Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win!

2008 World Series Champs!

Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Manifesto For Trolls: the Radical Announces A Policy Decision In Advance Of the Election

Does anybody ever think that their trolls are all the same person, taking on different personalities? Recently, I asked this guy to stop posting endless quibbles on my blog, and he had a little hissy fit. He claims he will never visit me again. I sort of doubt this -- he will visit me in one form or another, because he seems to have made it his life's mission to harass me. This is why I suspect he is someone else, who I actually know: I think he has a lot of online personae, including a female one, and he thinks he is just too clever to be caught.

Why did I ask him to stop? Because there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- I can write about without him (and I assume it is a him, but who knows? People change gender on the internet like snakes change skins) arguing with me. Currently, he is a pipeline for a lot of anti-Obama claptrap; he also has a Horowitzean tendency to go on and on about the liberal conspiracy in the academy. But these things he could write about on his own blog: why use mine? And why engage with me, unless he has personal reasons for doing so?

I could write about Fred Flintstone and he would find a way to get back to the idea that Barack Obama is a socialist, or that I am a Bear of Very Little Brain. Or asking me to "prove" this or that, while posting all kinds of nonsense himself. Or, when I refuse to engage his nonsense, citing this as "proof" of my intellectual inferiority. Ugh.

So why did I ask him to stop posting? Because he is not the audience I am interested in, and he discourages comments from the readers I care about by making my comments section a volatile, dangerous place for other bloggers who just want to talk and write, not fight or defend themselves. Another time when I had an attack of trolls a very diverse crowd of commenters, many of whom were anonymous, simply vanished. I think they don't want this person on their blog, particularly since conservative zealots (not to be confused with regular conservative bloggers who have manners) are well known for targeting people by writing horrible things to colleagues, university officers and trustees, as part of their mission to cleanse the academy. This would be a disaster for an untenured person who is writing pseudonymously: am I right kids? Check in anonymously and say so if I am.

In any case, from here on out, I will delete comments from anyone who appears to be picking a fight just to hijack the blog: picking a fight is not the same as disagreeing, and if you don't understand the difference, ask me. Fair warning and invitations to communicate off the blog will be given before the deletion policy goes into effect. People who are real -- as opposed to anonymous or pseudonymous -- may be invited into dialogue of a different kind on the blog itself concerning issues likely to produce new ideas, as opposed to "he said-she said" exchanges.

But my writing is too important to me to allow cowardly, mean people who hide behind pseudonyms, to waste my time, particularly hysterical folk on the right who are seeing their ideological world go down in flames and want to take the rest of us with it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Letter to Barack: Five Things You Could Do To Create Change -- And Change History

Dear Barack,

You've sent me so many emails for the past year that I feel like I know you. Things are looking good, aren't they? So let's take a few minutes and plan for the first Hundred Days. As a scholar of the New Deal, I think I am the perfect person to help you establish an agenda. But first some background from a more recent history.

Back in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, what we now call the conservative "base" hoped that Reagan would act by presidential decree to address pressing issues that conservatives, many of whom were activist Christian evangelicals, called a "family values" agenda. This included critical constitutional issues like banning abortion, making school prayer legal, ending desegregation (otherwise known by segregationists as "forced busing"), and making flag desecration a criminal offense. It's probably worth noting that, since we can all probably acknowledge that the Reagan revolution was a turning point in the history of the United States, Reagan did not use his power this way, and that this agenda was never moved forward in the absolute way conservatives wanted. In fact, Reagan did little for the first Hundred Days, and for a number of days thereafter.

So since you are promising change, I would like to present a modest list of things you might accomplish by presidential decree in your first hundred days. These policy interventions, great and small, would actually change the lives of those folks on Main Street we keep hearing about. They might even change the lives of some of those people who live on the Back Streets, the ones who work for minimum wage and no health insurance benefits for Joe the Plumber. Some of these acts would address areas in which a country that has aspired to, and actually achieved, greatness throughout its history has systematically become the laughing stock (as opposed to the leader) of the Free World.

Transportation. Eliminate the color-coded warning system that alerts people who are already traveling of the possibility of a terrorist attack. Orange, orange, orange. When is it anything but orange? Although we are warned constantly that there is some likelihood that there will be a terrorist attack on the United States, or on our own indifferent persons, we all go about our business anyway. Because what else can we do? I know no one who has been deterred from travel because we are on orange alert, or anyone who devotes precious airport time to anything other than finding the nicest sandwich possible, since the deregulation of airline travel means that they no longer serve real food on airplanes. Can we just admit that the color-coded alert system was a public relations stunt, intended to frighten everyone into supporting two disastrous wars that have accomplished nothing?

While we are still in the airport, let's drop the stupid business of putting our toiletries in tiny bottles that then have to be sorted into quart sized clear plastic bags. This has never made me feel safer, particularly since the notorious Shoe Bomber, Richard Reid, could not have had more than 3.5 ounces of explosives in his sneakers when he was detected in 2005. The squishing sounds would have been, well, obvious, wouldn't they? I haven't asked the Zenith chemistry department, but I bet there are some explosive combinations that could cause a lot of havoc that could be produced by mixing as few as three 3.5 ounce bottles of liquid.

Energy. Leaving the airport, let's put federal restrictions on energy companies charging their paying customers more because said customers pay their bills and because they are conserving energy. Many of us in Shoreline are in receipt of a letter from United Illuminating that says exactly that. The letter I received two days ago is dated October 6, and informs me that I may attend hearings that commenced eleven days ago about a rate hike that is necessary because of a decline in electrical sales over the past two years, an increase in uncollectible amounts, and "an increased distribution capital expenditure program needed for reliability," to the tune of $62.5 million over 2009-10.

