Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: The Power Of The Purses In Tudor England, More Conference News, and A Fond Farewell To Howard Zinn

Book of the Week: Those of you jonesing for Season 4 of The Tudors will be able to make do temporarily with 2009 Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, 2009; 532 pp.) Praised by Washington Post reviewer Wendy Smith as "a brilliant and deft antidote to the otherwise trite and shopworn" retellings of Henry VIII's six marriages, it is truly one of the best historical novels I have ever read.

Of course, as constant readers of this blog know, I find virtually no recounting of this story trite or shopworn, and one might have to ask Smith: what do you think brings readers back repeatedly to the events of 1531-1535, when a sexy little nobody succeeded in changing the history of the western world forever? There are plenty of subplots in this bloody tale that seem to recur in our political and cultural life -- not to mention in countless, anonymous, personal lives. What is greater -- our empathy for the discarded Queen Katherine, or for a vain king who justified his middle-aged lust for a canny woman with a dubious insistence that England required a male heir? Do we admire Ann Boleyn for using the one bit of power she had (as Shakespeare would put it, the purse) to deny the king the fulfillment of his lust until he brought her and her scheming family to power? Indeed, one of the more interesting and subtle questions Mantel raises in this novel is whether the male heir that Henry Tudor claimed was his sole desire was truly necessary. The extent of the king's folly is pointed up by the fact that he not only already had a female heiress, the Princess Mary, who was the descendent of a powerful reigning queen of Spain; but a healthy bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, who would have been more easily legitimized than Katherine was divorced.

In fact, in Wolf Hall what is at stake is a form of legitimacy that we are far more familiar with in the modern world: the political legitimacy of the state. Thomas Cromwell, usually the scheming villain of the tale, is the hero of this one as he carefully pries the state away from an increasingly dissolute nobility and towards its modern foundation in capitalism and the law. Why is this a different Cromwell? The answer is linked to previous authors' dedication to his villainy. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is a template for what the English middle class (it was Napoleon, following Adam Smith, who would fatally underestimate the state born at this moment as a nation of shopkeepers) would become, as it first seized the reid of credit, and then power, in the face of the solipsism, hypocrisy and vanity of its nobility and the Catholic Church. As Christopher Taylor of The Guardian writes:

Mantel's Cromwell is an omnicompetent figure, "at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." Fluent in many languages, learned, witty and thoughtful, he's also an intimidating physical presence; Wolsey fondly compares him to "one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes". This makes him an ideal emissary for Wolsey's project of liquidating some smaller monasteries to fund a school and an Oxford college. But self-advancement isn't Cromwell's only motive. He's disgusted by the waste and superstition he encounters, and takes a materialist view of relics and indulgences. The feudal mindset of Wolsey's rival grandees seems equally outdated to him: jibes at his lowly origins bounce off his certainty that noble blood and feats of arms now count for less than lines of credit and nicely balanced books.

As Henry Tudor steers the ship of state unthinkingly towards political and economic disaster (egged on by the Howards and and Ann Boleyn who steers the monarch's reason southwards), Cromwell steps in to guard England's borders, keep the country solvent, rein in the nobility by literally putting them in his debt, and become the architect of a new secular law that reins in the King's worst excesses. The interior Cromwell is beautifully drawn by Mantel, as is his strategic insinuation into the King's confidence following the death of their mutual mentor in statecraft, Cardinal Wolsey. In her search for a new political story, Mantel also links Cromwell to the revolution of the domestic sphere that the break with Rome would unleash. A skillful sub-theme of the novel is Cromwell's dedication to a new kind of shared authority within his family, to female autonomy and intelligence, and to the importance of love in marriage, all hallmarks of the political consolidation of the bourgeoisie. Cromwell, more generally portrayed as a political despot by historians and novelists, is perceived by Mantel as a nationalist who worked behind the scenes to relieve the effects of despotism, in public and in private, and lay the groundwork for the future of enlightened government.

And have I said it is an outstanding read? In other news:

Extended Deadline for submissions to World History Association Annual Meeting, 24-27 June 2010, San Diego: Why do I know this? Because the WHA would particularly like more LGBTQI submissions. Go here for the CFP. The dual theme is "Gender in World History" and "The Pacific in World History" (extra points for intersections between the two, I imagine.) The deadline has been extended to February 28th, 2010. In fact, while you are at it queer historians, help take our work to the next level and re-imagine those nationalistic conference proposals that compare three lesbian bars in three different United States cities (sometimes changed up with a paper on a Chicana softball league in San Francisco) for all your submissions to Meetings of Learned Societies. Just an idea.

Margaret Fuller Conference: "Margaret Fuller and Her Circles, April 8-10, 2010, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA." OK, I'm such a sap that I go to the MHA just to drink in the atmosphere, but I also have to say that they do a great mini-conference. I went to a New England American Studies Association Meeting there a while back and it was one of the most fun conferences I ever attended, with small groups of people meeting in an intimate setting and carrying over an increasingly more complex conversation from session to session.

Just Received in the Mail: NYU Latin American historian Greg Grandin has the cover of this week's issue of The Nation on The Pentagon's New Monroe Doctrine that maps US military deployment in the Caribbean basin and the eastern Pacific.

And of course, if you think as I do that Grandin's combination of political savvy, scholarly acuity and ability to write for a general public is of star quality, you will also have spent a moment this week saying:

Farewell to Howard Zinn: A historian who was the essence of cool in a generation of pretty cool historians. Once again, The Nation has a nice obit with some video of the man.

Friday, January 29, 2010

On Behalf Of All Wimmin: An Open Letter To Steve Jobs About The iPad

Dear Steve Jobs,

For months I have been looking forward to the release of Apple's new tablet computer, as I look forward to every new product released by your company. I have put off buying a Kindle, even though all of my friends have them; or even speaking to my sister about her beloved Sony Reader, for fear that I will become so envious that I will have to go into therapy about why she gets everything nice even though she is the youngest. So imagine my dismay when I heard that you were naming this new product the iPad.

Now, this ill-chosen, sexist name did not immediately make me think of a menstrual pad, but since other women have begun to make this obvious connection between a personal computer and a personal hygiene device, I have not been able to get over how crushed and mortified I am. I don't know if you have ever tried to write something on a menstrual pad, but believe me, it is not easy: the pen sticks constantly, little bits of fluff stick to the point, and there is really no room for more than a paragraph anyway. And because I loathe my body completely, well, anything that makes me think of vaginas or menstruation disturbs the creative process. I can't even imagine taking the iPad into a faculty or department meeting. There I would be, trying to work on curriculum or responding to the latest dictat about the budget, and thinking vagina, vagina, vagina. How can I work in an environment where I am being sexually harassed by my own computer?

What is worse is that I have now begun to imagine all your products, formerly beautiful to me, as the gross, sexualized items you have secretly intended them to be all along. It's so upsetting I can't tell you.

For example, there is the iPod, which makes me think of seed pods, which makes me think of testicles. Ee-yew.

Or the iBook, which makes me think of the Book, which makes me think of Leviticus, which inevitably leads to thoughts of bestiality. Double ee-yew!

