have to say, is historically pretty accurate, even though I suspect they wouldn't let people write such things today. There is also a nasty, misogynistic quality to the book that is sometimes self-conscious and sometimes not. For example, two of the women who go into therapy -- one who is pressured into a "swinging" relationship by her husband and the other couple, and the other of whom doesn't cheat at all on her philandering husband -- punish their spouses, but passive-aggressively and appropriately within the system of gender-power. The first wife has an affair she doesn't really want to have and then, after capitulating to the swinging, forces all three of the others into talking about her all the time. The latter wife mostly refuses to have intercourse with her husband (hence, allowing him to excuse himself for sleeping with other women) and also refuses him daily forms of affection and intimacy.

And yet, Updike -- for all he was, I think, not interested in feminism -- plants the seeds of the women's movement to come in the novel. At least one wife has learned, when she boots her husband out, that his philandering has been a form of bullying. She learns that by accepting his professions of love and believing his lies, she has been a safety net for him, preventing any other woman from making a new claim that would end his sexual freedom. A six year-old daughter is unnaturallly obsessed with death: by the end of the book, you realize that it is the death of her parents' marriage she has been witnessing and that she is the only one in the family with the courage to break the rules and speak about it. And a third woman, admitting to her mother that she probably had an affair to break up her own marriage, tells her mother that it wasn't that she didn't love her husband -- but that she married the man her parents chose for her, not the one she would have chosen.

To me, this makes Couples not just an interesting account of the sexual revolution, but a comment on Updike as a writer in a generation of writers -- Norman Mailer, Philip Roth -- who wrote obsessively about women but didn't like women very much. Updike is, like Roth and Mailer, far more interested in men than women: the sexual liberation of men is described through abundant, interior narratives; and for women, not so much. We don't know what women really feel; only what they tell men, and what men intuit. Furthermore, the two women who do leave their husbands are able to do so because they have family money, something Updike never acknowledges, fathers who are willing to step in and play the role of husbands for however long is necessary until they marry again. This failure to acknowledge the vulnerability of women to a sexual culture run by men's rules and men's financial power, is like a sore tooth throughout the book. I kept reading happily, but it irked me all the same, and I couldn't stop poking at it. That said, unlike Mailer and Roth, Updike was a fanatically keen observer of women: his female characters make sense, they are different in their femaleness, and their differences are expressed often through sexual and self-knowledge far more complex than his male characters have access to.

One final note: for a book published in 1968, it's extraordinarily explicit. Not only was Updike predicting a sea change in middle class sexuality, he was on the cutting edge of a cultural revolution in which explicit sexual expression would become a core feature of novels, movies and the theater.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

And Before Bill, There was Jack: Jed Mercurio's American Adulterer

Jed Mercurio, American Adulterer (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 339 pp. $25.00.

It is very rare that I finish a book with no real opinion about whether it was a good book or a bad book, but I think that this is a bad book, perhaps even a very bad book -- unless, of course, you are on an airplane (check) and are not really in the mood to think much (check). My verdict is that if you don't own a Kindle, wait for this one to be remaindered or at least come out in paperback. And I suppose whether you like American Adulterer may well depend on what you expect of historical novels in the first place. This one takes such obvious liberties with the actual history of the Kennedy administration that it isn't clear whether, in its exhaustive attempts to explain how Jack Kennedy lived in his own ailing and hypersexual body, it adds anything to the vast amount of regurgitated information that is published about the Kennedy family on an annual basis.

There are certain fields of American history in which, if you have a new idea (or better yet a new way of rewriting what has already been published), you are certain to sell a lot of books. The Civil War is one of them, as is the CIA, the FBI and the Kennedy family. Why the American appetite for these topics is inexhaustible I do not know, but I do know that when I put nearly all the books I received last year as a reader for the AHA's Beveridge Prize up on Amazon, these were the ones that flew off the shelf in a matter of weeks. I vowed six or seven years ago not to read another book on any Kennedy, no matter how tempting it seemed to be, and held successfully to that vow until a few days ago when I was leaving on vacation, couldn't raise an interest in a single novel I already had waiting for me at home, and saw American Adulterer sitting out on the New Books table at the Oligarch University Bookstore. I bit.

And I'm not sorry -- I have always loved historical novels, and I always learn something about writing from them. What fiction can do for history, this book tries to do with more energy than I have seen since Joe Klein's Primary Colors (1996). It speculates about Kennedy's prodigious appetite for women, what he himself might have thought about it, and how he reconciled his life as a -- what's the word for it? pussy hound -- with his life as a devoted family man and his job as leader of the free world. It speculates that he had an elaborate philosophy of sex, in which some people were physically suited to monogamy and others weren't. It speculates that he had an elaborate set of rules and justifications for lying to and using people because his need for sex simply did not fit the dominant monogamist view, and that his special needs and special mission in the world entitled him to beat the monogamists at their own game by any means necessary. They were small, he was great. Not such a bad premise for a fictional account of a presidency if you think about it.

But the novel just doesn't work: it should entice, and instead it repels. It should cause the reader to understand the magnetism of this complex, intellectual President, and something interesting about the twin intoxications of sex and power at the dawn of the Sexual Revolution. Instead it portrays Kennedy as a mean, selfish and not-very-sexy compartmentalizer. Inexplicably, this same person also has political insights that far surpass others of the political class in his generation.

Now because I have bowed out of the business of reading every last thing that is published about the Kennedys, I cannot tell you whether anything in this novel is based on truth or rumor. I cannot tell you whether, for example, Marilyn Monroe really thought he might divorce Jackie and make her the First Lady in a second Kennedy administration; whether the president really nicknamed two of his female White House staff Fiddle and Faddle, eventually added a third he named Fuddle, and in the end forgetting all of their real names and which was which; or whether he had a Reichian physician who reassured him that the regular release of orgone energy was critical to maintaining good health and could only be successfully accomplished by ejaculating regularly with a succession of new women. I do not know whether it is the case that these new women were successfully recruited and escorted past Secret Service details by a military aide otherwise known as The Beard. I do not know whether this President was, on the one hand, someone who saw very clearly that civil rights was something he needed to stand behind firmly; and on the other hand, treated women like Kleenex -- necessary to his health, but to be thrown away immediately.