Ok, this may be a little trickier for you to accomplish Barack, since utilities are mostly regulated -- to the extent that they are regulated at all -- by the states. So here's my question: if our captains of industry believe so much in the free market, what is my incentive to save energy if it only causes my bills to go up? And if UI's deadbeat collection rate is similar to Consolidated Edison in nearby New York City, only 1.5% of those bills are ultimately uncollectible. So why am I paying other people's bills? And why am I being taxed, in essence, for rebuilding the energy infrastructure, particularly when I am already paying a surcharge for the privilege of purchasing power generated by wind farms?

Barack, Franklin D. Roosevelt tackled the power companies, getting electricity to millions of rural people. You could make a big impact by preventing power companies from shifting shifting responsibility for their declining revenues onto the consumer.

Education. End No Child Left Behind as an unfunded mandate that puts standardized testing, not critical thinking, at the center of a young person's education. NCLB has been the ultimate Bushie achievement. Urban schools no longer resemble the prison industrial complex, they are part of it. Because of the federal testing mandate, that is unsupported by any funds to either pay for the testing or support better education, dollars devoted to actual teaching have diminished. Furthermore, as the New York Times recently reported, even schools that have succeeded will fail next year, since the bar for success is raised even higher when a school actually succeeds. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to frighten students, teachers and principals into succeeding by threatening to withdraw their education and careers. It is almost impossible for a school to succeed under NCLB except by rote drill aimed at passing multiple choice tests. Oh yeah -- the other way to succeed is to expel students who are not succeeding, or encourage them to drop out, dooming them to a life of ill-paid labor for Joe the Plumber, poverty or prison: New York State loses 44% of the students who matriculate in the ninth grade by the time their class graduates four years later.

This policy cannot be reformed or repaired, Barack: it was bad to begin with. It has, in the past eight years, only achieved the conservative goal of undermining public education as a viable resource for sustaining civil society, and privatizing our school system. End it completely and start over.

Health care. Demand that interstate companies that employ thousands of workers at minimum wage, and that take advantage of federal treaties like NAFTA to provide consumer goods at rock-bottom prices, create employer-based health family health insurance and prescription plans at a cost no greater than 5% of an employee's taxable wage. Companies like Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Costco, and other big-box giants could take advantage of their own ability to purchase prescription drugs in bulk to offer employees and their families medications at the cost they have negotiated with the drug companies. And with one stroke of the pen, Barack, you could void the law that prohibits the federal government from negotiating such prices from the drug companies so that seniors and the unemployed poor could have the basic medications they need to stay healthy.

Military policy. The Iraq war cannot simply be ended by decree: we know that. But you know what we could end? Military recruiting in public schools, and mandatory access for military recruiters in schools that take federal money. We could also prohibit the use of information collected in public schools by military recruiters so that they can bombard economically vulnerable students with recruiting pitches. Here's a place to let the free market reign: if it' a good war that citizens believe in, they will sign up to fight it, right? If not, not. But I haven't noticed Choate-Rosemary Hall being forced to let military recruiters in the door, whereas schools in Shoreline are not permitted to prevent military recruiters from wooing the children of the poor.

Actually, my friend, you could do all these things on the First Day, but since we have been waiting eight, long years, I am willing to wait for a hundred days. See you at the polls!

Yours sincerely,

The Tenured Radical

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Go East, Old Radical: Home From the American Studies Association

I have spent much of my life going east, or going "out east", as they used to say in southern Idaho, a place where I spent a large part of my youth. Going East is, of course, for those of us born and/or raised in the former English colonies, a consequence of having gone West in the first place. So now I am Back East (another quaint phrase from the Mountain States), in my comfortable remodeled nineteenth century clapboard house, determined to spend the day at home after having spent the weekend working for Zenith.

This is one of the few times I have attended a convention without attending either a panel or a party. For all my careful collation of the many events where the big American Studies programs host gatherings of the interdisciplinary clan, the combination of interviewing, the time change, the thin air, and a tendency of the bodily fluids to evaporate without even becoming sweat first, caused me to be perpetually exhausted and unenthused about social life. Furthermore, the fact that the convention itself was across a faux Spanish Colonial plaza from the hotel, and not in the hotel, meant that the social space was divided. There were certain people who I wanted to run into who I did not; and of course, going to the parties meant effort -- not stepping out of common space briefly, seeing who was there, and electing to stay or go.

Friday afternoon I did zip around the book exhibit looking for wonderful new books that I have no time to read in the near future, but ordered anyway to add fresh color and style to the piles of books already in my office. One thing I learned, as I wove my way through all kinds of fabulous people I have not seen in too long, is that Harvard University Press no longer takes credit cards at conventions, as they are worried about keeping our personal information safe. As a result, upon my return, I simply ordered the Harvard books from the library consortium to which Zenith belongs, and saved about eighty dollars. Ka-ching! My advice to Harvard? If I want to be a credit card cowboy, let me! And your pals at University of Chicago and Duke, where I did spend my hard earned cash, were puzzled as to your new policy.

Friday's highlights also included drinkies with the delightful Gayprof, who has, it appears, acquired a little troll problem lately, attendant to (false) accusations that he has posted lies about the People With Balls and Sticks. A thorough look at his blog demonstrates that his assertions are true: he has not posted anything about these Fair Boys of the South. So what is that about? I made a quick pit stop at the trolls' normal home (where they are not considered trolls -- context is everything) and there is no incitement from the host of that blog either, so what gives, oh People of the Ball and Stick? I am a little worried that you found him through me, but Gayprof assures me he does not think so. New idea: maybe Joey777 thinks Gayprof is hot? Well, he would be right there, but there are better ways to get a boy's attention than peppering his blog with comments about an event he never mentioned until you started pestering him, but is -- um -- over. I mean over except for the cash damages and royalty payments.