You see the problem, I am sure. As a committed and long term feminist, I have learned many things about the condition of women from the kinds of critique that are being aimed at this new product of yours: I have learned about patriarchy, the ownership of my own body, and the work that gender does to distribute power in society. This latest insight -- that a personal computer could fix in my mind, indelibly, visions of menstrual pads and vaginal walls at their most unattractive has been more distressing than I can say. On the other hand, hearing from my sisters everywhere on this matter has also been a critical step in what it might mean to move to the next level of consciousness as a feminist. I intend to spend the rest of the day writing manufacturers of bed pads, pads of paper, paddles, paddleboards, paddle wheels, padlocks and pad thai noodles, demanding that they immediately remove their products from the market and rename them, or face a feminist boycott of unprecedented proportions.

Sure, I have other things to do. But feminism is a commitment that goes beyond the self to our responsibility for a collective sisterhood. Since the battles for equal pay and women's right to the integrity of her own body are already won it is time to address the oppressive patriarchal impulse behind the naming of consumer items that is holding women back and shaming them in the workplace.

Thank you for your attention,

The Tenured Radical

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Spring Is Coming, The Scholars Are Blooming

If You Can Rip Yourself Away From The Political Train Wreck In Massachusetts: New Englanders, you may want to put the following event at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center (Ledyard, CT) on your calendar for Saturday, Feb. 27, 1 pm–4 pm: "Sovereignty and Indigenous Rights. Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui, associate professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University, moderates this important discussion. Panelists include John Echohawk, president and founder of Native American Rights Foundation; James Jackson, Mashantucket Pequot tribal councilor; Jackson King, general council for Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation; Betsy Conway, legal council for Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation; and Dr. Cedric Woods, director (interim) of the Institute for New England Native American Studies, UMass. Boston. For ages 16 and older. Free with Museum admission, free to Museum members. High school and college students receive $2 admission discount with student ID." Kauanui is the author of the extremely well reviewed Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (2008), part of the Narrating Native American Histories series at Duke University Press.

Wuzzup, diplomatic historians? It is an oft-repeated complaint that graduate students specializing in the history of United States foreign relations are marginalized within doctoral programs more tuned to cultural history, gender history and the new political histories that these methods have produced. Well wise up, guys and dolls, and do what the women's historians did back in the 1970s and 1980s when they were on the margins -- find people who actually do give a damn about your work and will give you honest feedback about it in venues where what your field is privileged. In that spirit, I pass on this notice from the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University: "Every spring, the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations hosts the Whitehead Colloquium at Seton Hall University (South Orange, NJ). The Whitehead Colloquium brings students from all across the the Northeast to present their research on topics related to international relations. Graduate students earning degrees in international relations, international affairs, diplomacy, economics, area studies, or other related topics are invited and encouraged to present their research. There are no limitations on the topics to be presented and there are no requirements on the length of the paper. The 2010 Colloquium is a day-long event scheduled for Thursday, April 15. Refreshments will be available, prizes will be awarded, and the winner of the best presentation will have the opportunity to be published in the Whitehead Journal. Students are responsible for their own transportation. Interested students are asked to send their papers to thewhiteheadcolloquiumATgmailDOTcom by March 1, 2010. Students will be notified whether they have been invited to present their research by March 15."

This week in women's history: Just in case you have wondered whether there is still a "women's history," given the important turns toward the history of gender and numerous interventions by theorists that suggest there are no "women," this week marks the 35th anniversary of New York Times reporter Robin Herman being granted access to the NHL all-star team locker rooms in Montreal. As Herman said when interviewed, at the age of 23 she became the first female-bodied person to be granted access to a North American professional sports team, making the game itself even more irrelevant than an All-Star game of any kind normally is. “I kept saying, ‘I’m not the story; the game is the story,’ ” Herman said, reflecting on the night. “But of course that wasn’t the case. The game was boring. A girl in the locker room was a story.”

Meanwhile, back in the girl's locker room: "The Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender invites proposals for sessions in its 2010-2011 series. Programs take place alternately at the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute and at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Seminar's steering committee welcomes suggestions for papers dealing with all aspects of the history of women and/or gender in the United States and will also consider projects comparing the American experience with that in other parts of the world.

"Each session focuses on the discussion of a pre-circulated paper. The essayist and an assigned commentator will each have an opportunity for remarks before the discussion is opened to the floor. Papers must be available for circulation at least a month before the seminar date.

"In developing its 2010-2011 series, the Seminar's steering committee will fill some sessions through invitations and others through this call for papers. If you would like to be considered for a slot, please send your CV and a one-page précis of your paper by March 15 to Conrad E. Wright, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02215,or to cwrightATmasshistDOTorg. In your proposal, please indicate when your paper will be available for distribution. If there are special scheduling conditions, such as a planned trip to Boston or an extended period when you cannot make a presentation, please so indicate in your proposal."

Want a notice included in the Sunday Radical Roundup? Send it to me, why dontcha?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Bad Day For People Who Love To Read: Robert B. Parker and Erich Segal

Since reading mystery books got me through graduate school with my mind intact (OK, mystery books and Tina Turner's Private Dancer album), imagine my shock this morning when I opened the Paper of Record and learned that Robert B. Parker died at his desk yesterday. Parker, who wrote five pages a day, every day, was the creator and alter-ego of my beloved Spenser, Boston's literary private dick and modern Knight of the Round Table. I will never forget reading my first Spenser, at the urging of my first real, grown-up, live-in girlfriend, while I was studying for my comprehensives. I then read the next fifteen, and haven't missed buying them in hardback since. Next time you are in a rough spot with an administrator, try this kind of retort on for size (quoted in the obituary):

“Look, Dr. Forbes,” Spenser says to the long-winded college president who is hiring him. “I went to college once. I don’t wear my hat indoors. And if a clue comes along and bites me on the ankle, I grab it. I am not, however, an Oxford don. I am a private detective. Is there something you’d like me to detect, or are you just polishing up your elocution for next year’s commencement?”

Don't forget your deadpan expression. Because of Spenser I took to drinking Rolling Rocks "in the long neck returnable bottles," began to take extra pride in my cooking skills, and imagined that a small gun that fit just under the armpit wouldn't be such a terrible idea on the first day of class. One I went to a book signing in New York and found, to my shock, that at 5'8", I was about half a foot taller than the otherwise Spenser-ian Robert Parker, which shook me up a little bit, but it didn't disrupt my belief that as long as Spenser stalked the earth all would be well.

If this were not enough loss for one day, the POR also reported the death of Love Story author Erich Segal, the classics professor who wrote that one, blockbuster, touch-a-nerve book that allowed him to live the rest of his life in peace and prosperity. Yeah, this was the guy who coined the phrase “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry," most famously ripped off as "Tenure means not ever having to say you're sorry." This book came out when I was in the seventh grade and became an instant hit in the world and in the seventh grade, in part because a small crowd of our classmates began to date that year and Love Story (as well as a a certain passage from the wedding scene at the beginning of Mario Puzo's The Godfather) allowed most of us to read about what a few of us were doing. My mother prohibited me from reading Love Story on principle because she thought it was such romantic junk, which forced me to borrow a copy from someone else and read it under my desk during math class. Naturally, of course, I identified with Oliver, and for the rest of the semester, as other people learned algebra, I drifted away, imagining myself walking the streets of Cambridge, blind with tears, as my beautiful wife, who spoke all my feelings so I did not have to, died prettily of leukemia in a hospital bed.