When not following the sex, Mercurio speculates about Kennedy's health. The novel depistcs the President as in constant pain; constipated and with an inflamed urinary system; and suffering from ongoing nausea, allergies, asthma and headaches. At the time of the assassination the President was well on his way to an early death, Mercurio tells us, and might not even have been killed in Dallas except for being strapped into a rigid back brace made necessary because a woman finally pushed him to the floor when he put his hand up her skirt. It may or may not be correct, but it certainly is unpleasant to read about the bag of filth that our bodies are, even when in good health. Throughout the book there are multiple physicians (and a least one quack, although it is a little hard to tell them apart) treating him for his Addison's Disease and his back injury. The actual physicians pump him full of steroids, testosterone, antibiotics and injections for pain; the quack pumps him full of pain killers, muscle relaxants, amphetamines and urges him to keep draining the toxins from his system by ejaculating regularly. Jackie is part of the system: she injects him when necessary, helps him on and off with his back brace that is a more closely guarded secret than his affairs, and eventually acquiesces to his philandering ways in exchange for spending gobs of money on herself. The only individuals who survive Mercurio's attentions without being either the President's enablers or his victims (and the women upon whom he expends his excess orgone energy fit both categories) are Caroline and John, Jack's children, who he loves to distraction.

There are two things about this book that kept jerking me back to reality in a way one never wants to be when reading a novel, much less a historical novel. One is that Mercurio makes deliberate parallels to William Jefferson Clinton's infidelities. Clinton appears in the book briefly, in that famous photo op with Kennedy taken when he was a teenager. Subsequently, Kennedy says to J. Edgar Hoover, who has come to inform him that his affairs or a breach of national security: "I did not have a sexual relationship with that woman." Towards the end of the novel, there is someone only identified as The Intern who regularly fellates the President under his desk and, in a spectacular moment after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in a small room right off the Oval Office. Remember that room? Remember that Intern?

The other thing that I found worrisome, other than Mercurio's clarity about a civil rights agenda that we know Kennedy did not privilege over his own re-election, is the complete absence of Bobby Kennedy from the book. Even though there is an extended chunk of the narrative spent on Hoover and on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Attorney General and prominent member of ExCom does not appear in the novel at all. This is downright strange, and I can only imagine a few scenarios leading to this omission: one is that Ethel Kennedy, or one of her many lawyer children, promised to sue the pants off Simon and Schuster if her husband was implicated in this tawdry little tale. Another is that such a prominent omission is a strategy for making the book suit-proof period, since it clearly can't pretend to be history if Jack Kennedy's closest and most trusted advisor is not even in the book. The last is that the book simply wouldn't have worked as the Frat Boys Go Wild In The White House tale that it is with Bobby, who was the closest thing to a priest a married man might be, in the book.

In any case, what the book does not do is what historical novels ought to do, in my opinion. They ought to offer a convincing historical explanation, or insight, based on lively speculation about the evidence at hand. They ought to make the sharp judgments about good, evil and human weakness that academic histories have to shy away from in order to remain academic. At the same time, their explanations and insights ought to be just as convincing as those offered by analytical history that sticks close to the evidence, even -- or especially -- if it offers an explanation that contradicts or differs from conventional historical arguments. And frankly, they ought to do what the best history does: entertain. Mercurio, I'm afraid, has accomplished none of these things. Instead he has offered up a story of grueling physical pain, joyless sex, misogyny and a New Frontier that was dripping with hypocrisy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Not Just Your Average Kibitzing Radical: Ways To Be In Touch With The Struggle At The University of California

"As California goes, so goes the nation," writes my correspondent Eileen Boris from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where a lot of the activism seems to be taking place. So get involved! Public education matters.

So if you can tear yourself away from the Sotomayor hearings, here are some links she sent me. The first is a petition to suspend the current budget-cutting strategy (which seems to be of the slash-and-burn variety) until a more participatory planning process can be organized. You will be asked to identify your relationship to the university; I wrote "friend of the University of California," and it accepted that designation.

For more on what organizers are currently up to, click here, and to get information about the California Board of Regents, click here.

And while you are at it -- find out what's being cut in your state. Reports submitted to Tenured Radical at hte email address in my profile will be published. If you wish to publish pseudonymously, you need to tell me who you are, but I'll keep it confidential.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Sincerely Yours, The Department Of Miserable Bastards"

"The partly filled lifeboat standing by about 100 yards away never came back. Why on Earth they never came back is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries?" Jack B. Thayer, a survivor of RMS Titanic, April, 1912.

Thanks to my colleague Margaret Soltan at University Diaries, I have acquired a link to this letter. It is signed by Andrew Scull, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at the University of California, San Diego and twenty-two of his fellow chairs, including John Marino, the chair of history. English, in my experience often the home of gentler folk, is not a signatory. I don't see any of the chairs of interdisciplinary programs like Gender Studies or Ethnic Studies either. So that tells you something right there.

Read the letter for yourself and see what you think. True, higher education in California is imperiled by the state budget crisis, and it is a shame. It is a shame because this has been coming for years, as California has built spectacular prisons at great cost to one of the finest public education systems in the nation, if not the world. It is a shame because all bills finally come due, and the mean people of California would rather give up education than incarceration, testing, hunting down undocumented workers, and badgering gay people. It has been coming because the selfish and unrealistic people of California and the even more unrealistic politicians that they have elected have refused, over and over, to raise taxes to appropriate levels to simultaneously maintain their educational system and police the hell out of their state. I have had great sympathy for my colleagues who work all over the California system in recent weeks because of the cuts that were inevitable, and are now bound to hurt even people with good salaries. Focused almost entirely on retaining star faculty and their research grants, the letter fails to mention that many thousands of non-faculty are simply on the street now: as I understand it, Santa Cruz let go over 1000 administrative staff last month. I am, in fact, deeply concerned about those friends wooed to California schools in recent years with large salaries and named chairs that they expected to be the capstone of distinguished careers. Such people may really be on the ledge financially right now (particularly in places like San Diego) with expensive, heavily mortgaged real estate -- the resale market for which has crashed -- that they still have to pay for with significantly lower salaries.