(I am sure that my assertion that this crisis is over will launch another barrage of comments about justice delayed being justice denied, but all I can say is that if you are not one of those people regularly receiving a check from Duke, or a family member of such a person, get a life, OK???? And leave Gayprof alone: he has a blog to write and it isn't about you, Joey.)

Saturday's convention highlights included a trip to Old Town, where many purchases were made, including a straw cowboy hat that the saleswoman told me is also favored by Julia Roberts. "And," she said, taking a closer look at me, "Brad Pitt." Bingo. I bought it on the spot. My interviewing companion found just the right pair of moccasins, and I found a black cowboy shirt that will cause me to stand out in any crowd of aging East Coast lesbians.

If I did not go to any panels, I heard tell of a few: one apparently featured a paper on the work of feminist author Jane Lazarre who, by the way has a new novel out as of this month, titled Someplace Quite Unknown. Bravo: this is an incredibly complex, beautifully written book that reintroduces us to a ground-breaking writer.

So I am home again, souvenirs unpacked, laundry churning in the washer. Will this godawful semester ever end? Yes, eventually. But the travel schedule has become Radical in the Extreme, and I hope to do as much business by telephone as I can from here on out.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Whatever We Can Do To Help Department

Yesterday all of us in the Zenith Community received a message from (Not So) New President saying that the economic situation is grave in our part of the world, and will be for a while. Personally, I like it when someone will just admit that things are bad. It also increases my capacity for trust in the Authorities to be reassured that the people in charge feel that they know what they are doing. The message states directly that any budgets cuts, difficult as they may be to swallow, will be across the board; no part of the university will be spared or favored. "All of us," (Not So) New President notes in this email, "will be asked to make sacrifices."

This, of course, strikes me as a brilliant solution, one that neither the Obama or the McCain campaign came up with in last night's debate. But we historians in the Center for the Americas, given our hemispheric perspective, are entirely prepared for this moment. I propose that we begin our sacrifices by locating a virgin on the faculty, of any gender, and sacrificing hir in front of North College, in an appeal to the Money Gods to come to our immediate aid. Difficult as it may be to find a virgin on the faculty, it will be worth the effort, since history shows that, were we to sacrifice a more senior member of the faculty, one closer to retirement age for example, that the budgetary advantages would be outweighed by the gods' displeasure that we actually thought a gnarly old member of the faculty (someone such as myself, for example) would do in such difficult times.

Postscript: my next post will come from the American Studies Association Meeting in Albuquerque. I can be found at one or more of the locations listed in the sidebar. As usual, readers are commanded to identify themselves.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

And A Special Little F***k You From Citibank: the Radical Comments on the Current Economic Crisis

One of my responses to the financial meltdown was to cancel a bunch of credit cards. How did I acquire all these credit cards in the first place? Well, in several ways, but most of all because they were offered to me by banks at low (or no) interest. They were offered to me as great opportunities, full of flattering language about how my credit history had caused me to be selected as a Particularly Prestigious Customer. In fact, I was getting them because we sold a house, bought a house, paid off a mortgage, acquired a new (relatively modest) primary mortgage, added a small construction loan, and made our payments punctually. In other words, because financial institutions share so much information, it was clear that the Radical family was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the space of about sixteen months. And much as I would like to imagine myself as Particularly Prestigious, I wasn't born under a rock. I was actually being offered these cards in hopes that I would overreach: that I would charge up a bunch of stuff, miss a payment (or not), and end up paying as high as 29% on purchases, accumulated interest, late payment penalties and miscellaneous fees. Which leads me to propose that in all the fuss about subprime mortgage lending, it is the extension of these fraudulent practices to the credit card market that has caused the second great weakness in our economy.

I had only one credit card for years -- the L.L. Bean Bank of America credit card that gave me free shipping --which I liked because, being a butch lesbian, I have a great need to be constantly filling out my wardrobe with flannel shirts, duck boots, jeans with flannel linings, wool socks, and whatnot. And then all of those years of commuting between Big City and Zenith also meant that new sail bags were always a fun holiday gift in the Radical household. Those of you who commute know what I mean: you empty the sail bag when you get home, leave it by the door, and start tossing things in the next day. By the time you are ready to return to the other home, you find your keys, your novel, your wallet and -- voila! Out the door.

That credit card got hammered during our big renovation two years ago (although many points were acquired and subsequently exchanged for new cross-country skis and a splendid bike rack), so -- although I tried to pay the card off every month -- at a certain point living expenses and construction expenses became so confused that I found myself with a sizable balance that was running at about 23%. What to do? Well, sensibly I thought, I acquired three other credit cards that offered me 0% financing for the first twelve months (I receive between three and six of these offers a day), split the outstanding balance on card #1 between them, and a year later negotiated with the other companies for a fixed rate of 7% that would last for the duration of the loan. I negotiated by simply threatening to cancel the card and get another one, and they (or their handsome, male, gay-sounding representatives) all quickly agreed to this low rate, particularly when I pointed out that it was well above prime. About a year later, I paid them off too, and then stuck them in a drawer, thinking that perhaps they might be useful in a refugee situation or some other dire fix where access to quick funding would make the difference between comfort and discomfort. "How sage you are, Radical," people would say as we settled into a comfortable hotel suite with our fluffy dog Breezy after a devastating hurricane, while they were breathing formaldehyde in government-issued trailers.