The good thing about books? You can always read them again. But while I doubt that I could make it through Love Story or any of its sequels at this age, Spenser stayed with me for decades and (after the two books that are still in the pipeline) now he'll be gone. Oh sure, the novels had become predictable. But that is, in part, why I loved them. So many things in life changed, but Spenser stayed the same.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Guest Post From an Activist Historian: The AHA Blew It

A report on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in San Diego guest posted by Jennifer Manion of Connecticut College.

To welcome back the start of another semester, let’s start with a multiple choice quiz:

For LGBTQ historians of an activist bent, this year’s AHA was:

a. alienating
b. disappointing
c. energizing
d. all of the above

For this activist historian the answer is “d.” So many things went so wrong in the AHA’s attempt to skirt around the local LGBTQ/labor boycott of the host hotel without appearing to support the politics of the hotel’s owner, Doug Manchester, who financed the initial petition drive to get Proposition 8 onto the ballot in California. For those of you living in a cave, the passage of Prop 8 overturned the legalization of gay marriage in California. The constitutionality of Prop 8 is now being contested by Perry v. Schwarzenager in federal court. Regardless of the ruling, the losing side will surely appeal it to the Supreme Court.

Before I go down that long slippery road listing of all the authoritarian, undermining, and dismissive actions of the AHA leadership, allow me to recognize their good intentions and acknowledge one quite significant positive outcome of this mess – more scholarship on the history of sexuality and LGBTQ people was featured in the conference program than ever before. How can this be a bad thing? Many (but not all) of these panels were featured in a special “Mini-Conference” on same-sex marriage to promote conversations about the history of marriage. It is unclear if any but the usual crowd of (mostly) queer historians who work the “sexuality-themed panel circuit” at the AHA actually went to them. But I like to think that they did. This, my friends, is pretty much where the goodness ends.

The AHA could have tried – or tried harder – to get out of its contract with minimal or no penalty. Other professional groups who had contracts with Manchester managed to do so. But let’s give the AHA the benefit of the doubt here: organizers in San Diego were not very organized when they first requested at the 2009 meeting that the AHA pull out of the Hyatt. Once the AHA decided not to pull out of the Hyatt, local organizers basically refused to collaborate with the LGBTQ historian activist set. I’m guessing the AHA was similarly iced.

One consequence of this is that several (to my knowledge) LGBTQ historians decided, agonizingly, that they could not attend the AHA this year. They would not violate the boycott on principle and could not stand to be outside, protesting, and missing the special historic and timely mini-conference on same-sex marriage inside. As one California-based historian (who is considering not renewing his membership to the AHA) said, “if the AHA would not respect the boycott, I would have to boycott the AHA.” Others decided to attend the AHA but refused to enter the Hyatt out of courage, conviction, and respect for the boycott. Ian Lekus, the chair of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History (an AHA affiliate) took this position. Already on the program myself, I settled on the strategy that I would enter the Hyatt for panels as necessary but not spend any money there. This was before the “official boycott” position was communicated to us by local activists, stating that a person should not “meet, greet, or eat” in the Hyatt. If local organizers were clearer about this in advance, I expect that more historians (myself included) may have adopted this stance.

That said, the rest of this essay will focus on actions the AHA could have taken to substantiate their claim that despite not being able to get out of the contract, they would actively support the effort to inform conference participants about the situation, promote the discussion of the history of sexuality and marriage, and open the special mini-conference to interested people not registered for the conference.

1. The AHA absolutely should have moved the mini-conference out of the Hyatt. This is the single most significant action they could have taken to support LGBTQ historians who were squeezed in the middle of this controversy. The mini-conference was open to the public for free. This gesture (a wonderful one at that) ended up being meaningless because the local LGBTQ activists at whom this invitation was targeted would not violate the boycott to enter the Hyatt. This also forced many LGBTQ historians (disproportionately represented in the mini-conference) INTO the Hyatt.

2. The AHA should have communicated clearly with all meeting registrants via email about the boycott in advance of the meeting rather than only those participants in the mini-conference. All registrants should have received an email stating the situation regarding the boycott: politics, finances, the AHA position, alternative housing options, resources for members who (voluntarily) wanted to support the local organizing effort and/or stand in solidarity with the membership of the AHA’s own Committee on LGBTQ History. I didn’t even realize that everyone was not getting this information until the meeting itself. The separate mode of communication to mini-conference presenters regarding the “problem” of dealing with the boycott was deeply problematic, presuming that only participants in the mini-conference would want or need to know. Did this presume our sexual orientation as well? Our political stance? What of all the LGBTQ historians not involved with the mini-conference? Committed activists of all orientations? Hetero-historians who study the history of marriage?

3. The AHA should have worked more sensitively and collaboratively with the longstanding Committee on LGBT History. CLGBTH issued a very informative and thoughtful press release in early November – this could and should have been sent out to AHA meeting registrants and prominently placed on the conference webpage. The suggestions could have been honored by the AHA rather than ripped apart and discounted in the official "talking points" bulletin they issued at the meeting. Nice one.

4. The AHA should have dropped the militarism, authoritarianism, and the divisive anti-gay activist position. I don’t care if the purpose of the security guards outside the door of my panel (and seemingly all of the panels in the mini-conference) were there to protect me. They made me nervous. Chairs of panels in the mini-conference received a “special” email in the days leading up to the conference. The tone of the message was bizarre (to put it nicely) or condescending, dictatorial, and ignorant (to be real). I heard (through the gay grapevine) that these documents were drafted by hired consultants to help the AHA deal with the situation. GET YOUR MONEY BACK. I would have helped the AHA devise its strategy for free. The documents listed the “official” AHA position regarding the boycott to share with audience members should questions arise (presuming I did not find these positions objectionable). They offered advice on how to regain control of the room should some hostile protestor storm the session to contest our presence in the Hyatt (presuming I would not welcome the perspective and presence of a gay activist). There was, apparently, a potential war on the horizon, between mini-conference panelists and local gay activists (this was the first I heard of it). The AHA was there to mediate and protect, I suppose, but all they did was generate anxiety, frustration, and anger for many of us. I thought to distribute the documents to some CLGBTH members for feedback, only to notice the “NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION” line running down the side of the documents, further signifying that I unknowingly was in the midst of a battle. Then, clarity. The angst of this situation was caused by the feeling that I was being enlisted for a side I was not on. I may be a historian, but the violence, harassment, and discrimination I face on a regular basis stems from my gender identity and sexual orientation. Those angry gay protestors are the people who fight for my dignity and humanity everyday. They – not other historians – have my back. Except for the few historians who are also angry gay protestors and I already know all 10 of them.

I actually understand why the AHA did not cancel its contract with the Hyatt. But a series of misguided, insensitive, and just plain bad decisions on the part of the AHA leading up to the meeting made it worse than it needed to be. We LGBTQ historians with an activist bent were experiencing an alternate reality from most other conference attendees who were generally oblivious to all of this. I educated friends and colleagues who were outside of my circle. They were shocked and appalled by what I told them – and wished the AHA communicated more directly with everyone registered about the boycott and the work of the CLGBTH. Lots of them stayed in the Hyatt, unaware of the politics involved. They simply jumped onto the AHA website and scooped up available hotel rooms at the host hotel, the way people do. The AHA did nothing to promote or supports its position that we could effectively prevent Manchester from profiting from our use of his hotel if we got people to not book rooms, eat, or shop in there.