That said, what are the signatories of this letter concerned about? Why their reputations! And what do they propose as a remedy for a collapsing university in this drastic economic and political crisis? Not taxes. Not decarceration, or an end to the billions spent every year testing students at all levels in California. No. These department chairs suggest, not a reset to the horrendous values that are finally bringing them out of their labs and onto their knees, but an intensification of those values. More elitism! More exclusion! More me, me, me! This includes the following suggestions for remedying the University of California's budget problems.

Enrolling 500 more out-of-state students every year for the next four years to generate 44 million dollars. In other words, privatize further. Abandon the mission to educate the citizens of California, in favor of educating rich (white?) full-payers who want to go to college near the beach. Two problems here: one is that before four years is up, as I understand it, by getting a new drivers license and registering to vote, these students become in-state students and qualify for the lower tuition. Another issue: who is going to teach these students? Certainly not the signatories of the letter or their distinguished colleagues. Oh - I forgot! I'm such a ninny. Graduate students! Adjuncts!

That the University of California make its commitment to excellence more graphic by emphasizing that its research is more or less funded by corporate America and the Department of Defense. As Scull explains, "the campus could also compile a list of 5‐10 pieces of faculty research in the past decade that have transformed our knowledge and improved human welfare, and supplement that with a similar list of spin‐off corporations and technologies (Qualcomm obviously prominent among them) that have transformed the economy of the region and the state. Again, these lists must be hammered home over and over again, like an annoying advertisement that enters everyone’s consciousness."

That does sound annoying. And what are specific examples of research that have "improved human welfare"? Funny that Qualcomm sprang to mind immediately, but a specific example related to the public good did not.

And speaking of the commitment to excellence, why should distinguished scholars at the UCSD campus have to take the same pay cut as their less well-paid colleagues in the state system? It seems so unfair, since everyone knows that that UCSD faculty are better, smarter and deserve more than the lesser human beings who teach elsewhere. "Rather than destroying the distinctiveness and excellence at Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD by hiring temporary lecturers to do most of the teaching (and contribute nothing to original research, nothing to our reputation, nothing to the engine of economic growth a first rate research university represents)," Scull writes, "we propose that you urge the President and Regents to acknowledge that UCSC, UCR, and UC Merced are in substantial measure teaching institutions (with some exceptions – programs that have genuinely achieved national and international excellence and thus deserve separate treatment), whose funding levels and budgets should be reorganized to match that reality."

To put it in plain English for those of you who do not teach at a prestigious flagship, some people (you, for example) suck, other people (they) don't; hence, it can be determined some faculty have value and others do not. From this we can derive that some faculty are endlessly exploitable and/or can be discarded without any real harm coming to anyone important, such as students.

You are so right, Professor Scull, and I think you should just march right up to Angela Davis and her HisCon friends and tell them that to their faces. The one bright spot in this budget crisis, it seems, is that we can take the gloves off and be honest with each other about how we really feel. But I do want to say -- that was one heck of a run-on sentence, and before you row away in your little lifeboat, leaving the rest of the system to paddle around on whatever floats, you might want to get the Chair of the English Department on board.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Steal This Book! Public Enemies, John Dillinger and Me

Don't be surprised if you are channel surfing in the next couple months and suddenly see -- me! There are at least four different made-for-TV documentaries in which I appear as a talking head because of my first book, War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men and the Politics of Mass Culture (Rutgers University Press, 1998). For a while I was an all-star on Third Street in Lower Manhattan because the History Channel is, apparently, one of the few things the inhabitants of the men's shelter there can agree that they all like. Every once in a while I would be strolling by and a cigarette-ravaged voice would growl happily, "Hey! I know you!" Once I was at a tenure party for someone else, and that person's father confided that he had really come to the party to see me. People write me mash notes from Australia, England and Canada -- always men, which is really disappointing. I am also occasionally recognized at the off track betting parlor in Shoreline; and lately, my friends at the rowing club have looked on me with new eyes as well.

But where you will not see me is in the credits of the new Michael Mann movie, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and an all-star cast of very pretty boys (there are virtually no women in the movie.) And yet there is an important connection between me and this movie: the script was written from the book that ripped off my book.

That's right: your academic nightmare come true. The book everyone told you could be a crossover success (but wasn't exactly, although it has sold a lot of copies over the last decade), gets re-written with conversations, sold to a commercial press and then to the movies.

The nightmare began in 2004, when I walked into a bookstore and saw a bright shiny pile of books with a picture of John Dillinger on the cover. Bryan Burrough, a journalist for Vanity Fair, popular writer and author of Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 gave me a lovely citation in almost the first footnote. But that said, while he did a bunch of his own original research, most of the major theoretical and historical insights of my book were lifted into his, repackaged with vivid dialogue and highly descriptive prose and resold. And then he sold my book again to the movies. I had recovered from the first ripoff -- because after all, what are you going to do? Beggar yourself suing someone with a powerful agent for something that is very hard to prove? Then I got a call from an assistant to Famous Costume Designer letting me know about the Johnny Depp project. She asked if I would be willing to talk to them a few times about what the film should look like -- what things the bandits were likely to have, what clothes they would wear and whatnot.

"Sure," I said. "But you'll need to pay me a consulting fee." I explained that I had been ripped off once before and that if they wanted me to work for them, I couldn't do it for free.

"Uh - oh, jeez, I'll have to get back to you on that," she said, beating a hasty and permanent retreat. (Note to Hollywood people: do you really think we are all so star-struck that we have endless time to give you for free? Because the budget on this film must have been in the hundreds of millions, and if you wanted to talk to me, you could have squeezed out a thousand bucks or so just out of courtesy.)

Now don't get me wrong: it isn't as if I didn't profit from this book. It did get me tenure, which over an academic career is probably worth about 3 million dollars in salary and benefits. I have probably made around 3K in royalties, which isn't much, but since Public Enemies came out, the book seems to be selling on Amazon (the last time I looked, they said they only had one copy left, but had more on order.) I predict a little bounce in this year's royalties. It's also nice to be able to say that historians still read the damn thing, people other than Mr. Burrough. Graduate students, for example, make a point of saying so, and most recently I got a really nice shout-out from Elliott Gorn in an essay titled "Re-membering John Dillinger."* (Thank you Elliott: I will light a candle for you.)