And yet there are two problems with having a lot of extra credit cards. One is that it is easy to lose track of them, because they blend in easily with ordinary household junk. One of my habits when I travel is to stick one of these cards in a Secret Location, so that if my pocket is picked I am not entirely without funds. Once, however, utterly by accident, I discovered that two ladies who had arrived under the auspices of Happy Housewives Homecleaning Services, and who left claiming that they had forgotten their vacuum cleaner (??), had filched one of these cards from an open suitcase. They were able to fill up their SUV and buy many cartons of ciggies at the Pequot reservation before I realized what was going on, canceled the card, and reported them. Not fun, on any level, particularly having to choose between reporting two desperately poor (but ambitious) women who wanted to go into the tobacco business and picking up the bill for their enterprise. Fortunately they were just petty thieves, and didn't find themselves in need of a set of antique nesting tables. But that taught me a lesson: if you are going to keep extra credit cards around, secure them.

The second problem is that before you know it, you have forty or fifty thousand dollars of credit available to you, which is no joke, particularly if you ever need a loan for something serious, like putting a new roof on the house, since all that credit counts against you when the bank is assessing you for a real loan. And for some reason, when the economy was tanking, that made me feel particularly vulnerable, perhaps because it was the one thing on which I could act. So I canceled WaMu (this was shortly before they stopped being WaMu, and I remember thinking at the time that their representative was particularly listless); and I canceled Chase (they resisted a little, but gave way). By the time I got to Citibank Amex, a card I do use every month for recurring household expenses, things were a little more complicated: I had to shift a bunch of bills to monthly payments from my checking account, then paid the remaining balance and called to cancel.

The representative put up vigorous resistance, so vigorous that I thought I would in fact keep this card as my backup. Now, just yesterday, I received a bill in the mail from Citibank for -- 50 cents. That's right. 50 cents. Why? Because that's what they charge you every month if you do not maintain a balance. And I swear to you, in the course of a conversation in which that nice gay man offered me the moon and the stars, he never mentioned that I would be charged just to have the card available. Had he done so, I would have canceled it, not because I can't afford six dollars a year, but on principle. And you know that, should I neglect to pay that 50 cents some month, they would charge me a $35 late payment fee.

If anyone in banking or government is listening out there: this is what is wrong with our financial system. Cheat, cheat, cheat. I believe that there were a great many people out there for whom having stuff they could not afford filled a great, aching hole. But I also believe that if you take a look at people like me, you will see a range of experiences: people being cheated a little bit here and a little bit there, and told in great surprise that the rule they have violated was right there, in .5 point type on page 13 of the agreement that revised their contract with the bank (a document they received last May.) Once I realized that, because I was paying my credit card off every month, I was getting the bill more and more frequently. Upon investigation, I learned that my credit cycle had been shortened to 17 days. I can only believe that the point was to trick me into "missing" a payment, when in fact I had literally just paid the bill.

I rarely take advantage of commercial credit now except for expedience, such as charging up reimbursable professional expenses (warning: when reimbursed, do not go out and buy a TV instead of paying the bill.) Mostly, for internet purchases and low-cash situations, I use my handy debit card (warning: if you pay for monthly expenses on a credit card and have no savings, you need to wean yourself to this system gradually, otherwise you suddenly run out of money in the middle of the month, as you are paying for everything twice in a single thirty-day cycle. And never give a hotel a debit card at the beginning of your stay, as they will put a hold on your checking account for a substantial sum of money that takes weeks to release.) But I also make enough money that I don't have to rely on credit to go on vacation, pay a medical bill or a car repair, the kind of thing that can put an ordinary person (an assistant professor paying student loans, for example) behind the eight ball for several months. As a household, we have a great, fixed-rate mortgage we can afford, and we have enough savings that we can make up a month's budget shortfall from our other resources, even in the midst of this great crash. But my own experiences doing business with (read: getting screwed by) huge interstate commercial banks do give me cause me to believe that the de-regulation of our financial system has made a great many people into permanent debtors by locking them into multiple "agreements" with banks that they cannot possibly understand, "agreements" that are deliberately altered in arcane and unpredictable ways to fool people into violating the terms they have "agreed" to. That I keep receiving such offers every day, and multiple offers over the internet, to consolidate my debt into one low, low payment when I am simultaneously hearing on the news that small businesses cannot get the loans they need to maintain inventory, suggests to me that we are still swimming with the sharks economically; and that as a nation, we are a long way from grappling with the corrupt corporate practices designed to take money from those who can least afford it and siphon it upward.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dateline Zenith

Here is a great post from (Not So) New President.

Sometimes I am very proud of him.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I'm Getting Married In The Morning (Not Really)

You know, Connecticut rarely gets to be the center of attention. But we are today! Three weeks before the most important election in recent American history, the Connecticut State Supreme Court has ruled that we in the Radical household have the constitutional right to marry. It takes effect a day or so before the election, barring the End of Days or some legal delay by lemon-sucking, family values conservatives. Take that Sarah Palin!

Fancy us, why don't you. Little Connecticut. The phone has been ringing off the hook with folks asking us when the big day is.

Well not immediately, I'll tell you that. We are happy for others, and we believe passionately in civil rights, but we don't really believe in marriage (not to mention the extra $$ we would have to pay our tax attorney to file for us as a couple in Connecticut, and then separately at the federal level. My guess is that, if elected, McCain/Palin would not be interested in alleviating the tax burden of gay married folk.) The only thing that could cause the Radicals to unite in wedlock at this juncture would be if Zenith University decided to junk its domestic partner benefits policy now that everyone can get married, something that has happened at Harvard. Nevertheless, I celebrated this momentous day by devoting myself to a lengthy list of household chores that have been awaiting my attention. I don't know whether I will ever get married to my Radical partner -- but I suppose, like most people, I would least like to be asked. So I want to look industrious.

Read about gay marriage in Connecticut here, and the majority Court decision here.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

My Friends, Could We Vote Tomorrow? Or, Why The Radical Burned the Applesauce

One of the consequences of last night's presidential debate was that I overcooked the applesauce. You would think maybe I should follow the advice of both candidates and act responsibly with the apples, an untapped national resource which arrive in large bags every week from the farm share I belong to. Am I supposed to save them in the basement like a squirrel so that I can eat locally all winter? Turn them into ethanol? Or sell them on a street corner in downtown New York as a dramatic re-enactment of the Great Depression?

