Monday, August 31, 2009

Plagiarist Barbie?

Readers of this blog will recall that the release of the Johnny Depp flick Public Enemies brought up bad memories of having had my book mined for research and argument by another author, repackaged and sold as a work of mass-market nonfiction, and then sold again as a film. Injury turned to insult when a person associated with the Depp film called me for some free consulting about Depression-era costume design. Shortly after I wrote the post about getting bushwhacked, I received a phone call from an old college friend, M.G. Lord who had just had the strange experience of seeing passages of a book she had written pop up in a book she had been sent for review.

Lord is a journalist, essayist, critic and the author of several books, one of which -- Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll -- joined the lively canon of Barbie Studies in 1995. Her account of the life and times of Barbie Doll is a fine example of scholarly journalism that was bound to be followed eventually: indeed, my own colleague Ann duCille had another book on black Barbie, Skin Trade (Harvard University Press, 1996) in the works at the same time. Barbie books are, I suspect, a bit like books about John Dillinger, or the Civil War, for that matter: there is a huge fan base, and a new book can always find an audience whether it is fresh and well researched, as Lord's and duCille's were or -- well, not.

Enter Robin Gerber.

Gerber, according to her web page, is an attorney, has worked on Capitol Hill and is "a senior fellow in Executive Education at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park."* In addition -- and this is the important information -- she "is an inspirational keynote speaker on leadership development, using moving stories from the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Katharine Graham and other great leaders to illustrate leadership lessons." Clients for her leadership seminars seem to be mostly, although not entirely, corporate. Coincidentally, Gerber also writes hagiography. She has published two books on ER ("Blanche Wiesen Cook, phone home!") and one on Katherine Graham. Hence, the talks sell the books, and the books sell her as a speaker. My guess is that Gerber has a new inspirational talk in the bag about Ruth Handler, Barbie's creator (or was it Barbie who was Ruth's creator? I dunno.)

Historians wouldn't know much about how to market their careers in this way. It's called synergy, in which each product sent into the market advertises the other products. But historians do know about plagiarism. We talk about it a lot, and we have seen enough high-profile cases in the last decade to make it of grave concern, whether it appears in a work intended primarily for scholars or in something intended for the educated reader and/or enthusiast. This is why, other than the possibility of an old friend being ripped off, I think questions about plagiarism raised by Lord about Ms. Gerber's book need to be aired in a scholarly setting. Lord's assertion is that Gerber has taken quotes from primary sources published in Forever Barbie and failed to note that Lord did that research and, in the case of interviews, actually generated the source in the first place.

In this piece, published in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend, Lord explains that when asked to review Gerber's book:

I found quotations from my research, verbatim and without specific attribution.

I showed the passages to my assigning editor. He had sent me a galley proof, not the finished book, and we both thought it likely that endnotes would appear in the final volume. But then the finished book came in, and though "Forever Barbie" was mentioned in the bibliography, there were no endnotes. I felt violated.

Histories do not grow on trees. The first person to cobble out a definitive narrative has to do a ton of work. You interview hundreds of people and hunt down documents, which can be especially elusive if influential people would prefer that they stay hidden. You separate truth from hearsay. Then -- with endnotes -- you meticulously source all your quotations and odd facts so future scholars will know whence they came.

Reached for comment by The Times, Gerber wrote in an e-mail: "I do believe that the credit Ms. Lord received was within the norm for a book which provides singular sourcing rather than footnotes. Having said that, if Ms. Lord feels that her book received insufficient credit for quotes from people she interviewed it is a simple matter to correct in the next printing. I have the utmost respect for Ms. Lord's book and have recommended it to others."

I would be interested to see what style manual has established that simply citing someone in the bibliography is the "norm" in publishing. Perhaps it was the same style manual that James Frey and Nan Talese consulted when they were trying to decide whether to publish Frey's second book as a novel or a memoir. It should also be noted that the business of citation is not just an "academic" question: not crediting your researchers is considered to be an ethical violation among journalists as well. Quoting without attribution certainly isn't the norm in academia: most works of history marketed to a mass audience (which folk, mysteriously in my view, are said to be intimidated by footnotes) nevertheless have a section at the end in which a phrase is paired with the source or sources that the passage drew on. There are several intellectual issues at stake here, the first two of which Lord emphasizes: that she deserves explicit credit for all the research she did (and conversely, that by not citing Lord, Gerber infers that she did the research herself); that not giving Lord credit is the theft of her ideas and a possible infringement on her copyright; and that the evidence cited in the book should be traceable by anyone wishing to check Gerber's work or interpretations.

But there is a potential third problem as well. Primary sources (particularly interviews and oral histories) are not necessarily in the public domain to begin with; furthermore, they don't enter the public domain simply by being published in a critical account. They are the property of individuals or institutions, which often require authors to obtain signed releases in order to publish quotations. At the very minimum, archives require that the materials be cited properly. Material quoted from interviews (Lord cites at least one instance in which Gerber used material from an interview done by the late Ella King Torrey that she had permission to use in the writing of Forever Barbie) cannot be reproduced by a third party without permission from the whoever owns the interview (this can be the archive, the original interviewer and/or the interviewee.)

In its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, the American Historical Association (AHA) one of the chief governing bodies of the historical profession notes:

In addition to the harm that plagiarism does to the pursuit of truth, it can also be an offense against the literary rights of the original author and the property rights of the copyright owner. Detection can therefore result not only in sanctions (such as dismissal from a graduate program, denial of promotion, or termination of employment) but in legal action as well. As a practical matter, plagiarism between scholars rarely goes to court, in part because legal concepts, such as infringement of copyright, are narrower than ethical standards that guide professional conduct. The real penalty for plagiarism is the abhorrence of the community of scholars.

Plagiarism includes more subtle abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution. Plagiarism can also include the limited borrowing, without sufficient attribution, of another person's distinctive and significant research findings or interpretations....

Plagiarism, then, takes many forms. The clearest abuse is the use of another's language without quotation marks and citation. More subtle abuses include the appropriation of concepts, data, or notes all disguised in newly crafted sentences, or reference to a borrowed work in an early note and then extensive further use without subsequent attribution. Borrowing unexamined primary source references from a secondary work without citing that work is likewise inappropriate. All such tactics reflect an unworthy disregard for the contributions of others.