Eventually, of course, I had to see the movie. I trundled grimly off to our local theater night before last, and despite the good reviews Public Enemies has gotten in places like The New Yorker, I am happy to say that, beautiful as it is, it really stinks. They should have hired me to help them. I don't know whether the errors derive from Mr. Burrough's translation of my work (because every time I try to read his book I feel like I am getting the stomach flu and have to stop) or whether it was the script writers' rotten translation of Burroughs' work. But here are the major flaws from my perspective:

1. Errors of fact. For example, the implication that the FBI went after Dillinger because Hoover couldn't get funded properly by Congress unless he did; that the War on Crime was Hoover's initiative; that Melvin Purvis hired a bunch of out of work Texas Rangers to help him track Dillinger; that said cops for hire tortured, beat and withheld medical attention from mortally wounded members of the Dillinger gang to get information from them (I don't know why I was especially offended by this, Radical that I am, but it seems to me that the FBI has done enough bad things without gratuitously adding to the list); that Dillinger hung out with the Barker-Karpis gang; that Purvis found out that the gang was hiding at Little Bohemia Lodge from a telephone tap -- there is absolutely no evidence in any of the files I read to support these things, and they represent major turning points in the narrative. Furthermore, it was my finding that bandits actually went out of their way not to harm people, particularly police, since they knew it would intensify the pressure on local and state government to capture them. And yet in this film there are constant pitched battles, with thousands of rounds being fired in each encounter, cops and civilians falling like flies.

And why that dumb scene at the end, right before his death, where Johnny Depp wanders through the fictional "Dillinger Squad" at a Chicago police station but isn't recognized? Why tell us at the end that Melvin Purvis died by suicide? What is the audience supposed to do with that information?

2. The story is incoherent. I'm not sure how anyone who did not know the Dillinger story already would actually understand what was going on in this film or why. There are lots of long shots of J.Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson smirking and moue-ing at each other, with cigarettes cocked in their femmey hands, but no one ever explains, for example, that Tolson is the number two man at the FBI, not just Edgar's boyfriend who hangs around listening to him rant. There are gestures at the real history of the FBI, and the real history of the war on crime, but since those gestures are never tied to anything specific -- or even completed -- my guess is that they just get in the way of the average viewer. The problem gets worse when director Michael Mann turns his attention to the criminals: people like the Barker brothers, Alvin Karpis, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Harry Pierpont and more come and go with little or no explanation as to who they are. And then the dumbest details are given prominence. One of the things I do know about the Burrough book (from the Amazon blurb) is that he uncovered the fact that (drum roll) Anna Sage was wearing an orange skirt -- not a red dress!! The movie gestures at this -- Purvis explains to his team, "She'll be wearing an orange skirt!" But since the red dress is practically iconic, doesn't this simply serve to confuse?

I dunno.

Probably the major insight from my book that shows up in the film is the parasitical relationship bandits like Dillinger had to Chicago's syndicates, and that eventually bandits' notoriety led to organized crime cutting them loose. But again, there is crucial information missing: Frank Nitti is introduced as a character in the film, but there is no explanation that he is running the Capone organization, or why the creation of a national horse racing wire has anything to do with why the Mob ceases to support Dillinger.

3. The popular fascination with Dillinger is poorly evoked and very much in the background. This, I would have to say, is the movie's worst flaw, because it's one of the few reasons historians care about Dillinger at all: he spoke to something very deep in the Depression-era psyche. John Dillinger was a 1930s version of a rock star: he was an uber celebrity at a moment in time when celebrity itself was being reinvented. But you have absolutely no sense of that at all, nor of a cultural moment in which an entire nation held its breath to see when and where he would appear next. Staring crowds and paparazzi appear at various moments, but there's no sense of the mass excitement about this man that caused Americans to flood Washington with letters offering to help capture him, pleading for mercy for him and musing on Dillinger as a metaphor for the nation.

In the end, Public Enemies is a gangster picture in which it isn't altogether clear who you should be rooting for. The police are boring, and the gangsters' characters -- even Dillinger's -- are not memorable. And Johnny Depp? Well, he's handsome enough enough. But you can't help but make an unfavorable comparison to Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), which probably planted the earliest seed in my brain of the dissertation that became War on Crime.

Strangely, I left the movie theater no less ripped off but less worried about it. And while I hope to write books with a crossover audience in the future, and books that sell a lot of copies, I doubt that I will ever write a book again that has the kind of potential to really become a movie or a best seller without actually intending to do so in the first place and working hard to protect it.


*See The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present and Future, James Cook, Lawrence Glickman and Michael O'Malley, Eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 153-184.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

What's Wrong With Journalism: Your Radical Reporter In Afghanistan

Many things are wrong with journalism, and not just reporting on Afghanistan. But what has obliged me to speak today is this report posted on line by the Associated Press and appearing as a headline story on my Yahoo email account. As if endless advertisements for Acai products (accompanied by distorted, pulsating pictures of doughy female flesh that are supposed to make me hate myself) are not enough, today I was greeted by this headline: "Afghanistan tones down contentious marriage law."

You remember that contentious law -- the one applying to Shiite women that made it legal for their husbands to rape them? The one signed by our democratic ally Hamid Karzai? "The new version," you will be glad to hear, "no longer requires a woman submit to sex with her husband, only that she do certain housework." The housework will be agreed to at the time of the marriage, and please be assured that women who were until today legally rapable will be allowed to refuse any jobs they think are unfair or degrading, or that they think their husbands ought to do for themselves.

Yeah sure. Although there is still no guaranteed right for girls to attend school, according to today's revision Shiite women in Afghanistan can now leave the house without their husbands' permission, and they may keep their own property. That is, if they are not concerned about being beat down by a group of family members who think they have crossed the line. Or a husband who has had a bad day.

Nowhere does the story mention that rape, while codified as a crime against humanity according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 is, appallingly enough, not a stand-alone crime in international law. However, some of the international criteria listed in the Rome Statute might characterize some marriages, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. How about: imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

In fact, if we were to acknowledge that there is a war on women in parts of the world not necessarily defined by national boundaries, ethnicity or religion, could we be getting somewhere with this problem?

But let me just say, Mr. AP Editor: the Afghan marriage law wasn't a "contentious" marriage law, and it wasn't a bad law just because a bunch of feminists got their knickers in a twist over it. It was a criminal marriage law.