Oops -- I forgot. We don't need to re-enact the Great Depression! We are in the Great Depression! This must be something that McCain and Obama agreed not to discuss last night, leaving the rest of us wondering if they even read the newspapers anymore. It's not just "the economy, stupid" anymore, it's "what economy, stupid?" And yet, you could have listened to the whole debate last night and not known that a major consequence of the global meltdown is that Iceland -- a crucial NATO ally in the mid-Atlantic -- is being gobbled by the Russians, who Sarah Palin has seen from her house -- or was it flying over her house? Well, they may be flying over my house too soon, and maybe I'll run for Vice President next time 'round.

Instead of reading job applications, I used the time between The Lehrer NewsHour and the presidential debate to peel a pile of hardy New England fruits and turn them to apple sauce, so that I could transfer them from the kitchen counter to the freezer in compact little plastic boxes. They were supposed to cook, not overcook, during the debate. The overcooking had two consequences: one is that the whole pot caramelized, which will mean the outcome is either really good or really awful. Whenever the Mother of the Radical (MOTHeR) made such a mistake, she would look at her daughters brightly and say, "Well, we'll just eat it with ice cream!" I thought this was a normal, viable choice to make about failed food -- I now think it was a consequence of having grown up in the 1930's, when calories mattered, Goddamnit!

The other consequence of the overcooking is a nasty, deep-brown burned crust at the bottom of the pot. Will it come off eventually? It's too early to tell. But as they used to say in the first New Deal, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without!"

Why am I attributing this cooking blunder to the debate? My friends (a phrase John McCain repeated over and over and over): last night's debate was one of the most wooden and boring performance I have ever seen two candidates put on. Although I did not fall asleep, I fell into a kind of trance. I saw this mirrored in the faces of the audience, a group of Sixpack Joes and Josephines all gussied up in the clothes they still have left after the mortgage meltdown, people who looked like a bunch of captives who wanted to be anywhere but in the national spotlight. My boredom was only interrupted by moments in which I was briefly appalled: McCain referring to Obama as "that one" (did he forget Obama's name?); Obama "getting tough" and announcing that he would be happy to invade Pakistan (which the United States is already doing, but it made me think that Obama actually should talk to Bill Ayers, since it was a similar all-out bombing of Cambodia that caused Weatherman to split from the peace movement and go into violent opposition to the war.)

And it went on, and on, and on. Obama showed none of the spark, intelligence, zest, and humor that has catapulted him from the Illinois legislature to a national candidacy in five years; John McCain tottered around the stage like a mechanical doll with a key in his back. Watching Obama reminded me of old New Jersey Devils' playoff games, in which they would play defense relentlessly for three periods (analysis: Obama is ahead, and the plan was to not blow it.) Watching McCain made me think, no wonder they thought Sarah Palin was a viable candidate -- the guy is incoherent, can't finish a sentence, and can't answer a question with anything but catch phrases: "earmarks," "cronies," "higher taxes," "experience." At one point he mentioned -- for reasons that were never explained -- that Obama had purchased an overhead projector. I mean, come on. I once purchased an overhead projector, and I consider myself fiscally responsible. Who in America gives a crap about a bunch of unspecified earmarks when we are spending ten billion dollars a month in Iraq? (Analysis: McCain was told to get aggressive and stick to a few talking points that are supposed to mobilize the sans culottes wing of the Republican Party to get out there with their pikes and pitchforks on election day. "No new taxes! Harrr! Overhead projector! Harrr!")

Like the apples, both of these candidates have caramelized. Political consultants have ruined politics if we can be in a global economic meltdown, fewer than thirty days from choosing the new leader of the Free World, and the major parties can't do better than this. But most important, from my point of view, neither candidate wanted to answer a question, and they didn't, so absolutely nothing new came out of the debate. Any undecided voter who has been living on a desert island for the last two years may have gotten some good information; the rest of us, I think, have a right to be offended.

For a more charitable account of the debate in the Paper of Record, go here; for Maureen Dowd on Zoloft (thank goddess!) go here; and for the analysis of my Zenith colleague and fellow blogger, political scientist Elvin Lim, click here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Are You Or Have You Ever Been? The Radical Takes A Walk Down Guilt By Association Lane With John McCarthy-Cain

Imagine the Radical in front of the Senate Committee on Disloyal Activity. She is being questioned by Senator McCarthy-Cain, a ranking Republican member of the committee who has aspirations for Higher Office.

Senator McCarthy-Cain: "Are you or have you ever been a friend or acquaintance of someone who took violent action against the United States government?"

TR: "Yes, Senator, I have."

Senator McCarthy-Cain: "And is it not true that you write a blog called Tenured Radical?"

TR: "Yes, Senator, I do."

Senator McCarthy-Cain: "And is it not also true that you have worked for the election of Barack HUSSEIN!! Obama?"

TR: "Yes Senator, I have."

Senator McCarthy-Cain (adjusts glasses to allow for a pregnant pause; the only sound is the snapping of camera shutters): "I see. Let the record show demonstrated proof between Barack Obama, radical propaganda and domestic terrorism."

TR: "Senator, I hardly --"

Senator McCarthy-Cain: "You are OUT OF ORDER Dr. Radical. Don't force me to hold you in contempt. Now, to return to your personal connections to domestic terrorism. As I understand it, you support, and have relationships with, members of the terrorist group formerly known as the Weather Underground?"