Gerber is not an academic historian, and may think that this liberates her from such narrow-mindedness. Someone like myself, for example, would have to be concerned about loss of employment in the event of a plagiarism charge being upheld, although that is not always the outcome. But because Gerber is not governed by a professional association, Lord has no place to take her complaint but the court of public opinion, since copyright litigation is a tedious and expensive route for any but those with the deepest pockets and all the time in the world. But at the very least, the book should be withdrawn by the publisher pending an investigation of Lord's allegations. The issue is not whether M.G. Lord "feels she has received insufficient credit" for her work, but rather that it is entirely unclear what parts of Gerber's book constitute work that was originally researched, articulated and compiled by Lord. And that question needs to be answered.


*Although Gerber was an executive education senior fellow in 2006, she may no longer be associated with the University of Maryland as her web page states. A search of this web page turned up no current link identifying her as a faculty member or fellow. I wrote Gerber this afternoon to ask if she would like to comment on Lord's allegations. She has not replied, but should she do so, I will update this post.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On Sin, Forgiveness and Redemption: A Few Thoughts On The Loss Of My Friend, Senator Kennedy

On July 19, 1969, Edward M. Kennedy drove off the Dike Bridge connecting Edgartown, MA to Chappaquiddick Island; the car overturned and filled with water. Kennedy managed to free himself and swim to shore, while his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to the slain Robert F. Kennedy, did not escape. She drowned, and perhaps suffered terribly as Kennedy ran and failed to call the police or an ambulance, or even to tell anyone who might have helped Kopechne, until the next day. Whether she might have been saved or not is an open question, and because of this Kopechne is forever seared in our collective historical memory as a victim of Kennedy's recklessness, wealth and self-destructiveness. Her death resulted from a kind of privileged, masculine disdain for women that was so common that it was culturally invisible prior to the feminist activism of the 1970s. While the Senator claimed at the time that he tried to save Kopechne, those who know the tides in the area doubted that he could have dived "repeatedly" into the swift channel without drowning himself, although having seen what a strong swimmer can accomplish under adverse circumstances (lifeguards knifing into twenty-foot waves to save a drowning victim in the South Pacific), I wouldn't argue that it is impossible. You can read Kennedy's explanation to the people of Massachusetts, delivered July 25 1969 after he entered a plea of guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, here.

I begin my elegy to Senator Kennedy with this memory because it should not be forgotten. It happened, and it was a Terrible Thing. But I also begin there because it was the occasion of our first encounter. I was eleven when I watched his televised speech, and I had paid no attention to this Kennedy at all until the moment of Kopechne's tragic death. I was already a political junkie, and for me, all politics had been framed by our great expectations that the Kennedy family would somehow save America from its worst self: segregation, Viet Nam, nuclear holocaust, race riots in Philadelphia and Newark, NJ. Since I was born in 1958, Jack was my first president. I remember being told that the President's daughter Caroline and I were nearly the same age. When I saw her in Life magazine I thought how very lucky she was to have a pony of her own -- and secretly, I wanted to be John-John, viewed already as the heir to the Kennedy political tradition. I also remember my mother seizing my hand in the Reading Terminal Market around noon on November 22, 1963. As I recently recalled in a talk given at a ceremony celebrating the opening of the William Manchester Papers at Zenith University, Mummy and I were

waiting in line at a butcher or a greengrocer’s stand, when all of a sudden the adults around me erupted in agitation. My visual memory is of lots of legs in nylon stockings beginning to churn, since I experienced most adults as only legs before I grew tall enough to see their faces without effort. My mother seized my hand tightly and began to run to the car. “What happened?” I asked. She said tightly, “We have to get home. Someone has shot the President.” Knowing as I do now what an anxious person my mother is, from a distance of 45 years I regard her capacity to get us home on that day as an act of great heroism.

On June 7, 1968, my friend Mar Bodine had stayed over for the night, and my mother came in to tell us that Bobby Kennedy, a presidential candidate, had also been shot and killed; a little more than two months earlier Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. And then, a year later, as speculation (undoubtedly carefully nurtured by Kennedy operatives) that Teddy was contemplating a run for president himself in 1972 (one Kennedy falls, the next Kennedy steps up had been the rule since Joe Kennedy Junior had been killed in an overwhelmingly dangerous air mission over England in 1944), Teddy drove off the Dike Bridge. Perhaps it was because politics as we both knew them -- me at 11, he at 37 -- was soaked in blood, and there seemed no other way to evade his own inevitably violent death than to drive into the gnarly water surrounding Martha's Vineyard.

I remember watching Kennedy's speech about what came to be known as "the Chappaquiddick Affair" on television and understanding for the first time that there were things that could happen which could alter the course of one's own life forever, errors in judgement so terrible that the punishment would be swift and permanent. It was perhaps one of my first entirely adult thoughts.

Of course, this moment was life-changing for Kennedy in so many ways: he could never be President now. Kopechne's death also revealed that he was spinning our of control in ways that could no longer be hidden, even by the most well-paid handlers. Given the chaos in his personal life that was revealed subsequently, it seems unlikely that he wasn't drunk when he drove off Dike bridge in 1969, and it seems unlikely that Mary Jo Kopechne didn't intend that her drive into the night was supposed to end in flagrante delicto with the handsome, promiscuous Senator who was trying to drink and fuck away the nightmare history of his murdered brothers.

Kennedy's claim not have been drunk, and not to have been sexually involved with Kopechne seemed false to me at the age of eleven. In retrospect, I think this was remarkable given that I knew nothing about sex, my parents were orderly suburban people, and my own first-hand acquaintance with drinking and fucking away pain (much less depression, heartbreak, adulterous affairs and scandal) was many years off. But I learned in the tabloid press that these things could happen to others, and I began to read the gossip rags avidly. Late weekday afternoons, sweaty from field hockey practice, I would be picked up by my mother. We would drop by the supermarket to pick up a few things, and I acquired my lifetime habit of reading trash in the checkout line. Not infrequently, Teddy and his first wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy, would be plastered all over the front of the National Enquirer after a public, drunken brawl; another accusation of an affair; speculation about divorce; speculation about what lecture "Jackie" (cloaked in dark glasses and vast amounts of lustrous, dark hair) had delivered lately about her martyred husband's squandered legacy. Teddy's womanizing became part of the picture I was getting about adult lives during the sexual revolution. I eavesdropped relentlessly, perched at the top of the stairs, as my parents had their evening cocktails and confided in each other about the marriages that were splintering around them. But the Kennedys were bigger, sloppier, more violent than anyone we knew -- the grainy pictures, doctored crudely in those pre-photoshop days and taken with wide lenses, were bloated and distraught.

Oh the humiliation. Oh the pain.