Otherwise known as a crime.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

More Annals of the Great Depression: Whither The Conference Interview?

In my opinion? It's on its way out. For what Zenith spent on searches this year, we could have hired a bunch of visitors, or two tenure-track faculty. Or we could have given the faculty we have a weenie little raise. Just a weenie one, but a raise all the same. Or not cut the library budget. Or....or.....

Budget cutting is no reason to end a tradition permanently if it is valuable, but I predict that budget cutting will jolt universities to some useful reforms. Replacing the conference interview with the phone interview is one of them. We had this conversation in my department recently, and I have had it with a Zenith administrator on two separate occasions. Perhaps I have fallen out of love with the conference interview because I am finishing a book on the early years of the historical profession. I know, for example, that the origins of the conference interview are exactly the opposite of democratic. They go way back to a time when each mentor brought "a few excellent men" to the AHA in order to pair them up with colleagues who had positions to offer: the matches were more often than not made at "smokers" which were held in gender and racially segregated spaces.

This began in the 1880s, and continued until about 1968.

Or perhaps, more relevantly, the scales have fallen from my eyes because I did one search in each semester this year, at a total cost to the university for me alone of around 4.5K. Or perhaps I was just horrified as I watched a colleague interview over twenty candidates for two searches at a single conference, running back and forth between hotels, a test of endurance and good humor that I am not sure I would have passed.

Or perhaps I am hopeful about this possible transformation because I have had real success with phone interviews. All of that time and money, in my view, has no benefit other than what many of my colleagues call "laying eyes on the candidate." Because I hire in an interdisciplinary program, we routinely interview people over the telephone because the American Studies Association conference is so early, and many of our potential candidates are saving their money for the disciplinary conferences where they are more likely to get offers. This year, we interviewed half of our candidates in one search over the phone, brought two of the phone interviewees to campus, and hired both of them. Seven or eight years ago, we interviewed all of our candidates over the telephone and brought in three superb candidates. Regardless of how I feel, it seems quite certain that for many schools, budget cuts may create permanent change, and it is probably time for us to start thinking about the ethics and practices of the phone interview more seriously.

David Evans wrote a timely column about this annual ritual in yesterday's Careers section of the Chronicle of Higher Ed. In "Is The Conference Interview On The Way Out?" Evans observes that the cost of going to conferences is prohibitive, for committees and especially for those on the job market. Even if your university is still willing to foot the bill, there may simply not be as much bang for the buck as there once was. Faculty could better spend this money on curricular development or research, he argues; the jobless could better spend the money on -- well, eating, probably, or printer cartridges. Evans writes that there will also be loss. "I still think that conference interviews have a lot of advantages," he notes.

Meeting candidates face-to-face is, I believe, considerably more effective than talking to them on the phone. Simply being able to read their body language, make eye contact, and interact directly provides a clarity that isn’t available by phone. The intensity of the conference-interview process, while exhausting, gives hiring committees the opportunity to make direct comparisons between candidates, refine their impressions, and get a sense of the candidates’ interest in the position.

With all due respect, there may be losses, but the points that Evans raises are the aspects of interviewing that I am ready to say goodbye to. I have thought for some time that this process of forming definite beliefs about candidacies on what are necessarily superficial impressions is flawed and makes the process contrary. I mean, why do candidates obsess about their clothes? Because they know that it is likely that someone is judging their capacity to think and teach by the height of their heels, the color of their tie, the sweater vest that just doesn't work with that outfit. And we haven't even started with how you occupy the space you are in, who you looked at most frequently, your handshake, your voice, your....your...your....

By the time everyone gets home and start talking about the candidates, each committee member is positive that s/he has the "correct" interpretation of this personality trait or that tone of voice, and you end up arguing about aspects of self-presentation that are most vulnerable to what they call at Zenith "unintentional bias." In my experience, this kind of bias is often a question of perceived class differences. Direct comparisons are just as easy over the phone as in person; indeed, if you are not watching a person's body language, thinking about what moved a certain candidate to cut his hair that way, or trying to judge whether a person really wants the job, you might hear what they are saying with a bit more clarity.

Another advantage of the phone interview? You can wear whatever you want, eat and drink without making the candidate uncomfortable, sleep in your own bed, and get up and stroll around the room in mid-interview if your back hurts. The committee can make funny faces at each other -- err, I mean, communicate better during the course of the interview -- to move things along when the conversation has gotten off track, or when you all realize that the person has gotten hopelessly muddled about something and you need to backtrack and give them another chance at it. You can look imperiously at a colleague who is talking too much and make slashing gestures across your throat.

Not that I've done that.

There is another great idea in a comment on the Evans story:

Here is a suggestion for my field (history): Why not have a centralized database, where candidates upload their materials? Then, when a department is authorized to hire, the search committee trolls the database (searchable by field and other variables) and picks 4-5 candidates. Instead of paying to send a search committee to the AHA, the university can foot the bill to bring more candidates to campus. This would cut out the preliminary interview altogether.

Here I disagree slightly with the suggestion that a next stage of information gathering be entirely eliminated, but this would be an otherwise outstanding use of existing technology. A preliminary interview of some kind gives you an idea about how a person thinks. It allows for specific questions about specific courses, as well as the research, that can help resolve disagreements on the committee. A conversation can tell you a lot about a candidate as a teacher -- particularly if the committee asks for a draft syllabus for a core course that person would be asked to teach. Furthermore, because jobs differ from each other in emphasis, even within fields, letters of application tell you a great deal about whether someone is prepared to teach what you want, how professionalized they are, and how they see themselves as a scholar. But a central database where letters of recommendation, vita, transcripts, a chapter-length piece and an abstract of the dissertation could be uploaded would be terrific. Think of the number of (wo)man hours are spent filing and duplicating these things, not to mention mailing them in the first place.

There could be another great feature in these days when universities are afraid of affirmative action, many committees don't know how to do diversity recruiting, and many candidates entitled to affirmative action either don't believe in it or don't want to be interviewed just to be your "diversity candidate." Job hunters could opt in, or opt out, of providing information about gender, race, ethnicity and national status. You could have a box to check for "GLBTQ" -- not a federal category, to be sure, but for some of us that would be information that we would want people to know. Thus, such a data base would be searchable if a department was genuinely interested in interviewing more women or people of color. Before advertising, you could test a job description against the gross candidate pool. You could even do a search in round one on the basis of scholarship only, with all identifying characteristics of the candidates (gender, race, university) hidden until you had activated your first round of selections.