TR: "Senator, I have met these people at parties, but I have no connection to Weatherman, which is defunct. I do know people, and people who know people, who were active in Weatherman over thirty-five years ago, if that is the question. For example, I once attended a fundraiser for a prison education project some years back where I met Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. Ms. Dohrn was wearing a hot little leather mini-skirt, as I recall, and looked damned good for a woman who was at least sixty at the time. And I might add, Senator, that the only reason such fundraising was necessary was that in 1995 you and your Republican colleagues prohibited the use of public money for educating prisoners, the only documented form of rehabilitation that consistently prevents recidivism."

Senator McCarthy-Cain: "Please just answer the questions and do not distract the committee with irrelevant information, Professor Radical. Now, do you have any other connections to Weatherman?"

TR: "Senator. I have repeatedly said: like Senator Obama, I am not connected to Weatherman, and was in high school while they were most active. But I am involved with a great many people in the school reform movement in the New York, Boston, and Chicago areas, many of whom are the children of former communists, most of whom are former activists from 1960s social justice work, such as the civil rights, welfare rights and anti-war movements; and some of whom have parents who were blacklisted because of your political ancestor, Senator McCarthy. The vast majority of the Weather Underground people I am acquainted with have gone into non-violent social reform projects, some of them inside prisons where they will remain for the rest of their lives, and some in public schools and community education projects. I have met, or know people who have met, a number of associates of Mr. Ayers from Weatherman, people who I decline to name. I have reviewed Cathy Wilkerson's memoir, and others like it on my blog. But these associations, Senator, are honorable ones, and they are not unusual among academics, politicians and social reformers in metropolitan areas. As a member of your own party involved in school reform said yesterday on National Public Radio, she and other Republicans also know Mr. Ayers well; he administered a major education grant for the Annenberg Foundation; and it is impossible to be involved in school reform in the Chicago area without working with, or doing business, with Mr. Ayers. 'It's ridiculous,' this Republican activist said. 'There is no reason at all to smear Barack Obama with this association. It's nonsensical, and it just makes me crazy. It's so silly.'"

Senator McCarthy-Cain: "And from my notes here, I see that you have also taught Bill Ayers' memoir Fugitive Days to a class of impressionable Zenith undergraduates? And a memoir by Jane Alpert called Growing Up Underground?"

TR: "Yes Senator."

Senator McCarthy-Cain (beginning to unloose his famous temper, causing his voice to go up a notch): "And can you describe to me, Professor Radical, why these would be suitable readings for a college course, and why you are in any way suited to teaching college history?"

TR: "Yes Senator, I can. It was a course on political violence, and I was using books that are published by major publishing houses and that are publicly available to everyone in bookstores and on the internet. I taught these books right before I taught your memoir, in which you justify your participation in a protracted bombing campaign over North Vietnam, a campaign in which you helped to slaughter innocent civilians as part of an illegal war."

The Chamber erupts in chaos. Will the Radical be convicted of contempt of Congress? Will she be hounded from her tenured position at her beloved Zenith? Will the media ever make a connection between Senator McCarthy-Cain's attacks on Barack Obama and a long tradition of red-baiting, and politically paranoid smear tactics generated by the right wing of the Republican party? Will Senator McCarthy-Cain be able to deflect attention from his own, and his running mate Sarah Palin's moral lapses and documented corruption by once again trying to link a centrist, African-American man with terrorist agendas he has nothing to do with? Stay tuned for the next episode of Are You Or Have You Ever Been!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Being Against The War Means Being Actively Interested In The War

Because we were catching up on old episodes of Army Wives before I came upstairs this evening, I am reminded of a fact few people know about the Radical: her connections to the military. Two of my cousins served in Gulf I; and we had a family connection who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Special Forces a couple years back. In fact I, and my sister, are the first generation of my father's family to have not served in the military since at least the American Revolution (since our family comes from western Massachusetts, it seems likely that we could take that date back to the French and Indian War, and perhaps even Metacom's War.) Not accidentally, one of my current favorite activities is reading the blogs of military wives (who probably detest Army Wives, much as medical people scoff at ER and Grey's Anatomy.) At The Real Army Wife you can read the thoughts of an infantry Lieutenant's spouse; her husband is deployed in the Sand Box (this is the kind of lingo you learn if you watch Army Wives, friends, the first season of which can be obtained on DVD.) While the Lieutenant is away, Real Army Wife is organizing for Obama, in addition to living her real life as a marketing exec. Rock on, dear. I hope you are on a base in a swing state. Like North Carolina.

Did you know that some of the important organizers in the early Civil Rights movement in the South were white military wives from the North stationed on bases? True. Progressives are everywhere.

Another military blogger -- who found me, and who I have enjoyed a short correspondence with (she is a McCain/Palin supporter, I'm pretty sure, although she and her family are being trasnferred to England before the election) is Household 6 Hooah's Weblog. Her husband, who sounds like career army, just finished his second deployment, and got home a couple days ago. So they are in the midst of what I imagine is a joyous -- and complicated -- transition. I am very happy too. Once I got to know this blogger a bit, read her blog, and grew to admire her resilience, I became very anxious about her husband's return. I am very relieved, therefore, that he is safe home, and I can put my mind on other things, like the search committee I am running, and the paper I have to give in two weeks. I like this gal, whose email tag is Mommy2MyLilSpud: she's cheerful, and reminds you that not everyone who is involved in the war is a screaming mess like they suggest in the newspapers. This is something I am glad to know, because one of the things that bothers me most about the last seven years is the endless human damage that often begins with the soldier and radiates outward to all his loved ones. But Mommy2MyLilSpud is a one foot in front of the other type of person whose toast seems to fall butter side up most of the time as a result, and I bet there are thousands more like her.