In 1978, Joan and Ted separated. In 1982 they divorced. Somewhere in there not one, but two, of their children were treated for potentially fatal cancers. Ted never stopped drinking as far as I know, but he learned to control it. More or less.

And somewhere in there, Ted Kennedy decided to become not just a good Senator, but a great Senator. You can look here for a summary of his career, but highlights include: managing the Immigration Act of 1965 on the Senate floor; creating the national community health center program (1966); the Bilingual Education Act of 1968; amending the Voting Rights Act to lower the voting age to 18; which preceded a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age (1970); expanding federal funding for cancer research; the Meals on Wheels Act (1972); ending military aid to Chile following the 1974 US-backed coup; the Individuals with Disabilites Act (1975); sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa (1985); the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990); the Family and Medical Leave Act (1994); the Child Health Insurance Program (1997). More recently, Kennedy was one of 23 Senators to vote against the war in Iraq. Throughout his life, Senator Kennedy made it his job to fight for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled and service people. Kennedy fought for women's right to combat roles and, having watched the US go to war in Iraq, he turned his attention to trying to fund and deliver adequate equipment and protective armor to an army that was unprepared by the Bush administration to fight that war.

He fought for women's right to choose whether to carry a fetus to term. He was perhaps the earliest, and most consistent, defender of rights for GLBTQ people in the Senate. And it was Ted Kennedy who gave us Barack Obama and put every last ounce of his strength behind the election of the first black president of the United States.

What I know now is that a person can do something terrible that can change a life -- not just his own, but many lives. And yet that terrible thing can be a moment of choice. Apologies don't matter when it comes to taking a life; forgiveness is not in our own hands. But it is possible to work for redemption, knowing that redemption can never be complete, and that is what Ted Kennedy did. He did it better than anyone. Ted Kennedy didn't know me, but I believe to this day that he was my friend, and when he came to the podium, any podium, to speak about the things closest to his heart, I believed that he spoke for me.

And so, goodbye Senator. I will miss you terribly.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Case Of The Scottish Pardon: Or, Extremism in Defense Of Liberty Is Becoming A Little Tiresome

Forty-five years ago this summer, while accepting the Republican party's presidential nomination at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Barry Goldwater thundered: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" The party's newly visible right wing exploded in cheers while liberal delegates headed for the nearest bar. Although Goldwater was soundly hammered that November by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Goldwater campaign is considered by many historians to have been a turning point in the process of recrafting right-wing extremism in America as "the mainstream." Numerous regional conservatisms, organized around everything from white supremacy, to reversing progressive schooling trends, to opposing all forms of taxation, began to federate in a concerted, and ultimately successful, effort to take over the Republican party apparatus. As they did it, they altered the language of politics profoundly.

Goldwater's speech terrified members of his own party into voting Democratic; it began the polarizing realignment that we are living with today, in which liberals have no home among Republicans and conservative Democrats play a decisive role in brokering policies advocated by the liberal wing of their own party. But this famous phrase (branded political suicide at the time) was, as it turned out, a harbinger of a deft conservative strategy, forged in the white supremacist south, in Father Coughlin's New Deal demagoguery, in Joe McCarthy's hearing room, and in the pamphlets mailed by Richard Viguerie that promised the death of the American family itself. Extremism would, in the end, sell a range of policies and attitudes to a broader public over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Extremism, as it has become business as usual across the political spectrum, has also brought us to a point of absurdity in American history where we, the people, are being urged to cancel scheduled trips to Scotland and to boycott Scottish products (name three Scottish products that you consume regularly -- oops! time is up!) to protest the Scottish government's release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 as the Lockerbie Bomber. Two hundred seventy people were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 plunged into the town of Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21 1988 in one of the most deadly terrorist attacks in history.

Al-Megrahie claimed to be innocent throughout his trial, and indeed, there was some evidence that pointed to the bombing as the action of a Palestinian group. As CNN reports, "British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had earlier faced criticism for remaining silent on the issue, said Monday that freeing al-Megrahi would not act as an encouragement to terrorists." What CNN does not say, of course, is that terrorists seem to need no encouragement to keep on doing what they are doing. One alternate explanation for continued terrorism might be, for example, the continued killing and torture of civilians by the United States and its allies, or United States military and financial support for corrupt and repressive regimes.

On the other hand, history suggests that the Scots are very easy to provoke as well. No one would be more aware of that than the English so, were I Gordon Brown, I would play hot potato with this one too. The former Kingdom of the Picts was in rebellion against various colonizers almost continuously from the eighth century until they were brutally repressed by the English army at the Battle of Culloden in 1745; thousands of Scots were murdered following their surrender or deported to penal colonies where they then died of disease and starvation. But even when thoroughly repressed and stripped of their kilts, the Scots were perceived as a possible source of domestic terrorism within the empire. In 1812, Lord Selkirk brought thousands of Scots who had been tossed off their land by enclosures (including ancestors of the Tenured Radical) to Manitoba so that they could starve and die in the outer reaches of the empire instead of roaming about land they no longer owned in search of food and shelter and rebelling against the Crown again. The Selkirk Settlement accomplished two things: it balanced out the ratio of Europeans to Native people a bit more in England's favor, and it got a lot of angry Picts out of the Crown's hair just in case.

In other words, what is now called Scotland has only been pacified for less than a third of the time that it has been in open rebellion, and Gordon Brown is not about to quarrel with the Scottish Parliament (which became semi-autonomous in 1998) about something so small as the release of a terrorist who is going to be dead from prostate cancer within the year.

But to return to a serious discussion of political culture for a moment, let's look hard at the kind of outrage ordinary Americans are being asked to muster in the face of al-Megrahie's release, an entirely symbolic event. We, who in the face of a rising crime rate, are still drinking the conservative Kool-Aid and believe unquestioningly that locking up people for life and stacking them six to a cell made for two makes us "safer." We believe that executing people gives grieving relatives of murdered people "closure," unless the killer happens to be an NFL wide receiver, in which case closure is best achieved by writing a very large check. What do we know about justice? And if some Libyans want to dance in the streets to welcome al-Megrahie home, so what? As Americans we cannot, on the one hand, declare that we are promoting "our freedoms" around the globe at the point of a gun, and then insist that the Libyan government use its powerful state apparatus to clamp down on a mass demonstration exercising what would be known in America as first amendment rights.