At the Saturday afternoon protest, organizer Cleve Jones railed against LGBTQ historians who attended the conference as the lowest of the low, the first LGBTQ people to violate the boycott since its inception nearly two years ago. Admittedly, I shirked, wondering if I belonged there, if he was right. To some extent he was – AHA participants surely funneled tens of thousands of dollars right into Manchester’s pockets that weekend. As righteous, dogmatic, and uncompromising as he is, however, Jones is not the gatekeeper for the movement. Onward I marched – stung by the passive complicity of my liberal colleagues and well-meaning professional association – annoyed by the sloppy organizing efforts of the locals – moved by the integrity of my queer historian colleagues who honored the boycott – and energized by the company of those historians who, with passion and conviction, are dedicated to the political project of doing LGBTQ history. And we danced hard.

Note: Guest posts are welcome at Tenured Radical. They may be posted anonymously, but you must make yourself known to me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty: Sociologists Try To Explain The Political Orientation Of The Academy

In Professor Is A Label That Leans To The Left, New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen reports on a new study by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse that reaffirms the liberalism of university faculties. However, says Cohen, "critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors."

Putting aside for now the issue of what might be the right question (like why most people read about scholarship in the newspaper rather than reading scholarship), Gross and Fosse point out that conservatives may not see university teaching as consonant with their image as conservatives; nor do conservatives see university careers as the best use of their time and ideas. Beginning with William F. Buckley's God and Man At Yale (1954), conservatives have consistently articulated their ideas as a critique of the university. Hence, when you look at two people who graduated in 1980 from Oligarch university, were part of the same circle of friends, and subsequently took Ph.D.s in history, the conservative chose to become a foreign policy advisor in the Reagan administration, a campaign advisor to John McCain, and a popular foreign policy writer and activist; the other became a tenured radical.

Which one do you think has had the most influence on the course of history? Hopefully, both of them will be attending the 30th reunion this June and they can debate that question.

Gross and Fosse's argument is, well, highly sociological: people tend to join the group that reflects their values. Choice and corporate identity, rather than institutional discrimination and liberal disdain for conservative ideas, play the most crucial roles in making the academy a bastion of liberalism. As Cohen characterizes their views:

Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income.

In other words, liberals are more interested in staying in school than in getting out there and doing something; are more secular; and don't correlate job satisfaction with the economic rewards attached to it. Because future college professors are more liberal, they seek out a workplace that supports a liberal praxis.

The only piece of this research that does not conform to well-known conservative stereotypes of your typical liberal college faculty member is the "expressed tolerance for controversial ideas." In fact, this strikes me as something that is more or less at odds with a form of intolerance that is implicit in the study's findings: a preference for laboring in a work place where actual conflict over those ideas is, with a few exceptions, characteristically muted. In fact, intolerance for religion, classical Western texts, and the core ideas cherished by movement conservatism is supposedly one of the hallmarks of the liberal college professor, a stereotype which is sometimes true. The original study would be well worth looking up to see if the authors have more to say about this.

One final comment: while Gross and Fosse may attach some hard data to an endless (and possibly pointless) debate about the political orientation of college faculties, their study appears to ignore numerous, and perhaps more interesting, questions. For example: what exactly do we mean when we say that university professors are liberal? If they are, why does it matter, given the fact that the United States has steered politically and culturally to the right over the course of the last four decades? Why is the analysis of race, class, gender and sexuality perceived as controversial half a century after the academy became marginally open to these fields of study, but topics like market-based reasoning, the Book of Leviticus and individualism are not perceived as controversial? Given the diversity of what constitutes conservative thought, and the serious conflicts within modern conservatism, what precisely are critics asking for when they claim to desire more "inclusion" for conservatives? And what exactly is not conservative about a profession where its aspirants are held to a model of professional development and workplace discipline that has not fundamentally changed sinced 1880?

For more bloggy buzz on this study, see Any Poorer Than Dead; Inside Higher Ed; and Mississippi Learning.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Extra, Extra: Introducing The Sunday Radical Roundup

In an effort to post more consistently and also to celebrate the Lord's Day in a traditionally Protestant way (what the Lord actually meant by "resting" was that he would get some work done on his Book), I am hereby inaugurating the Sunday Radical Roundup. Following a practice that is common in the blogosphere, but most expertly performed by Ralph Luker in his daily series of Notes at Cliopatria, every Sunday I will produce a series of short items, old and new, that I want to bring to the attention of my loyal readers.

Additions to the Tenured Radical sidebar links include The Book, a new book review blog that has been launched by The New Republic; The Book Bench, its predecessor at The New Yorker; and Constitutionally Speaking, a blog written by South African Constitutional scholar Pierre de Vos of the University of the Western Cape.

Registration is now open for Reblaw 2010, February 19-21, 2010, an annual student-run law conference at Yale School of Law that brings progressive activists, practitioners, and scholars into conversation with each other. Registration is also open for the Transgender Lives conference at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, on April 17, 2010

Cultural studies, museum folk, historians and American Studies scholars might want to check out the website for the District Six Museum which is not in the least new, but was newly discovered by me two weeks ago prior to visiting the museum itself at 24 Buitekant Street, Cape Town, ZA. Memorializing the 1966 destruction of a multi-racial urban community by the engineers of South African apartheid and the displacement of that community to the Cape Flats, the exhibits themselves are more like a talking book than a museum. If you are doing a website evaluation in one of your classes this year, this is a great example of what a good museum website can do. If you are going to Cape Town, make sure this moving and nuanced collection is on your agenda.

Those still planning their classes might also want to check out the website for the Prelinger Archives, a collection of 60,000 ephemeral films now owned by the Library of Congress. I found the Prelinger collection because of a Cold War-era short film circulating on Facebook instructing teenage boys on how to detect pedophiles, the collection includes "films produced by and for many hundreds of important US corporations, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, community and interest groups, and educational institutions."

And last, but not least, the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History has migrated to a new web address and will be undergoing redesign in the coming months.

Anything you want announced in the Sunday Radical Roundup should be sent to tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Colonialism and Its Consequences: A Few Thoughts After Listening To NPR Today

Why do even good news reports allow US government officials to talk unchallenged about the grossly underdeveloped economy in Haiti (which amplifies disasters like the recent earthquake because of substandard housing and thin state resources that snap when taxed) as if it has nothing to do with centuries of European and American colonialism? In this story Timothy Carney, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti from 1998-1999, speaks of the Duvalier regimes as emblematic of Haitian governments who "bled their people dry." Well yes, but weren't the Duvaliers and others virtually in the formal employ of Cold War-era United States foreign aid programs while they did that? And didn't the United States think that an oligarchical regime that kept its people brutally policed was a good defense against Communism? And didn't the United States keep Haiti in its thrall by foisting a crushing load of international debt on the country -- money that was banked by the Duvaliers in Geneva as the country's infrastructure collapsed?

Mary Renda, phone home!