One of the unnecessary tragedies of the hiring season is that there are not only great people who don't get an offer, but there are jobs that go unfilled. Let's say it is still fall, and you don't love the candidate pool you've got: what about looking at the materials of people in a slightly different, but contiguous, field? What about looking at a higher/lower rank? Or what if, after bringing everyone to campus, there isn't anyone the department can agree on -- and little do you know, in a narrow departmental battle, the liberal arts college down the road decided not to make an offer to someone who might be perfect? And finally, when the adjunct and visiting season strikes, the pool of people who have yet to be hired would still be there to be searched, and they wouldn't necessarily have to write a whole new round of job letters.

Such a data base would make hiring more of a year-round process, as it is in other professions. It wouldn't have to replace the application process as we know it, but it could strengthen it. And it could allow universities to woo junior candidates who have not applied for their job, inviting them to apply as senior people are now invited to apply for jobs. There is an assumption among an older generation (which I think I am now a part of, unfortunately) that everyone who wants a job applies for all jobs in her field. But it isn't so. Candidates rule out applying for certain jobs for good and bad reasons: ignorance of the region the school is in, a new baby or sick parent, a deadline that has passed by mistake, a relationship that they fear will not stand a commute, a belief that the fit isn't good when in fact it might be.

Interviewing at conferences may disappear because of budget cuts, to be sure. But if we are thoughtful about how to replace it with a good new system, cheaper could be better.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Dis/Ability: In Which The Radical Raises A Question About Our Commitment To Access

I want to begin this post by asserting that I have benefited enormously as a thinker and as an educator from the people in my life who have asked me to think about the diverse categories of humanness that we call disability. Critical ways in which I am smarter are: a greater appreciation for the many differences between students, attentiveness to how I occupy a classroom physically, and a sharper perspective on how stigma is applied even (or especially) in elite educational atmospheres.

One of the things I am very aware of, for example, is how very few physically disabled students we have at Zenith. My acquaintance with several disabled colleagues reminds me why if I didn't get it already. The campus is at the top of a hill, and for the fully able, free movement can require a vigorous climb; going down also requires balance, joint stability and muscle control that people possess in varying degrees. Elevators are slow, too small and often crammed with faculty and students who could easily walk upstairs. Large parts of the campus are completely inaccessible, and are only made so when the point is pressed sharply. Furthermore, building codes, even when satisfied, don't necessarily make a building or a part of the campus accessible to everyone. The Castle meets code, but I learned this year that it isn't actually "accessible" to several colleagues. Or rather, they can get in, but the energy required to do so is enormously taxing and puts tremendous pressure on the remainder of their day.

In the interests of full disclosure, the grandfather I knew best had MS; when I was little he limped and walked with a cane, but the disease progressed over time. I grew up scoping out spaces to figure out whether he could get through them (a person with a cane or a walker is much wider and needs a firm surface); looking for hand railings; knowing that everywhere we went as a group, we went at the speed of our slowest family member; and when I was big enough, being leaned on, tying shoes and helping to lift his lower body in and out of the car. I also have a young cousin who is somewhere on the autism spectrum who I haven't spent much time with but like a lot. He is bright, deeply compelling as a person, and someone I would be friends with if we lived on the same coast. And autism really changes your perspective, I have to say. You heard it here first perhaps: once you have someone in your family diagnosed with autism and you start looking around at everyone else, legendary "quirks" in members of the family become a pattern and hence, make a lot more sense.

I'm just saying.

But you can forget what you know, particularly since as you become used to someone's different abilities, they begin to seem "normal": more on the use of this word later. I have realized that I can also be very alert to those disabilities I am familiar with and be obtuse about others (hence, one of my blogging buddies had to ask me not once, but twice, to eliminate the casual use of the word "crazy" from my posts when referring to those people who I found irrational or incomprehensible in their opinions. You know, it's like those boys who cheerfully yell "Fag!" to point out some failure of normalcy in the immediate vicinity.)

I first began thinking about disability studies years ago when I was in a seminar with someone who has been a pioneer of the field, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson (her new book, Staring: How We Look is a must-read.) We were both more or less starting out in our careers, and our conversations were the first time I had thought in any structured way about the social privileges that able people take for granted. Some years later I ran a speaker's series on Disability Studies, and came to admire how our guests thought about what they did in a lecture or seminar room. One speaker pointed out that it is wise to bring along printed texts of a talk for those who are hard of hearing, and that they should be in large type for people who have limited vision. Another noted that anyone who had full ability was in a time-limited state: "You know, most of us will be disabled eventually," he said.

And yet, over a quarter century after that seminar where Rosemarie introduced me to this world of ideas, I can't say that higher education as a whole has moved as far as it should have towards thinking about accessibility as a matter of daily practice. What most of us are familiar with on elite campuses is learning disability, an often daunting thing to engage. If you ask me, most of us are on a spectrum of learning disabilities of some kind, with some on the florid end and others of us who are entirely undiagnosed and have learned to cope all by ourselves. University professors: make a list of all the things you do while you are reading, writing and grading papers -- and then ask yourself why.

And while we're at it, what's the love affair with timed testing? How does this serve learning? And how might we go about changing this feature of university life without asking faculty to teach a separate course to every student in the class?

I know parents who choose colleges based partly on the quality of what are now called "Learning Centers" (no, Zenith doesn't have one -- although we do have a good coordinator who has made a big difference in my opinion). But every college should have one, and it should be avaialable to students who do -- and do not -- matriculate with a diagnosis in hand. For example, I have heard from a friend of mine who tutors high school kids that every book used at Bard is available in recorded format automatically. I think this is very cool, for three reasons. One is that Bard is reaching out and saying to smart kids who do not learn in conventional ways that they are wanted and valued. Another is that students who, for whatever reason, have difficulty with visual reading -- whether it is eyesight, ADD, difficulty holding the book with one's hands, or something I'm not thinking of -- do not have the burden of making separate arrangements for every book, every class, every semester. But the other reason I think this is cool is this: universities spend wads of money moving ahead to the next thing while leaving problems that they know exist unsolved. Making learning accessible isn't fun, it doesn't make your university more trendy or popular (when was the last time you saw a visibly disabled student in an Ivy League view book?), and it requires ongoing investment of time and money to keep things up to date.