The American response to this non-event, and the amount of media time being wasted on it, shows how completely the rhetorical culture war launched by Goldwater has shaped popular political thought since that critical speech in 1964. What was roundly decried as dangerous then is the new normal now. Extremism is why politicians, instead of staying in Washington to work on a health reform bill, are spending gobs of time either propagating lies about what would constitute good health care or patiently explaining to otherwise normal people that Barack Obama is not a National Socialist, a socialist, or a communist (thanks to decades of conservative education cuts, many citizens my age seem believe that all three political categories represent different ways of saying the same thing.)

In the decades since Goldwater's fiery right-wing candidacy, extremist rhetoric has become the new normal. As a consequence, many Americans have no tolerance for a sustained, nuanced discussion and have acquired a collective Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to political life. A budget meltdown in 48 out of fifty states? Let's talk about adultery! Health reform going down the tubes? Hey, whaddya think about Michael Vick? Possibility that we can create the grounds for a new diplomacy by demonstrating to the Muslim world that Americans can show compassion and humanity towards a man who urinates in a bag and may not have been guilty in the first place? No, no, no: it's much more important politically that the relatives of the Lockerbie dead get to claim "closure" by having some Libyan -- any Libyan, really -- die in jail.

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.

Americans, and their market-driven news outlets, are virtually unable to focus on the big picture for long enough to think about what actual "American values" are being expressed by the desire that al-Megrahi die in a Scottish prison (at a moment in history where conservatives wax rhapsodic about the beauty of Grandma's lingering, painful death surrounded by loved ones who write checks to Big Pharma every hour or so.) At the same time, we insist that to punish (or, heaven forfend, even just fire) CIA interrogators who tortured detainees -- many of whom were innocent of any involvement in terrorism -- would "send the wrong message" to "our enemies."

What message? Which enemies? I'm surprised that Nike has not been asked by some creative right-wing Senator to step forward and make a formal statement that the company does not condone al-Megrahi's decision to travel home in one of their signature tennis caps.

In fact, there is a good argument that moderation in pursuit of justice actually is a virtue, and the Scottish pardon creates an excellent opportunity to discuss this question as a national and an international ethic. Part of the problem with Americans today is that we either don't understand what would constitute moderation anymore, or we apply this doctrine selectively (as in the case of professional and college star athletes.) But I would also argue for a third possibility: that there is no longer any rhetorical or judicial space available to discuss compassion, redemption or reincorporation as virtues that a democracy can practice. For example: sex offenders are punished for the rest of their natural lives as if all of them were predators, when the reality is that there is a broad range of statutory crimes that are felonious even if both parties to the sexual act happily agreed to it. And yet, we have created a political atmosphere where tolerating broad injustices (including a high rate of homelessness and unemployment among registered sex offenders) is not worth the opprobrium that would be rained down on any policy maker who tried to reform this senseless and (I believe) unconstitutional policy.

In 2009, we Americans have come to believe that all politics are ultimately cultural, and can be addressed with vague, and increasingly shrill, cultural responses. We expect politicians to craft laws and social policies that reflect our opinions, our emotions and our collective sense of fear, not reasoned and substantively researched positions. And this, in my view, has been the ultimate Goldwater victory.

Cross-posted at Cliopatria.

Friday, August 21, 2009

If I Can Make It There, I'll Make It Anywhere

I realize that if I were a real writer I would not do anything so uncool as this, but after a lifetime of aspiration, I have been quoted in the New Yorker. OK, it's the book blog, but it's still the New Yorker.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Barney Frank Doesn't Live Around Uranus, But A Lot Of Conservative Activists Seem To Be Moving There

According to The Huffington Post, at a town meeting in Dartmouth, MA, last Tuesday, Congressman Barney Frank was confronted by a constituent (or a woman posing as one) who asked him why he was "supporting this Nazi policy." She was referring to the Obama administration's initiative intended to address the billions of dollars we flush down the toilet daily to achieve the worst, or second to worst according to some estimates, national health care outcomes in the industrialized world. Read the story about this bizarre charge and see the clip of Frank's response here. Frank, who is a Jewish homosexual (both categories of people were murdered by the Nazis), responded by asking the demonstrator: "On what planet do you spend most of your time?" He then called her stated views "vile, contemptible nonsense." He closed by saying: "Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table." Several news sources, including the Washington Independent, confirm that the woman and several other demonstrators were holding signs that said "Obama=Nazi."

"To be fair," the Independent reporter editorializes, "the evidence suggests that the woman is a supporter of fringe political activist Lyndon LaRouche." The Independent, a non-profit, non-partisan news source sponsored by the Center for Independent Media offers no source for this hypothetical.

But to whom are we trying to be fair? The politicians and insurance companies who are ready to sell us all down the river to preserve a failing for-profit system? And heaven only knows, we wouldn't want the Republican Party, whose mainstream conservative politicians talk openly of crippling an Obama presidency in search of the political Armageddon they imagine will return them to power, to be tarred with the brush of extremism. No. Particularly since on Wednesday, the voice of the Republican Party, radio host Rush Limbaugh, reported on the Dartmouth, MA incident and closed by asking: "Isn't it an established fact that Barney Frank himself spends most of his time living around Uranus?"

Last time I heard this one I was in middle school.

On top of this, consider reports that a man outside an Obama health care rally in Arizona marched around wearing a pistol and carrying a semi-automatic weapon demonstrating, as he put it, "his freedoms." And of course, Sarah Palin continues to exercise her first amendment right to lie about government "death panels" that would encourage the elderly to stop wasting our tax dollars by living (although, come to think of it, this is precisely what the Republican Party is willing to say to every American too poor, or too sick, to have health insurance.) In fact, what has been proposed is that terminally ill people of all ages would have counseling available about end of life care instead of being given "treatments" they may not want or understand while God is busy doing something other than elevating them to the Elect.

Yes, Virginia, some people do talk about Death before She is standing at the door, and it is neither a dumb or an immoral thing to do. And we all -- not just the elderly -- should have resources for doing it as soon as we are old enough to make an independent decision about whether to choose life or death. As an aside, one study by Dana Farber proposes that patients welcome End Of Life (EOL) conversations, and that knowledgeable conversations between physicians and terminal patients lower the cost of dying in the final week alone by 36%.

But no, not according to the Republican Party and its loyal activists, for whom the elderly are as idealized a creation as the fetus -- and in possession of even less will, apparently. The President is a "Nazi" proposing "death panels." You know what? Instead of arguing with people who have clearly not only moved to Uranus, but have handed their free will and good sense over to a party whose only interest is in helping the wealthy become wealthier, try this. Find a Republican Senator or Congressman (if you live in Connecticut Joe Lieberman will do, or try Governor Jody Rell) and ask that person to make a public statement disavowing any language or lie that incites violence, or hatred that could lead to violence, against any other public figure.