The view that Black countries have a cultural predilection towards corrupt political regimes, incompetence and brutality is a longstanding tradition in United States reporting, but one hates to see it from the best news sources we have available in this country. Coincidentally, today's Haiti news was coupled to this story, which reports on the role of United States evangelicals in the Ugandan bill that proposed to make homosexuality a capital crime. Weirdly, Rick Warren and his bigoted clerical colleagues are depicted uncritically in this story as supporting Ugandan anti-colonial cultural resistance. In reality, these American evangelicals (like the African conservative Episcopalian bishops who homophobic American Episcopalians are now aligned with) are effective in fragile post-colonial states like Uganda because they champion the notion of a culturally autonomous "African" nationalism free of unnatural sexualities foisted on them by the global North. One of the agents of perversion, as I discovered from another source, is UNICEF, a well-known group of pedophiles. Those who successfully pressured Uganda to kill the bill, in turn, are depicted in the story as promoting modern "Western" views of human rights, tolerance and sexual freedom that are the supposed antithesis of this authentic African culture. Christianity, sexuality and African nationalist discourses are a complex story -- but could we stick it in somewhere that it was Christian missionaries who came to Africa and the Americas as part of the colonial process who insisted on disciplining indigenous sexualities to Western notions of morality and propriety in the first place? (By the way, if you care about these things, put the Astraea Foundation, that sent a $75,000 grant to Ugandan GLBTQI activists, on your annual donation list.)

A final question that takes us back to poor, suffering Haiti ("May she be one day soon/free.")* This story about a close call at the Port-au-Prince airport is one of many that are more or less typical in a disaster of this magnitude, when multiple nations and NGO's descend on a country simultaneously without any overarching plan in place. The depiction of this humanitarian crisis raises a great many specific historical questions about the history of colonialism in our hemisphere, as I suggested above, but the facts of how the relief effort has unfolded are also a perfect example of what a screaming, uncoordinated mess international aid is. You wonder why, if the United States could obliterate the air tower and runways in Baghdad back in 2002 and then begin landing numerous personnel carriers and supply planes in a matter of hours after capturing the airport, there is such difficulty mobilizing similar resources in Haiti. The answer, of course, is that those who do good, whether we are talking about the International Red Cross, the United Nations, the Clinton Foundation, or less well known relief funds, do so on their own schedule, in their own way, and with minimal coordination with any of the other players. If this is like any other disaster, five will get you ten that there are numerous groups on the ground in Haiti, or trying to get on the ground, who are actually impeding the process of helping people.

One important question should be raised following the immediate emergency. Why, since it was well known that that Port-au-Prince sits on a major fault and would be destroyed in the event of an earthquake, and since the Haitian government was warned by the U.S. Geological Survey that the area was due, was there no plan in place by international agencies as to how they would coordinate a response in the event of an earthquake?

*"Ode To The International Debt," Sweet Honey In The Rock, Live At Carnegie Hall (1989).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Playing The Blame Game: Or; How Should Graduate Schools Respond To The Bad Job Market?

Over at ConfessionsOf A Community College Dean your favorite administrator and mine, Dean Dad, asks: "Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts?"

Good question. Although I have no former undergraduates making the leap into a Ph.D. program this year, the bigger picture is quite different. As Dean Dad notes, "the adjunct trend is so well-established at this point, and the economic irrationality of grad school so screamingly obvious, that it's fair to wonder why many departments are actually experiencing record applications." While he explores various irrational explanations -- love for learning, self-delusion, and hiding out until the recession is over -- there is, he argues, some rationality to the choice:

academia still offers a surface legibility. Yes, the odds are daunting, but good students have spent years rising to the top of academic competitions. There's still a path, there are still hoops, there are still rules. They don't really work very often anymore, but they're there. As the rest of the economy has become less legible, this holds real (if misguided) appeal.

I think this explains some of the wounded indignation people express when they can't get the tenure-track jobs they wanted. In many other lines of work, it's simply understood that the climate of opportunity fluctuates, and you'll get both good breaks and bad. But academia holds tenaciously to the myth of legibility. When you follow the rules for twenty years, only to find nothing waiting for you at the end, it's easy to move to angry disbelief. Academia likes to tell itself that it's immune to economics, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It's supposed to be clear and fair, economics be damned. So some people hang on for years on end, waiting to redeem what they think they're owed.

I find this very persuasive, particularly since I am not a huge fan of rational choice arguments, and Dean Dad's explanation addresses the rational and the irrational. I speak as someone whose success as an academic was relatively unplanned, and in fact, a great surprise. My original decision to go to graduate school was both wildly irrational (I had a very hazy idea of what the outcome would be) and pretty rational (I knew I was good at school.) I believed that becoming more knowledgeable would push my plan of being some kind of intellectual ahead, but I just wasn't sure what kind of intellectual that would be. What I now consider in retrospect to have been wildly good luck on a really bad job market (the year I got the job at Zenith there were exactly four tenure-track openings advertised in my field in the entire nation) meant that I never committed emotionally to having a tenure-track job prior to getting one; nor did I have to make a difficult decision about what to do if I were not employed as a university professor.

Furthermore, I went to a graduate school that had many flaws but at least one signal virtue: it supported us by putting us to work in a surprising variety of ways. When I first matriculated we had an entrepeneurial chair, a historian of the Jacksonian period, who believed in and operated by the spoils system. Whenever financial aid allotments to the department were insufficient, he called in favors and found ways of stashing us in jobs all over the university that gave us stipends and whatever degree of tuition remission we required. As a result, my graduate school cohort includes people who now work in film, archives, libraries, labor organizing, museums and administration as well as in full-time tenure track lines. It wasn't just that no work was beneath us, but that many of us found that we actually preferred and chose intellectual labor that occurred outside the classroom. Why? Well the reasons differ from person to person, and the job market was terrible in the 1980s -- but the fact is we had the chance to try out many ways of using a history degree.

Because this happens to be my own experience, and because I work with a lot of intelligent, intellectual people at Zenith who are employed in IT, athletics, arts administration, academic administration and whatnot, I must be honest about one thing. While I am deeply sympathetic to those whose dreams of a teaching life are discouraged and perhaps dashed by a foul job market that gets only fouler, I am entirely unsympathetic to claims by disappointed job seekers that they have been lied to and bamboozled by the schools that admitted them to the Ph.D. because they were not cautioned at the very beginning of their education that they might not succeed in finding a tenure-track job.

In fact, I don't know a single form of professional education that guarantees its graduates a job, whether the market is good or bad, and why Ph.D. granting programs have a special moral responsibility to do this is unclear. But on the job wikis and the blogs there is an emerging consensus that the jobless should have received a waiver of liability with the letter of admission (which Brown University actually used to send its graduate students in English back in the sad old 1980s, and most of us who knew someone who received one were horrified by the practice.) Resentful job seekers , in other words, speak in the language of fraud rather than regret. This I find astonishing, given that an hour of research prior to applying, or accepting an offer of admission, could tell any prospective graduate student what their academic job prospects might look like six to seven years hence.

The only thing that makes this phenomenon less astonishing is that today's prospective graduate students were yesterday's undergraduates, and undergraduate education has been trending towards nanny-ism and false guarantees for several decades. But what is it that graduate programs and professional associations could do to intervene in this situation? I have three suggestions.