I am reminded when I read military family blogs that for those of us who are against the war it is a complicated issue to extend our sympathy and affection to those who have agreed to fight it. But it is something worth attempting because it expands the world of those of us who the government has deliberately shielded from the emotional consequences of this endless conflict (it does seem the economic consequences are coming home to roost, although as usual, those who made the war will suffer the least.) I can't help extending myself, since my family, as well as my accidental, connections to the military keep me alert to those around me for whom the war is their life context right now (for example, the son of one of my Zenith colleagues was in Desert Storm, having joined the Army to get a civil service ranking that would allow him to be a forest ranger; another friend volunteers to help resettle Iraqi refugees, many of whom have had to flee because they worked for the American military.)

But I also think it is worthwhile for anyone who really believes they are going to support the kind of change Obama is promising after he is elected President to be in touch with military people, deliberately if necessary. Cleaning up after this war -- and the many people who have been harmed by it -- will be a huge part of what will be there waiting for the new President in 2009. Not to mention rebuilding a military that has been decimated by this conflict, and taking it back from the Blackwater, Halliburton and the other Bush cronies taxpayer money has been siphoned off to for the last six years. We need to compensate and care for the veterans, who have been routinely cheated of their bonuses, health care, and disability benefits, so that the money can be cycled back to an Iraqi government that is operating many billions of dollars in the black. Meanwhile the people who politicians refer to collectively as "heroes" are becoming homeless and have little or no access to health care after having been demobilized with severe health problems.

So for those of you who are anti-war: a vote for Obama is a vote for our troops. Get out there and do it in November. Hoo-ah.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Radical Goes To A Genteel Academic Conference (Disguised As A Blogger Meetup)

I just got back from the Little Berks, which is a weekend conference composed of the group of people who organize the Big Berks every three years. One of the things we do in the meeting immediately following the conference is elect the new President. I am happy to say that the results of the election can now be revealed: the new President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians is Kathleen Brown, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She replaces Ruth Mazo Karras, Professor of History from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Ruth has done a great job, and Kathy will too.

There were many highlights of the weekend, but Yours Truly had the pleasure of being on a history blogging panel with Clio Bluestocking and Knitting Clio. It was a real pleasure to meet both of them, and Knitting Clio really does knit. She was working on what looked like a baby blanket while she was there, and braved a cold to participate. About Clio Bluestocking I cannot write, as she is pseudonymous, but suffice to say it is always a special pleasure to find out who someone "really is." Heather, at least, I had googled some months back. Both women have a dry sense of humor, and the panel was a great success.

(By the way, one of the big topics after the panel, when we were all sprawled on queen-sized hotel beds waiting for the new Tina Fey sketch on SNL was: who is Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III? You may be gone, but you are not forgotten, old man. I was grilled as to whether I had ideas as to who he might be: I do, indeed, have ideas -- good ones, I think -- but explained that it is not only against the Blogger Ethic to divulge names, but that it is equally wrong to provide clews in the form of speculation as well.

My contribution was entitled Tenured Radical Speaks; or, What the Historian Learned When She Went to the Blogosphere, and it should be thought of as both an early blogiversary post, and a big, thankful shout out to all the real and virtual friends who have encouraged me along the way. I reprint excerpts below:

Almost two years ago, I started writing a blog called Tenured Radical. This means that today I am fast approaching what is known among my kind as my second blogiversary. In that first post, on October 17, 2006, I assumed that every academic would understand the title of the blog as an ironic gesture. Nonetheless, I explained to an as yet unknown audience that “long ago, when the new right decided to undermine the intellectual foundations of the nation, one of the big charges made by radical neocons was that universities were full of ‘tenured radicals’ who were indoctrinating the youth of America. The not so big secret, of course, is that universities and their faculties are far from radical, and that tenure is one of the features of university life that makes academics cautious at best, conservative at least. We need to change that….if you keep reading this blog,” I promised, “you will get some insight into the mysteries of the system, and what kind of people folks turn into if they don't keep ironic distance.”

“That's why I'm blogging,” I concluded. “Ironic distance….Because frankly, boys and girls, being an academic isn't as much fun as it used to be, and I think we need to do something to change that.”

Going back to read some of those early posts, I am amazed that a forum was created in my lifetime that allowed a person to announce an agenda and begin to self-publish for free; mildly embarrassed at some of the things I put up and the reasons I put them up (although some of the same things are wicked funny), and more than a little proud of what I have accomplished as a writer and a public intellectual over the last twenty-four months. I have learned a great many things that I never would have learned had I not started blogging, including how to sit down and knock out a piece like this in a few hours, do a couple quick revisions, and feel pretty good about putting it out there for a lot of people I respect to critique.

I also think a great deal more than I used to about how technology alters public culture and provokes democratic change, as well as about what it means to create accessible literary arenas where people can disagree about important ideas. I think about what it means to compile an electronic archive that one can re-write almost indefinitely (in fact, Nancy Cott, Director if the Schlesinger Library, is currently working with her staff on a project to archive feminist blogs permanently, which will cause a blog like mine to ultimately be “fixed” in a way it never will be while it is up on Blogspot.) I think about anonymity, since most bloggers and many people who comment on blogs, are anonymous. I myself began blogging anonymously, and then stopped, something I will say something more about later if you are interested – and while I have a strong position about the dangers of anonymity, it also has an important place in academic life in allowing senior people to hear things they would not otherwise be told....

....Not inconsequentially, my persona as the Tenured Radical (who also calls herself TR) was launched during a period in my life that I would characterize as a moment of professional crisis and self-doubt, a time that I happily no longer feel any need to dwell on. But my flippant call in my inaugural post for “ironic distance” and “fun” was as close as I could get at the time to saying what I really felt, which was that if I couldn’t resolve my anger and frustration at how my writing had been purposely trashed as part of a departmental political struggle, I would need to do something else for a living that did not require publishing or writing, and fast. I can hint at the extent of this existential crisis by adding that, in addition to exploring the blogosphere, I was also having lively conversations with the dean of admissions at the Yale Law School.