And if you are a conservative yourself, begin to qualify what you mean by "conservative" with a descriptive adjective that helps distinguish you as a thoughtful person who is committed to civil disagreement. Are you a fiscal conservative? A pro-business conservative? And then say what that means, why that is an important value, and how that value is going to reform healthcare. Not eliminate health care -- intervene to provide more and better healthcare to 100% of Americans, thus permitting small businesses to flourish, children to go to school, and workers to be productive and spend their dollars to give them access to their constitutional right to happiness.

Photo credit, and more information about Uranus, here. If you are suffering from a pain in Urotheranus caused by Republican dirty tricks, click here or here to take action.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cooking And Blogging Your Way To The Top: A Review of Nora Ephron's "Julie and Julia"

I want to start by saying that for all of you who are cooking metaphorically in these muggy, torpid final days until the semester begins, Julie and Julia is the perfect grown-up summer movie. I barely go to the cinema in the summer at all anymore because I don't like movies about kids and animals; I detest all comedies; and high-tech animation leaves me cold. I love movies about super heroes and star fleets, but none of them end happily anymore, and the point seems more to turn every last flicker of interest one has in a utopian future into gold than to tell a story that sticks with and/or moves a person. Compare, for example, the first Terminator movie -- in which we see that we are not doomed to be ruled by machines --with nearly every one that followed that has rescinded that promise.

My point exactly. HOWEVER:

Julie and Julia is fun and witty, and it centers the question of what it takes for a creative woman to realize her ambition. Although Julia's story is haunted by the Cold War and Julie's by the War on Terror, these very serious historical frames are never permitted to cast a daunting shadow over the story. Which makes sense, when you think about it, since life does go on, even in the face of devastating change and loss. The movie tells an intertwined story about Julia Child (aka "The French Chef") and blogger Julie Powell, who vows to cook -- within one year --all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, co-authored by Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck in 1961. As part of this ambitious project, Julie also writes a daily blog about her culinary adventures. Although Julia's brave insouciance in the face of all obstacles stands in contrast to Julie's insecurity and tendency to crumble temporarily in the face of disappointment, that contrast makes it possible to tell a second story about what a third, or third-and-a half, wave feminist might learn from a pre-feminist woman whose choice of career (after a wartime stint in the OSS) was framed and limited by her husband's demanding work as a diplomat. It also makes a gentler, but useful, point that some people are born with courage and confidence, while the rest of us have to learn it. And, as the movie shows, courage and confidence can be learned.

Bloggers and spouses of bloggers will also resonate to Julie's triumphs and trials in the blogosphere: originally believing that she is writing to no one, she gets her first comment, only to find that it is from her mother. Because of her blog, she is uncovered at work when she takes a sick day to re-do her boeuf bourguignon for a food writer who never shows up, an incident which ends in a nasty fight with her husband. "And don't write about this on your blog!" he snarls, as he stomps out the door. Whereas Julia Child knows exactly who she is writing for -- the generic American housewife who wants to cook great food -- Julie has to wait for her audience to find her. Beginning by writing only for herself, picking up an audience is a lucky break from her point of view, but it is also Ephron's comment about a culture where books are secondary to other cultural and literary phenomena. Julie doesn't call herself a "writer" until she has a book contract, but the book is almost an afterthought. The blog is the thing.

Perhaps because of my age, because I resonated to Julia Child's love affair with Paris, and because "The French Chef" was a big figure in my childhood home, I liked the "Julia" part better than the Julie part. But I would also say that Meryl Streep, in addition to inhabiting Child beautifully (only equaled or surpassed this year by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk), played the role with an exuberance that injected the movie with the kind of fun a summer movie should have. The Julie role didn't offer Amy Adams as much substance, I'm afraid, although she did have her moments: killing the lobsters was particularly fine. I would also say post-9/11 New York offers a poor contrast to post-World War II Paris: in fact the comparison is downright depressing, for those of us who grew up in fin de siecle New York. The Childs are living in the heart of a revivified cultural capital, whereas the Powells are pushed into the margins (Queens) of a metropolis still reeling from a devastating terrorist attack. They acquire a slightly less cramped living space over a pizza parlor for a rent they can afford at the cost of leaving Manhattan, which is where writers should be. This contrast in the urban space available to these two creative women is something the movie introduces and then makes little of in Julie's part of the movie. Julia's Paris, on the other hand, is dripping with sensory delights. What would have tweaked this theme successfully, in my view, would have been for the movie to note that many of the world's great cuisines are currently flourishing right outside Julie's door. Queens is not just where white refugees of the rent wars go to live, but where throngs of migrants from Asia, Africa Latin America, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent make their first American homes and -- importantly -- open new restaurants. And yet the movie makes no gesture that anyone but two white newlyweds live in this vibrant borough. In the face of this, Julie's nostalgia for a style of French cuisine that caused the audience to gain weight just watching the movie was merely quaint by comparison to the adventurousness of Child's challenge to America's boil, bake and fry culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

But this is a minor quibble, and asks you to take the movie far more seriously than any summer movie should take itself. I haven't even told you how wonderful Stanley Tucci is as diplomat Paul Child, or that the portrait of their marriage causes one to leave the theater yearning to be a better spouse than one has been in the past. And the stumbles in the Powell marriage remind us that we aren't better spouses sometimes because being selfish, mean and impatient with those we love are stops along the way to being the supportive loving folk we aspire to be.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

When Life Gives You A Sommers, Make Sommers-ade

Today, when I was in between sessions of my advanced oral history institute, I received an email from someone identifying herself as Christina Hoff Sommers' assistant, Kimberly Hudson. The e-mail pointed me to this story at the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Christina Hoff Sommers thought you might find this exchange interesting," it said.

Well first of all, I've got to say that what I actually find interesting is that, when I look at the address list, the Tenured Radical has ascended to the lofty bloggy ranks of Feministe, which is also on the list, as is Bitch Ph.D., and Ann Althouse. Either my status is rising ("Hello, Huffington Post! R U redy 2 sho me the luv?") or Sommers has the compulsive need to be in touch with everyone who has written anything critical about her, no matter how unimportant they are.

Whatever, you know? I'll go with the the first theory and take recognition where I can get it.