Ph.D. programs should not allow graduate students to matriculate within three years of having attained the bachelor's degree. This would significantly reduce the number of young people who use a Ph.D. program to prolong a love affair with books and ideas, or who are bored by the ill-paid, entry level jobs they are eligible for immediately following graduation. My students who go on to graduate school in history or American Studies usually contact me for a recommendation within four or five months of graduation, when they have barely had time to think about work at all or how they might make an intellectual life without an advanced degree. Interestingly, and perhaps because of the greater financial investment involved, my students who go on to a professional school in the law, business, or the health professions average a 2-4 year gap between the B.A. and matriculating for a graduate degree.

Ph.D. programs should consider devoting at least one year of graduate support to administrative labor. This would have several advantages, the primary one being that everyone with a Ph.D. would have some idea of how a university actually functions and how to participate in faculty governance in a responsible, business-like way. Over time, it could reduce the mutual contempt that often exists between faculty and non-faculty laborers. But a third advantage would be that administrative work would become a viable option for Ph.D.'s who cannot find a tenure track job, who need to work in a particular region because of family responsibilities, or who find that teaching and writing are not all they were cracked up to be. Plenty of administrative jobs require the Ph.D. now, and there are in all universities talented administrators who have hit the ceiling because they lack the degree, or are not tenurable. University presses would also be an outstanding place to spend this fellowship year, since becoming a book editor, a writer or a literary agent is a viable (and often more vital) way to perpetuate an intellectual life.

Professional associations, particularly in history and literary studies, need to think about accreditation of graduate programs. More surveillance is not necessarily a good thing, I know, but there are too many Ph.D. programs that are perpetuated, not because they are a path to a career, but because the faculty in the department want to teach graduate classes and have teaching assistants. I'm not saying that all programs with poor placement records should close, but many of them (including some very prestigious ones) might want to retain their accreditation by creating multiple career paths within the Ph.D. One of the reasons my cohort at Potemkin University was as successful as it was in finding employment for everyone was that we had thriving Public History and Archives programs. A program might consider certificate programs in oral history, publishing, museum studies, public policy, speechwriting, journalism -- be creative! Ph.D. students could enroll; other students might matriculate for an M.A. and be full payers. This would acomplish three things simultaneously: create tenure-track jobs, generate the money to pay for them, and expand opportunities for post-graduate employment and consultancy.

While I don't think Ph.D, programs are responsible for unemployed graduates, they could do a better job of imagining what an intellectual life in the twenty-first century looks like and how the university can connect to the public sphere is more vital ways. While the vast majority of Ph.D. candidates are clear they want an academic job, it is simply a fact -- and not a secret -- that fewer than half of them will be able to get teaching jobs for the foreseeable future. But one might also add the following: not everyone should be teaching, not everyone wants to become good at it, and there are few people who are brave enough to admit that in an atmosphere where the teaching career is the only stamp of approval for an intellectual. This is the world that graduate schools may not have made, but it is the one to which they must respond.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

And Now, You Will Be Judged By History: Perry v. Schwarzenegger

Last night was my first real evening at home since returning from South Africa: the previous night, when I actually arrived after a three-hour tour of I-95 by Connecticut Limousine, nearly blind from exhaustion and with a raging post-Restoril headache, did not count. As is my usual habit, last night I clicked on to my favorite evening news and found that almost nothing has happened in the United States since I left eight weeks ago.

This wasn't as much of a surprise as discovering this morning that it was Wednesday, and not Thursday, but it was unsettling. I learned on the news that:

It is now very cold (which can be typical at this time of year);

Oil futures are rising (a phenomenon that can follow upon cold weather);

Harry Reid said one of those things about race that has given the Republicans another idea about how to stall until the 2012 election;

The United States is still in a recession;

The "American people" are still angry at the financial industry for the massive bonuses executives intend to pay themselves as a reward for plunging the country into economic chaos;

The financial industry doesn't understand why the "American public" can't accept it that it was "policies originating in Washington" that caused the economic crisis, and that they are actually heroes who need to be persuaded to stay on and clean up the mess "government" made; and

Media "experts" differ sharply on what seems to be an indisputable historical fact -- that the financial industry lobbied successfully for deregulation, which they then happily used to screw us all six ways from Sunday.

If history is really about change over time, I'm not impressed with what has been accomplished in the land of my birth since mid-November. So needless to say, I was pleased to hear from one of my history colleagues that Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case that aspires to overturn Proposition 8, has gone to trial in San Francisco. No matter what happens, the case will not stop here: the loser will surely appeal to the Supreme Court. We can only hope that occurs after at least one conservative justice leaves the bench to watch pornography full time --er, I mean, devote himself his family.

On their way home from the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in San Diego, colleagues Nancy Cott and George Chauncey stopped off to give expert testimony on behalf of the litigants in Perry. A short account of their work yesterday can be found here.

Both scholars were among the authors of The Historian's Brief submitted in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas (2003). This was the Supreme Court decision that voided all laws prohibiting sodomy between consenting adults. Yesterday, Chauncey historicized the ways in which the law has persistently demonized queer people, while Cott gave the complex rendition of the history of marriage that one might expect and hope for from her. Perhaps because the right has finally ceded gay people's right to exist outside a prison cell but a smart woman is always annoying, several accounts of yesterday's proceedings suggest that Chauncey's testimony went relatively unchallenged and Cott bore the brunt of the defense's attack.

Fortunately Cott is one of the toughest cookies I know, and I know a lot of tough cookies forged in those early days of what we used to call women's history. Counsel for the defense pushed Cott on whether, if her analysis of marriage as primarily a political and economic institution were correct, there would be no reason not to legalize polygamy as well. She was also repeatedly asked to listen to long, boring passages from her own and other people's scholarship that were designed to introduce inconsistencies in her testimony; and to answer complex historical questions with the words "yes" or "no."

New York Times Bay area blogger Gerry Shih, reporting on yesterday's action, noted that "after Professor Cott had left the stand, defense lawyers lashed out at her performance, calling it a 'disaster' and part of a strategy that backfired on the plaintiffs." Yes, telling the historical truth can really backfire, particularly in the debate over gay marriage, where politics are far more important than the truth. Anti-gay marriage initiatives timed to coordinate with national elections were part of the dirty tricks package originally brought to the table by Bush strategist Lee Atwater in the rollicking 1980s. The point of such initiatives was, and still is, not to perfect society but to win elections by manipulating the electorate with lies such as: gay marriage will destroy your family; voting day has been changed to Wednesday; John McCain has a black love-child; Barack Obama wants you to vote for Prop 8/is a practicing Muslim/a terrorist/isn't a citizen; sex education curricula in Illinois instruct first graders on how to sodomize each other.

But back to the court room, where the truth (theoretically) prevails. What were Cott's errors, if indeed she made any? Shih writes that "Andrew Pugno, one member of the defense team, said the historian had made a series of tactical mistakes, including her statement that “the consequences of same sex marriage are impossible to know.” Interrupting the true-false choices momentarily, Thompson also asked Cott "if there exists 'a social institution as important to children as marriage.' She paused, then replied: 'I think families are important to children.'" In right-wing speak, this would be an error because families are the exact opposite of gay.

Continuing, "Mr. Thompson then asked: 'the biological connection is irrelevant?' Yes, Professor Cott answered." Wait! We know from the abortion debate that the most sacred and natural bonds are biological, right?