It's not sexy, trendy, fun or visible. Worse, many elite schools don't want to admit just how many LD students they have on campus: most don't know, since the Americans with Disabilities Act makes that information confidential unless and until a student self-discloses. But they also don't want to deal with the stigma, of defending themselves for admitting students who can't handle the work alone -- working alone being something we continue to value for obscure reasons. So many places, even if they have accessibility services, keep quiet about them. And I know very few faculty who start thinking about this at all until they, or a family member/loved one, is born, becomes, or is diagnosed as, disabled.

Of course, financial accessibility is something that is more at the top of everyone's minds nowadays. This story in today's New York Times features an online startup called Chegg that helps students cut their book costs by buying, reselling and renting textbooks. Financial accessibility, and perhaps cutting their own library costs, through the adoption of new technology is also how Arizona State has gotten itself sued by the National Federation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Arizona State University will be distributing course materials via Amazon's Kindle technology, presumably to cut costs for students and maybe even to be more green. But while the new Kindle reads to you (I'm told it has a grating, non-human voice, much like other computer technology for the disabled), its menus and mechanisms are not friendly to visually disabled people, who won't be able to make the choices necessary to choose and activate their course materials.

Okay -- here's the good news. With the exception of a few nasty comments about how selfish disabled people are ("it's always about you, you, you, isn't it??!?)", I am pleased to say that a great many of the comments on this story show a great deal of understanding about accessibility as a civil rights issue, and of disabled students as valued members of our learning communities.

The more troubling news? That while the vast majority of comments are sympathetic to the rights of disabled people to be included, their well-being as individuals remains unconnected to how their full participation is of benefit to the rest of us. No, I'm not talking about diversity -- although there is that. I am talking about ordinary, garden variety conversation, from which the whole community benefits in conventional ways. In other words, the goal cannot only be to support the disabled in approaching "normal;" we need some attention to how "normal" needs to be critiqued and complicated to understand why greater access to everyone's ideas about everything was not valued enough in the first place to provide for it.

Which is how these lawsuits - which seem like an unnecessary nuisance to many well-meaning people -- become the only way for disabled people to adjust their learning environment. A well-intended move by ASU (Case Western and Reed have apparently also adopted the Kindle technology), one that helps students who have difficulty accessing colleges because they are poor, has been made without attending to the mechanisms by which other students, rich and poor, are actually hampered by it. If ASU is like many other places, they have a "you can't please all of the people all of the time" attitude. Disabled people are handled on a case-by-case basis, the wheel is reinvented for every student, and the institution itself does not fundamentally readjust its information technologies or classroom access to anticipate the needs of its students. And often, as I indicated above, they don't have to: the savvy disabled student and her parents will have figured out what she needs and pick a college by its ability to provide those services.

But imagine the wonderful students we would all have access to if we made the investment of time and energy to think about this before we were sued?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"And Your Little Dog Too!!!" Christina Hoff Sommers Still Wants The Ruby Slippers

Yesterday one of my trusted agents (and I keep telling you, my agents are everywhere) sent me a link to Christina Hoff Sommer's recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, "Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship." I thought Sommers was going to really let fly about vaginal orgasm ("what vaginal orgasm????"), or weigh in about whether women were on the cutting edge of medical practice in the nineteenth century until men invented medical school as a canny strategy to take over the birthing room. But I soon realized that the article was just another tired old piece of conservative wheel-spinning crap, the central ideas of which Sommers (who calls herself an "equity feminist") has published elsewhere.

As I wondered why the Chronicle would publish something intended only to generate more of the drama Sommers is famous for, this exchange from The Wizard of Oz, featuring Judy Garland and the transcendent Billie Burke floated into my head.

Glinda: "Are you a good witch -- or a bad witch?"

Dorothy, shocked: "Who, me?! I'm not a witch at all. I'm Dorothy Gale, from Kansas."

Glinda, gesturing at Toto: "Oh! Well is that the witch?"

Dorothy: "Who, Toto? Toto's my dog."

Glinda: "Well, I'm a little muddled. The Munchkins called me because a new witch has just dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East. And there's the house, and here you are, and that's all that's left of the Wicked Witch of the East. And so, what the Munchkins want to know is - are you a good witch or a bad witch?"

Dorothy: "But I've already told you. I'm not a witch at all."

This is precisely what it feels like to get into an argument with conservative ideologues who are trying to suppress real debate in the name of (you guessed it) free and open intellectual exchange. Believe me, I've been there. Or you can pick up the phone and call some people I know at Duke.

Sommers, a philosopher and ethicist who used to teach at Clark University but now lives high off the conservative foundation tit, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a founder of the Independent Women's Forum and a beneficiary of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute's lecture program. The two books she is best known for are Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women (1995), and The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (2000). When not cashing checks from Enterprise and Luce, she makes a living out of bashing liberal feminists and policies that suppress real gender equality -- you know, Title IX, pay equity, and all that jazz that keeps us from being the country we really could be if men were free of government interference. One of Sommers' arguments is that the American feminist establishment has hoodwinked the public into their man-hating agenda by publishing reams of false scholarship, riddled with factual errors and outright lies.

Worse, these feminists have willfully snookered the government and major foundations so that they can keep a stranglehold on research money that will go to perpetuating their outrageous falsehoods and embedding them in social programs of various kinds. The outcome, Sommers charges, is a feminist policy agenda driven by bad data (unlike, say, federally mandated abstinence programs, which are based on "good" research that "proves" teenagers will give up sex when asked to do so.) Worst of all is the cloud of feminist opprobrium hanging over the male gender. Institutionalized feminist rage has made boys the object of oppressive scrutiny, she argues, suppressing their intellectual and social development. Meanwhile, girls charge ahead, beneficiaries of special attention, special programs, beaming approval and the encouragement of all their teachers.