The Chronicle story, if you didn't bother to click the link, is that publication's attempt to get "both sides of the story" on the dispute between Sommers and Nancy K.D. Lemon about whether Lemon is a scholar or a left-wing, loose-with-the-facts, hijacking, so-called feminist who "stole" feminism from the right-wingers like Sommers who really know what to do with it.

I'm voting that Lemon is a great feminist scholar whose work has been repeatedly vetted by experts in her field, but do look at the evidence and see what you think. I wouldn't want to, you know, state that Lemon is a highly regarded legal scholar as if it was a true fact, and then have Sommers go around the country giving speeches about me. Although maybe I should rethink that, if it would make me more famous.....Anyway, to recap, for those who have joined us late: Sommers' claim against Lemon was the subject of this July 1 post by yours truly, and the attack follows a now familiar strategy (familiar, in fact, with some variations, since the McCarthy era):

1. I have found a so-called fact in your work that I dispute.
2. This fact calls the veracity of your work into question, regardless of your belief that it is true and your good faith effort to demonstrate that.
3. You either knowingly lied or you are stupid: your explanations and disputation of my criticism are worthless.
4. You are a fraud, and your work is not only without value, but absolutely wrong in all its particulars, a danger to your students and a danger to the United States of America.

In other words, lob as many accusations as possible, hope some of them hit, and obscure the whole point of what someone is writing about by insisting that something minor that is a reasonably disputable fact or interpretation makes that person into an egg-sucking liar.

Now if Sommers were still in the academy, this would be what we call uncollegial behavior. (Note how she has carefullly chosen disputable facts as the basis of her attack on Lemon, so that she cannot be sued for libeling Lemon, or slandering her in the many well-paid talks Sommers has given around the country where the faithful gather to hear the Word.) But because she is nobody's colleague, and is paid by the American Enterprise Institute to create diversions so that important social and economic issues are not addressed, we might just want to call it self-promoting.

Sommers' criticism of Lemon is that references to "the rule of Romulus' repeat the factual error that there was such a person as Romulus; and that there is no record of the "the rule of thumb" in English law. Read the exchange to get the gist of the argument about these two (not terribly important) citations in a very, very long legal textbook about domestic violence.

A third criticism is that one of Lemon's authors referred to a March of Dimes study about battered women that Sommers said in the last round doesn't exist. The study does exist and was funded by the March of Fucking Dimes, although Sommers still claims the current Director of Dimes knows nothing about it. But Sommers says the semantic difference of whether it is a March o' Dimes study, or a study funded by the March (and for all I know, the funder owns the research whether it remembers having funded it or not) is absolutely crucial to the credibility of Lemon's whole textbook.

And my question is: why? Why, even if these assertions are true, would it destroy the credibility of the whole book until and unless someone did much more research to show that there were systemic flaws of argument and fact throughout?

Sommers has restated her position in this second piece -- not answered Lemon, although Lemon has done her the courtesy of responding to the original critique. But I would like to ask Christina Hoff Sommers a question and have her really answer it:

What the hell do the the question of whether either Romulus or the rule of thumb are "real", have to do, today, with the critical fact under discussion: that men continue to rape, beat and kill women and children as if they owned them? Nancy Lemon is trying to do something to change that by working to get the legal system to respond to the idea that women have a right to health and safety -- what are you doing?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Research Trip Skills; or, "Be Prepared!"

I remember heading out on my first research trip. It was when I was just beginning my dissertation, and I thought I would start with a week at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park.

The first thing that happened was that my car broke down. I had to rent another one along the way. Oh, and did I tell you that this was prior to the invention of the easily portable laptop computer? I had not yet purchased the then-revolutionary Kaypro (the computer that looked like a terrorist's suitcase, weighed enough to actually have fissionable material in it, and required two 6x6 discs just to boot up?) So we took notes by hand. That's right: on index cards, just like our high school history teachers taught us.

Although I had some money for a motel, I did not have enough for a motel and a kennel, so I took my long-suffering Labrador Daisy with me. She spent the day in the car, since leaving her in the motel didn't seem like a good idea, and several times a day I would go out to walk her around the grounds of Hyde Park. One time we searched for, and found, the grave of Fala (perhaps short for Fala Dog Roosevelt), and I lectured Daisy on Fala's role in American political history, as well as on the many ways a dog could potentially support a historian's career. She always wanted to know stuff like that.

Poor Daisy. I would never dream of taking a dog on a research trip now, and honestly am not quite sure what I was thinking then -- except that those were the days that preparing for a research trip usually included a sleeping bag and other self-help items, like Ramen noodles and friends to crash with (chapter five of the revised dissertation, which became War on Crime, was researched during a trip to Dallas spent on a friend's couch just days before the birth of her daughter.)

Since that time, much has changed. I have acquired a job, a salary and a research budget; the laptop has been invented (not to mention the internet, so that if you run into someone you don't know in a document you can do a quick Wikipedia search); and my time period has changed drastically, so the amount of archival material I must cover in a Presidential library is staggering, compared to the FDR library. Yes, we have computers, but the White House has computers too!!! -- not to mention ginormous staffs.

But what hasn't changed? What makes for a well-run and productive research trip?

A good map. Yes, we all have Google Maps, and some of us have Google Maps aps. But nothing gets you oriented in a new place like an actual, paper map, preferably -- if you are in a city without a car -- a map with public transportation clearly marked on it. Before you get there, make sure you know how to get from the airport to wherever you are staying; and from your temporary home to the archive. You might even want to figure out where you are eating that first night. There's nothing worse than banging around for twenty-four hours, becoming exhausted and frustrated, and being late for your first appointment with the archivist because you have no idea where you are.

Oh yes -- there is one thing worse: being lost, late and hungry.

Change. Dollar bills and quarters, since it is my experience that every public transportation system works differently, and some really do expect you to be walking around with $2.25 in quarters all the time.

Talk to the archivist well in advance. Before you do this, of course, you will go to the web page (another thing that didn't exist in the Stone Age when I wrote my dissertation. We had the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript and University Collections instead, otherwise known as "Nuckmuck.") Find out all of their hours, their rules, and download as many finding aids as are relevant to your project. Preferably you will do all this even before scheduling the trip, because there are a number of things that could potentially get in your way. You might need a written permission from the donor to use the collection; the collection may be temporarily unavailable; the collection may be off site and need to be brought in for your use (most places this only takes a day, but still); they may have limited space in the reading room and you need to reserve a spot; you might be able to get at least some of what you are looking for on microfilm, or on line; you need to estimate how much time you need to spend there and budget accordingly; you need to know whether you will be permitted to xerox or not.