Well, except that biology's only relevance to adoption and marriage, two major ways in which the law constructs natural "family," is its explicit prohibition. You can't adopt someone who is already your biological child and you can't marry a person within two degrees of biological relation in most states: thus, the lack of a biological relation is foundational to the construction of "natural" families. So it is relevant, but not in the way Thompson means it. I understand that it is the job of each legal team to discredit witnesses everywhere they can, but this may be shaping up to be another Scopes v. Tennessee (1926), in which the incoherence of the anti-gay marriage position may become more obvious to a larger audience, particularly those people who think that the chief concern at stake in marriage is the happiness and security of children, not adults. It is, I am afraid, what most people do think, which is a sad commentary on the state of modern marriage.

The way Cott was treated on the witness stand also reminds one that, to paraphrase Dickens' Mr. Bumble, the law is an ass, which is why many of us are not particularly interested in having it sanction and regulate our partnerships. But to close with a final reflection on the practical uses of history: challenges to the nuances of our intellectual practice by attorneys cannot help but raise unpleasant memories of EEOC v. Sears (1986). People of my age will recall that expert, different, but not necessarily opposite, testimony by two feminist colleagues became divisive within the profession when Sears prevailed over women workers. In retrospect, Sears was also an early indicator of where the fault lines in feminism would be being exploited by conservatives, in the Reagan administration and subsequently.

Fortunately, although queer history and the history of sexuality are not well supported by many departments, and some colleagues are openly hostile to it, there does not seem to be a cadre of prestigious historians out there who can be called to dispute Cott and Chauncey. And that may also signal an important shift towards a more broadly accepted view of marriage itself as a secular institution that is best comprehended in through secular forms of thought. We'll see.

A portion of this post has been cross posted at Cliopatria.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hello, Young Lovers, Wherever You Are

With the appearance of the pseudonymous "C. Van Winchell" at Nothing Recedes Like Success, the history blogosphere has gotten more interesting since your favorite Radical left the country. Just when you thought the Decline and Fall of the History Profession would lack it's own Gibbon, "he" has appeared, Facebook page and all, cleverly wreathed in allusions to a Yale connection that probably doesn't exist.

Vann Winchell's emergence even goaded Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III out of retirement ever so briefly, with a clever poem saluting fellow history bloggers in the new year. Thanks for the shout-out, AHB.

I keep meaning to extend my own welcome. But this post about two of our colleagues playing a vigorous game of hide the salami (as a hilarious and path-breaking feminist literary scholar used to put it during wine-soaked Zenith dinner parties) at Doug Manchester's hotel in San Diego is sure to win a score of new readers, with or without me.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

It's Just A Little Peyton Place

Well, since this story has already been picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education, here's something to take your mind off Doug Manchester and the American Historical Association Meeting. The Radical's venerable Zenith University (allegedly) got Madoffed!

Well not exactly Madoffed: the methodology was different, and the sum Zenith is seeking to recover is a mere smear $3M. Read the full story, as scooped by the campus newspaper here. It's pretty good.

Here's a hint. When you get an email that someone at a very high level is leaving the university for any of the following reasons:

To pursue other opportunities;
To spend more time with his/her family;
To attend to personal affairs;

What you are smelling is a fish.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Political Football: A Review of Invictus

We are in the last week of our two-month South African adventure. This is the stage of a long trip when the desire to squeeze every last drop out of the experience is in active competition with the urge to just throw away all your filthy clothes, get on a plane and go home. Now.

And at this moment, your favorite Radical got a nasty stomach flu, and was unable to do anything at all.

Except go to the movies, where we saw Invictus. This is the new film directed by Clint Eastwood that stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African national rugby squad, the Springboks. It memorializes the year after the historic election in which Mandela took office backed by a resounding majority of South Africans, most of whom had voted for the first time in their lives. It is a self-consciously uplifting movie, in which swelling music cues the viewer to moments of high emotion, even if little in the script has given you anything to be emotional about.

If you have seen the movie you might say: what script? I'm not sure I would have had a clue what was going on if I hadn't been reading memoirs and histories of modern South Africa for the last few months. Scenes with any dialogue at all are few and far between, and since we already know that South Africa did not collapse into anarchy after 1994 and that the Springboks did win the World Cup in 1995, the only real suspense in the movie is whether Madiba is going to be assassinated by a rugby fan (which we also know didn't happen.) The cinematography is fantastic, and also self-indulgent, given how little story there is. The editor clearly went off to lunch and never came back, as the film is close to three hours long. If you like this sort of thing, there are many scenes of nice male behinds in little white shorts that hide a large, grunting mass. ("Why are they doing that?" my companion whispered. "It's a scrum," I said, divesting myself of one of the two things I know about rugby. "Yes, but why are they doing that?" she persisted.)

Needless to say, if you are not already in love with rugby, and have been waiting for your whole life to have someone make a movie about it, you may feel as lukewarm about this movie as I do. On the other hand, the movie is so long and repetitive that if you know nothing about rugby, I can guarantee that by the end of Invictus, even though you will have learned almost nothing about South Africa, you will have learned the rules of rugby. In fact, the entire last hour is consumed by the World Cup rugby tournament. Political lesson? The way to Afrikaaners' hearts was through their cleats; black South Africans, in turn, were gracious in victory and could, metaphorically, "learn how to play a new game." By winning the World Cup (which they could not have done without the spiritual leadership of Nelson Mandela), the Springboks ensured that the new South Africa would be a harmonious one.

Really! Racial reconciliation was all about rugby? You don't say? But it's true. At the beginning of the movie, whites and blacks are barely speaking to each other, except at the urging of Mandela; by the final goal of the final match, blacks and whites are hugging each other, and black Africans have utterly forgiven decades of brutal colonial domination. The Afrikaaner police state that murdered, tortured and dismembered thousands of people, often quite randomly, has melted into an invisible past. Afrikaaners, on the other hand, have also extended one big hug to the people they kept a boot on for decades: they have given up racism, painted their faces in ANC colors, taken the maid to the World Cup final and been relieved of their fears that the country will descend into political and economic chaos that will send them fleeing to Canada and Australia.

Do I have to say that I found the movie hugely disappointing? And it isn't just because the interpretive gloss of Invictus isn't true (at the same time, I happen to be reading Antjie Krog's amazing account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Country of My Skull in which the violence perpetrated on all sides, and the messy incompleteness of reconciliation, is described in moving detail.) It's because Eastwood, Freeman and Damon all have really good politics, and they have made a Hallmark Card of a movie that is designed to take South Africa off the map of the American mind as a place where American money should be targeting specific problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality that were engineered during the apartheid era with the full cooperation of the United States government and many powerful American corporations. Interestingly, in May 2008 the United States Supreme Court ruled that three law suits suing over 50 US corporations for their role in apartheid may be tried in US courts under the Alien Torts Act. And in December, 2009, slightly more than a week before the release of Invictus, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against Ford, General Motors and IBM for their support of the apartheid regime.

From the beginning, the big debate about reconciliation in South Africa has been whether it can occur without compensation. It's not just that millions of people were deliberately immiserated under apartheid for over half a century, and resources redirected to lift the condition of Afrikaaners (who themselves believed that they had been unjustly held back and impoverished by the English.) It's that millions of people are still immiserated by the world apartheid made, and that Nelson Mandela could not unmake by becoming a rugby fan.