Sounds like the university you work in, doesn't it? Men cowering in the halls, women running roughshod over the hiring process and pushing any male student who hasn't already gone into hiding to the back of the proverbial bus? I'm sure someone at a conservative think tank somewhere is running an experiment in which sad, underachieving little boys, when asked to pick their favorite action figure, choose Malibu Barbie.

In the Chronicle piece Sommers airs her grievances toward Berkeley law prof Nancy Lemon, and a widely used textbook Lemon wrote and edited, Domestic Violence Law (2005). In what seems like a fishing expedition, following a series of public lectures attacking the book and a post on Feminist Law Professors (which she refers to, but I can't find unless it was in the video link in this post) she wrote Lemon an email pointing out the supposed errors in her work. In a frosty reply that I won't quote since I haven't seen the original, Lemon wrote back that she was all for accuracy and scholarly dialogue, but that Sommers might have offered the opportunity for that before she went around the country trashing Lemon's book for fun and profit. "I confess," Sommers writes:

I had indeed publicly criticized Lemon's book, in campus lectures and in a post on I had always thought that that was the usual practice of intellectual argument. Disagreement is aired, error corrected, truth affirmed. Indeed, I was moved to write to her because of the deep consternation of law students who had attended my lectures: If authoritative textbooks contain errors, how are students to know whether they are being educated or indoctrinated? Lemon's book has been in law-school classrooms for years.

One reason that feminist scholarship contains hard-to-kill falsehoods is that reasonable, evidence-backed criticism is regarded as a personal attack.

You know, I am glad you brought this up Christina, because I thought the exact same thing about the Bush administration a few years back. Question the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and boom! your wife gets bounced from the CIA. Point out that the Bush administration lied its way into the Iraq war, lied about torture, lied about the orders that were given to sexually humiliate prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and some ass hat named Cheney or Rumsfeld calls you a traitor. Hell, if you aren't a citizen, and better yet if you were born in Syria or Egypt, they render your sorry behind into a medieval prison where folks really know how to make you scream like a pig. And it is this issue that has troubled me all along: reasonable, evidence based criticism is too often treated by conservatives as a personal attack.

But let's get back to feminism for a moment. What the scope of Sommers' criticisms are I don't know, but in this article she cites two supposed inaccuracies in the Lemon text: one is to the legendary Romulan "rule of thumb," by which women could only be legally beaten with a rod as thick as a man's thumb. The second is a disagreement about how many women end up in emergency rooms as a result of domestic violence; and whether there is a study by the March of Dimes finding that "women battered during pregnancy have more than twice the rate of miscarriages and give birth to more babies with more defects than women who may suffer from any immunizable illness or disease." In the latter case, Lemon and the author of the piece claim to have documentation to back of their claims, and Sommers implies that they are lying. In the former, Sommers claims that Romulus never existed, and Lemon says the piece itself can survive that criticism. But no, Sommers says: "Students deserve better. So do women victimized by violence." What battered women do deserve -- well, Sommers never gets to that.

But this is, of course, typical of so-called critique emitting from conservative ideologues bankrolled by activist foundations. What is central is an insistence that if a factual error is found, no matter how small or irrelevant to the argument it is, the entire work is false and a deliberate attempt at ideological indoctrination. ("Somebody is a witch here, Dorothy! If it's not you, then it's someone in one of your footnotes!") Furthermore, research data cited that can be countered by other data, no matter how cooked or ideologically motivated that data is, is pronounced a lie.

In the case of the Romulus problem, one of my colleagues in Classics tells me that Sommers is correct, and that there is nothing that can be said about such a person or his putative legal code with any historical accuracy. A second colleague in History amplifies: no one knows whether there was a Romulus or not, as there is no recovered evidence about anyone who lived in Rome prior to 509 BCE. "Romulus was said to have founded Rome in 753 BCE and been its first king," she writes, and notes that literary sources written 8 centuries later refer to him. And yet, if lawmakers and jurists subsequently believed that there was such a person as Romulus, and based their judgments on documents that purported to describe ancient law and practice, one might still usefully refer to such a thing as the "Romulan rule of thumb" playing a role in the legal oppression of women. Take a look at Warren Burger's selective gloss on the history of sex in his concurrence with the majority decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) if you don't believe that bad history can have a major impact on the law. Or arguments that rely on an entirely invented world history of race in United States v. Thind (1923).

Furthermore, as Sommers hammers at a variety of what she calls factual errors, she conveniently sidesteps an important assumption undergirding her attacks on liberal feminist scholars, which is that they have an agenda and she doesn't. No one has a hammerlock on objectivity and truth because of their intellectual standpoint. All research is produced through some kind of ideological apparatus, as are all facts and all questions. Sommers' assertion that "decades of women's-studies scholarship that presents women as the have-nots of our society" creates misguided and ideologically-driven social policy because "this is largely no longer true." Have-not is a technical term I am unfamiliar with so I can't quarrel with her there, but I am much more familiar with this data on the median wage gap between men and women, and as of 2006, women earned .77 for every dollar a man earned. Interestingly, the gap shrinks (although it does not close) as education level drops: at the top of the scale, female Ph.D.'s earn an average .70 for every male dollar.

By picking away at small issues and claiming that they completely undermine larger arguments, Sommers distracts attention from her own distortions by forcing others to defend their own credibility. In this post on Feminist Law Professors she writes: "I will also take this occasion, once again, to correct a false allegation that was made about me. On September 2, 2008 an entry on this blog mentioned that I had once called women’s studies professors “homely.” I never said any such thing."

Who cares? Let it go. In fact, if you want to use that word, some of us are homely, some are acceptable to lovely, and I am fabulous.

My advice to Sommers about making claims that her views ought to define feminism, or anything that has anything to do with policy on the majority of women? Leave the Ruby Slippers alone, girl friend. They don't fit.

I'll end with this exchange between Glinda the Good and the Witch of the West:

Wicked Witch (to Dorothy): "Give me back my slippers! I'm the only one that knows how to use them. They're of no use to you. Give them back to me. Give them back!"

Glinda (to Dorothy): "Keep tight inside them. Their magic must be very powerful or she wouldn't want them so badly."

Wicked Witch: "You stay out of this, Glinda, or I'll fix you as well!"

Glinda: "Oh, rubbish! You have no power here. Be gone before somebody drops a house on you too."