Now, some of you are going to say “Aha! Just what I thought! Blogs are not writing, or scholarship. They are therapy!” Well, no. I was in therapy, and lots of it. What I needed to do was to learn to write all over again with confidence, grace, authority and wit. I needed, in short, to learn to have fun again. And that was one of the most important things this historian learned when she went to the blogosphere.

Blogging is, first and foremost about writing, and writing in a way that foregrounds play as well as intellect. This makes blogging fundamentally different from how we were all brought up to write in history school, which is that writing was first and foremost “our work.” Think about it: one of the earliest conventions we learn as graduate students is to greet a person we don’t know, not by asking “what are you writing?” but, “What are you working on?” In a book I would recommend to all of you, which I read shortly after I began blogging, Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird, Lamott (who is not a blogger, but sort of writes like one) goes on at often hilarious length about the difficulties of taking on a writing life as one’s work. They are all difficulties that are very familiar to historians and, I would wager, often accentuated by the general condition of being women working in institutions that are sexist to a greater or lesser degree (something by the way that we don’t talk about much any more except by sharing anecdotes.) Among the difficulties addressed in the book are being simply unable to write because of an incident, or incidents, of writing trauma in the past (check!); ordinary forms of attention deficit disorder that cause you to interrupt writing to feed the dog, do the laundry, watch TV (check!); the problem of getting useful, accurate, and swift feedback so that you can tell whether what you have written is good or bad (check!); wanting to have fun instead (check!); and difficulty in keeping a continuous focus on one’s work, a focus that cannot be achieved if one does not write every day (check! And check!)
Now, part of why this book appeals to me is that Lamott talks about very difficult things (like having someone tell you for malicious reasons that what you have written is a horrible book when in fact you are fairly sure it is a good book) in a funny, and not a tragic, way. That was very helpful to me because it wasn’t just that I had been traumatized by such an incident, it is that there is virtually no academic script that doesn’t relate obstacles in one’s writing career as having a tragic and permanently damaging outcome. Such outcomes might include the indefinite delay of a well-deserved promotion, as in my case; but there are also worse outcomes: people lose jobs, or –worse, if you really imagine yourself as a writer – you never write again, even if you do keep your job. And what Lamott argues is that there is no way to solve this problem but to write.

Write everyday.

Blogging helped me do that. As I did I began to write little essays about the condition of our lives and the work we do, and people responded to them: essays about teaching, about the dilemmas of the twenty-first century university, about what it meant to be a good senior colleague, and most of all – some of my most popular posts – the evils of the tenure system and a job market clogged with good people who can’t find work. One result of these essays was I got something from blogging that I never anticipated: new colleagues! For surely, part of the trauma of my temporarily derailed professional life was discovering that there were a small number of people I worked with who were really willing to take the time to really damage my reputation as a writer and scholar if they could – not just take the time, but commit to that project. Then there were the bulk of my colleagues at Zenith, who really came through for me, but over a period of years, paradoxically became yet another reminder that I lived in a world that was perhaps permanently divided between friends and enemies.

What blogging allowed me to do primarily, however, was to think seriously and productively about what brought me to this profession in the first place, and work specifically to make that thing happen in a new way. For me, what I have referred to elsewhere as “my second career at the same institution” has also caused me to think seriously about how I got to this point and what I want out of writing. Most important, because of blogging, I write every day, something that makes it possible to be a writer all the time, not just on weekends or on sabbatical, as I often did when writing was the “work” that came last because it required so much more focus than everything else. And this has reshaped my writing habits substantially. Time spent doing other things (teaching, say, or chairing) is time when I am taking a break from writing, not the other way around. Even if large projects are completed slowly, to write every day is to keep continuity in my creative habits that nurtures a sense of connection to my writing as primary work – not work that gets done when my work for everyone else is finished.

As a blogger, I also get to be a historian who engages regularly with contemporary history, which is a messy and exhilarating business. Those of you who follow Tenured Radical, know that in addition to writing about the past, I get to be a cultural critic, essayist, unrepentant goad to right-wingers and faux Dear Abby for young historians. That said, this kind of cultural work on the internet is considered highly suspect by many scholars I know, in part because there are virtually no rules that govern blogging, and the university world is obsessed with rules and the respectability that comes with following the rules. Blogging is also an activity associated most strongly with the young, which makes a middle aged scholar-blogger even more suspect as serious intellectual. I have had conversations with some of my colleagues in which you would have thought they were talking to someone who had taken up competitive skateboarding at the age of fifty.

It is the best kind of middle-aged crisis, I think. While blogging has involved me in some dicey interactions in the university world, it has also included me in a diverse intellectual circle of people, most of them younger than I, and many of whom are graduate students or working adjunct. In other words, my new colleagues are people I really wouldn’t know otherwise, and I have to tell you, I learn a lot from them. This, in turn, has allowed me to re-engage with my old colleagues in a freer, and sometimes pleasantly detached, way, and with a sharpened sense of consciousness about what higher education ought to be doing.

Blogging also allows me to write short pieces, work on form, voice, and getting complex ideas across to an audience that I need to entice in order to keep them reading. I sometimes compare it to a pianist playing scales: to the extent that blogging is not, perhaps, the most serious scholarly form, to take it seriously is to become a better writer. But best of all, I am read every day and my readers write back. They tell me what they think, and sometimes they tell me that my writing made a difference to them. Sometimes they get angry at me, and because of that I have become a keener listener and also grown a tougher hide. I have come to terms with something that is often difficult to face in the scholarly world, particularly given our systems of high-stakes evaluation: that sometimes there are people who really hate what you think is your best work. This, I will say in conclusion, has made me a braver writer.

And it has made me a historian who is once again having fun.