This last is important: the collections you are working with may be too fragile for the heat of a xerox machine. Anything older than a century often can't take the extra handling that even the most careful researcher would strive for without crumbling. Even at a place like the Schlesinger, for example, no matter how much money you want to throw at them, you are permitted 500 copies a year, even from very recent collections. It's frustrating for someone like me, since (when permitted to) I Xerox everything in sight so that I minimize errors and work with evidence in its proper context -- not just the context of a document, but the broader context you can get from a series of documents. The other thing is that typing for days can make your hands ache even if you do not yet have carpal tunnel syndrome. Xeroxing can also be considerably cheaper than staying longer: even at .50 a page, which is what some places charge, you can get 150-200 pages for what it would cost to stay in the least expensive motel for an extra day. But you might also want to try budgeting for:

A digital camera and a tripod. This is what I am increasingly seeing in the archives, and the Schlesinger (since their issue is the stress caused to the documents) will allow you to reproduce as much as you want this way. But again -- ask. Some deeds of gift might prohibit digital reproduction of some or all of the collection, and archivists are still debating whether the intense flash of digital cameras is damaging to documents as well. Even if you know the archive allows it, notify the archivist, since you will take up twice as much room as the average researcher, and they need to plan space accordingly.

Know that if you are using handwritten documents, particularly those in early periods when spelling was erratic, that it will take you a couple days to learn to read them properly. Need I say more? When I was doing the research for my second book, much of which is devoted to the late nineteenth century, I can't tell you how relieved I was at the point in the archive when the portable typewriter was invented. But there is a more general point here: give yourself more time than you think you need. Don't squeeze in a few days for a new collection thinking that you are going to race right through it, unless and until you know what is there. When, and if, it really looks like you are not going to finish what you planned, have the remainder of the collection pulled anyway and take two or three hours to sketch through it so you know how much time you need to plan for your next visit.

A couple throwaway mechanical pencils. Currently I am fond of the BIC Matic-grip. No one allows pens in the archive, and the pencils they have for you to use are never, ever sharp -- or if they are, it is because you are running up to the desk all the time to sharpen them.

A small notebook. Most of your preparatory notes should go on your laptop, since many archives won't permit you to take any papers of your own into the reading room. But if they do, I find that having a little notebook to jot down ideas, to chart a narrative as it is emerging from the documents, and to keep track of what I have done, is enormously helpful.

Appropriate clothes. Mostly I mean appropriate to the weather, something that is worth checking before you leave. Do you need to take a small umbrella? Warm clothes? Or prepare for hot weather? Good walking shoes? How "nice" do you need to look?

On this last, you would be asking the wrong person, since my idea of looking good is jeans, a clean black tee shirt and a suit jacket. Archives actually used to have dress codes, and it is worth checking some of the stuffier, private ones that still might. But again -- keep in mind where you are going and who you will see when you are there. Be informal, but never, ever wear clothes that make you look like you have just stepped in from the beach. No glimpses of midriff, cargo shorts, tube tops. It is not unlikely that at major archives you will run into Important People, and if it matters to you to be able to impress them with your professional demeanor, you should by all means do so. It is also not unwise to be aware of Where You Are. I wear the same clothes all the time; at the GLBT Historical Society I fit right in; at The Reagan Library I stick out like a sore thumb and confound the section of people's brains devoted to matching pronouns with people (although I would hasten to say that everyone is very polite all the same -- and by the way, the food is delicious at the Reagan.)

A guidebook to the area you are going. Because a research trip should be fun too, after you leave the archive. I remember chatting with one of my grad school mentors years ago about whether s/he was going to do any research over the summer, and s/he admitted that the only reason s/he was putting it off was that it was too lonely. I am rarely lonely when I am alone, but I realize that may be unusual: in fact, I often try to schedule a few dinners with friends when I travel on research, and I mark out a couple things I want to do that I might not get to do at home (on this trip that includes a Giants game, dinner at Chez Panisse, and a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore.) But remember that every trip takes you to some place, and particularly if the archive is a local one, you want to get some sense of where you are -- and where the people you are writing about lived.

This last, I can't emphasize enough, regardless of what field you are in: in the end, as historians, it is our job to deliver as honest and insightful account as we can of the people and phenomena we describe in our books. Whatever else history is, it is also art, and a representation of what was. Above all, your research trip should take you to a place, and you need to reproduce that place.

And while you are at it -- did I mention you should have some fun?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

When The Radical Hits The Road: Dispatches From The People's Republic Of Berkeley

Every time I fly to the left coast and feel this disoriented I try to remember that getting from Shoreline to San Francisco back in 1848 took between six and eight months, depending on whether one went overland or took the water route. Of course I feel disoriented: I deserve to feel disoriented, since it is actually absurd to travel that far as fast as I did.

Where am I? Why am I here? Oh.

Well, I'm in Berkeley, where I have never been before, although I have visited San Francisco about four times, and every time I do I phone Mrs. Radical and say, "We've got to move here." Actually, she made the same phone call to me a few months back. And while the part of Berkeley I am in (at least so far) doesn't seem as spiffy as the parts of San Francisco I have been in, the short walk from the hostel where I am staying to Telegraph Avenue was a reminder that there are some places in the world that have not been homogenized and upgraded for the wealthy. I walked by People's Park, which is still decorated with a home made sign, and where they have not fenced in the grass to keep people from hurting it by sitting down and reading a book. There seem to be a fair number of homeless people living there as well, something that is no longer allowed in Tompkins Square Park, a similarly radical and communal space on the Lower East Side of New York during the 1960s and 1970s.

The other thing they have on Telegraph Avenue is culture. I searched "Berkeley" at Indiebound before I left, and this place has nineteen independent bookstores. Nineteen. There are twenty-eight in New York (but that is counting all the Museum bookstores), and there is exactly one in Shoreline, home of a world-class university -- pardon me, two, if you count the used book store operated by the Bryn Mawr College alumni association. And having only walked five blocks of Telegraph, already I have found two record stores. They sell actual vinyl, as well as CD's. I have also located three head shops, which have in the window an impressive collection of bongs, a variety of products to clean the bong, and so on. I took a look around and I do not think finding something to smoke in the bong would really put a person out either.

Oh, yeah. And if there was any doubt in my mind that I wasn't in Kansas anymore Toto, after eating a great Mexican dinner for peanuts at Mario's La Fiesta, I walked into Moe's Books and William Vollman was giving a reading from his new book Imperial.