It is also true that the hatreds bred by apartheid and the violent resistance to apartheid could not breed a new world either. Mandela knew that, and the story about the Springboks is a small part of what he really did to effect a peaceful transition to black citizenship and an ANC government. But by telling a story about the power of sport to resolve political problems, Eastwood, Freeman and Damon have simply played into an old and tired American nationalistic myth about race that has nothing to do with South Africa, either in 1995 or now.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year From Cape Town

For me, January 1 is not only the beginning of a new year, it is when I heave a sigh of relief that the holiday season is over.

Last night, after having drifted off to sleep around 10:15, I woke up as a party at a nearby apartment was chanting "Five! Four! Three! Two! One.....Happy New Year!" I threw on a shirt and stuck my head out the window. Fireworks went off over at the V & A Waterfront and individuals lit Roman candles in the street, sending colorful balls of flame sixty feet into the air. It was about 65 degrees, clear and breezy. I thought about going home soon; about my new South African friends and how I will stay connected to them; about my rowing buddies with whom I have celebrated the last two New Year's Days by racing in sub-freezing weather; and about the St. Anthony's Society back in Shoreline, that puts on an outstanding fireworks display outside my bedroom window every year.

Then I went back to bed.

One of the odd things about this trip has been experiencing three holidays -- Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's -- in a South African mode. First of all, it is summer here, and these are all holidays which are either historically American (as in the case of Thanksgiving), or ones on which being cold and spending wads of money make them characteristically American. When it isn't cold, certainly for Christmas, it seems Not Fair. I recall the Christmas in my extreme youth when I received a sled on a day that was 50 degrees and raining; and an even warmer New Year's day when I was dashing around the West Village in a tux and a little red bow tie at 5 A.M. feeling like I had been transported to another planet.

Like many people (only some of whom will admit it) I don't categorically love the holiday season: some of my favorite Christmases have been spent eating Chinese food and going to the movies in a deserted New York city scape. I come from a small family, and although I remember the excitement and fun of many of our holidays with great fondness (including the one where a small black kitten launched himself five feet in the air to steal a turkey drumstick, galloping off to consume it under the Christmas tree as we all laughed helplessly) academic life is not conducive to holiday-making. Thanksgiving? A precious six days to catch up on work, and by Sunday night you would rather eat glass than teach the last three classes and give exams that no one wants to take. Christmas Eve? The day that follows grading season, when you are finally free to do all your shopping at consumer-choked malls. New Year's? Oh hell -- here comes the American Historical Association meeting, and I haven't even ordered my spring books yet, much less sent my paper to the comment and chair.

You know what I mean? However, this year it has occurred to me that if I only put more thought into it, I could turn this sucker around. This year, my holidays looked like this:

Thanksgiving: a day like any other day, celebrated in a beach community outside Cape Town. No one but us knew it was Thanksgiving. I happily reviewed all the Face Book status updates from my Native American friends who, for obvious reasons, aren't fooled by the happy Pilgrim and Indian feast thing, checked "Like" on all of them, and made myself a big sandwich for dinner. The two of us watched the sun set as sea kayakers in sleek vessels raced madly around the bay; we then turned on the BBC to watch Barack Obama pardon the turkey. It occurred to me that he should have eaten the turkey and pardoned Leonard Peltier instead. That's what Nelson Mandela would have done.

Reconciliation Day: this is a South African national holiday analogous to Thanksgiving, but one which graphically demonstrates the difference between South African nationalism and the odd melting pot nationalism that we are used to in the United States. Originally called Dingaan's Day, December 16 commemorated the victory of the Voortrekkers over the Zulu Nation in 1837 at what became known as "Blood River." It was the moral equivalent of celebrating the Battle of Wounded Knee as a national holiday, but the reason it is also the equivalent of Thanksgiving is that on the eve of the battle, the outnumbered (but heavily armed) Afrikaaners swore an oath to G-d that in exchange for granting them victory, they would build a church on the spot and always celebrate a day of thanksgiving. In the view of their descendants, G-d came through (so, in a more American vernacular, did Smith & Wesson.) Hence, in 1910, December 16 became known as the Day of the Vow (later Day of the Covenant), when Afrikaaner nationalists rallied the faithful -- not against those people who are indigenous to Africa, who they already considered to be permanently defeated -- but against their English oppressors.

I know it's confusing, but it's a complex country.

On December 16 1961, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and others founded Umkhonto weSizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the ANC. Subsequently, December 16 was often a day of tension and violence. While Afrikaaners dressed in kapies and rode around in ox wagons, the Afrikaaner state celebrated its hold over the majority by police beatings of random black people and tear gassing demonstrators when necessary; Africans and their allies contested apartheid by demonstrations and selected acts of terrorism planned for that day. Hence, once apartheid crumbled in 1994, the day was re-named the Day of Reconciliation, in an act deliberately aimed at quelling competitive nationalisms. Shutting the door on a bad past and moving on is something we would never do in the United States. For example, our fear of offending Italian voters and putting a dent in Hallmark Cards' revenues prevents us from acknowledging publicly that Columbus was the first European to launch the program of slavery and decimation that was eventually extended from Hispaniola to the rest of the hemisphere.

If we were South African, we would re-name it Italian American Appreciation Day, or Encounter Day, and be done with it.

In any case, I spent Reconciliation Day at my work site, and listened to 150 black Africans from many walks of life sing "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika"with their fists over their hearts. It was very, very moving.

Christmas: Associated primarily with the beginning of summer and the school holiday, as far as I can tell. The South Africans where I was -- in Johannesburg and the Garden Route -- do not indulge in the mania for decoration that we Americans do. Gift giving did not seem to be a big deal either. I managed to purchase six pre-baked miniature minced pies from Woolworth's (an upscale food store here, known as "Woollies" by all and sundry.) Prior to a spaghetti dinner prepared on a hot plate by yours truly, we went down to our local beach, where hundreds of African families were holding braiis (cookouts) on the beach. Drinking was heavy, but genial, and you could spot the occasional beach reveler in bathing trunks and a Santa hat.

I will be processing my experiences on this trip for some time to come, I am sure. But one of the things these very toned-down holidays made me think about is that South Africans don't appear to associate celebration with conspicuous consumption. A holiday is pretty much a day without work, maybe an extra church service, and that's it. Perhaps there were trees, presents and lavish dinners behind the high walls and electrified fences that middle and upper class people invest in here, but if so, you didn't see these things in public. South Africa, for all the excesses that are attributed to those at the very top, is also drastically poorer than the United States, and people often deliberately refrain from displaying nice things in public lest they become a target of violent envy. I carelessly mentioned to a friend some weeks ago, struggling to articulate the difference between how each country presents its economic public face, that even kids who are poor have iPods in the US. "Then," she inquired sincerely, "What makes them poor?" I began by saying that I live in a society where there is no felt obligation on the part of the state to feed or house anyone, or guarantee them an education or a living wage (which is why people are poor), but found that I couldn't explain why US parents will then scrimp and save to give a child the perfect sneakers, a prom dress or a cell phone contract.

Oh well: it's only the first day of 2010. Happy Radical New Year, dear readers!