Everything smells of patchouli. Decades of patchouli.

Anyway, back to business. I am here to do some research for the next three days, and then go to another history camp (a different history camp than the one I attended last summer.) So more about that later. But let me just say: if you are reading this, and you are a friend of mine, and you ever hear that I am considering buying a ticket on Southwest Airlines, please remind me that on the five hour flight from Big Regional Airport to Las Vegas, the chief of the flight attendants performed an ongoing stand-up comedy routine. I missed much of it, thanks to the Bose noise canceling headphones that I had buyer's remorse about three weeks ago but now am thanking the Goddess and Dr. Amar G. Bose for. But the half hour at the beginning of the flight and the half hour at the end of the flight were agonizing, perhaps more so because the man next to me was working on his computer, and had his left elbow jammed in my side; and the (very large) man behind me had his enormous, bare foot up on my other armrest.

What is it about men and space?

Oh I know, my conservative critics will say that I want socialized this and socialized that, but that I have no taste for the volk. Well, I have to admit that my occasional distaste for The People does give me pause: the jolly camp counselor routine is not my bag, nor is the dirty foot in my face thing something I would endure again without delivering a carefully prepared speech to the offender. But I'll tell you one thing: Southwest knows how to get people where they are going, and on time too. In fact, they might want to consider hiring Zenith grad Herb Kelleher to run national health care, because every time he tinkers with his business model it works better. For example, I still find it disconcerting not to have an assigned seat, and I have always hated standing in those lines. On the other hand, you have to queue for every airline. And because the lines to board Southwest planes are no longer free-form (everyone has an assigned place in line, which means seating is first-come, first-serve and people settle where it is easiest once the best seats are full) people become naturally more orderly and rational in how they board the plane. I have never seen planes loaded as efficiently as the two I was on today. It literally took about twenty minutes from the time they started to load to the moment the plane pushed off from the gate, and because they still allow you to check one bag free, there wasn't the added hazard on each end of worrying about whether someone was going to drop a suitcase on your head. Furthermore, although other airlines allow you to pick a seat (aisle, please) it is simply the illusion of choice, unless you are in business class or first class, since more often than not your seat changes on the day of the flight and you end up sandwiched between two babies. So having an assigned seat is actually faux privilege; and certainly not a privilege worth fighting for if Southwest can get me in a seat, any seat, more efficiently and get me to my destination on time.

So that assigned seat is kind of analogous, if you think about it, to the increasingly fragile privilege having private health insurance. Maybe you get what you need, but because other people are being treated in the emergency room, your local hospital goes bankrupt. Or you pay through the nose to make sure you are protected from catastrophe, but then they deny coverage for this and that, and you just pay, and thank your lucky stars that you didn't need an experimental brain transplant or something that would be really expensive and force you to live under a bridge.

I think some folks down on Telegraph Avenue may have already had uninsured brain transplants: I'm going to inquire into that tomorrow when I mosey down there for breakfast, but it sure looks like it.

And then off to the archives. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. President, From Your Favorite Radical

Barack won't get a party as nice as this one (I hear the Senate Democrats are coming over for ice cream, cake and donkey rides) , but Happy Birthday anyway, Mr. President!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Paying The Prison Bill: A Review Of Sunny Schwartz, Dreams of the Monster Factory

Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell, Dreams From The Monster Factory: A Tale Of Prison, Redemption and One Woman's Fight To Restore Justice For All (New York: Scribners, 2009) 204 pp. Hardback 24.00.

Sunny Schwartz, co-founder of the RSVP (Resolve To Stop The Violence Project) is not only one of the freshest voices in prison reform, she is one of the few voices to speak to a popular audience about a national problem as urgent and intractable as health care: the cycle of violence that has resulted in the incarceration of 2.3 million Americans.

A proponent of what is called "restorative justice," Schwartz is not out to be loved by either liberals or conservatives, nor does she spend much time on the issues that dominate prison reform conversations on the left: the conviction of innocent people, the high correlation between incarceration and lack of education, the effects of the war on drugs and harsh sentencing guidelines. She argues that there are people who belong in prison (something many death row attorneys agree with in my experience) and that prisons play a function in society by punishing people for harms they have inflicted. But, she also maintains, the "get tough" attitude promoted on the right for the last quarter century has done nothing to make communities safer, while increasing the national prison population to unmanageable levels. RSVP was founded in 1997 when Schwartz and her colleagues in the San Francisco Sheriff's Department came to understand that none of us are served by prisons when they do not actively work to force prisoners to come to terms with their crimes and change their behavior. And this can't happen unless all of us commit to that as the principle goal of incarceration.

With David Boodell, a television writer and producer, Schwartz has produced a book that lets you see inside prisons, hear the mind-bending noise of the cellblocks she has worked in, and practically smell them too. She started working in prisons as a legal intern, where she began to realize that many prisoners knew that the end of a sentence or a parole date only started the clock ticking towards the date when they would be re-incarcerated for a new crime. Interestingly, she works hard to keep the focus off herself in this book, which is hard because she's pretty interesting -- how many lesbians do you know who went to law school and passed the California bar without attending college? But it's a brave thing to do all the same, in a literary world driven by memoir and sensational personal accounts that make it seem as of nothing of importance happens outside the self. By continually returning the spotlight to prisons, Schwartz keeps an eloquent, ethical focus on what she has devoted her career to: the guards, the prisoners and the crime victims who should all be served better by the billions of dollars spent on so-called corrections. A prison system that is expanding yearly, she argues, is not succeeding. And everyone -- liberals and conservatives, do-gooders and prosecutors, prison guards and defense attorneys, victims and criminals -- has a stake in prison reform that takes positive steps to reduce violent behavior and increase accountability for violent crimes.

Why am I interested in this? In part, because some of our students at Zenith have launched a prison education initiative modeled on the Bard Prison Initiative, and while one of my specialties as a historian is crime, violence and policing, that doesn't exactly prepare you to walk into a prison and teach, nor does it help you teach students about what goes on in prisons and why. This book also underlines an important point which decarceration projects (reducing the influence of the prison-industrial complex to de-emphasize incarceration as a "solution" to crime) tend to obscure: that reforming incarceration practices to demand that prisoners take full responsibility for their own violence needs to be part of a decarceration agenda. Undergraduates in particular, whether in a course that is about prison, social justice or contemporary ethics, are going to love this book; furthermore, because you can't categorize the politics as either liberal or conservative, it will produce a lively classroom discussion. I'm going to tell you right now -- although an Amazon search will tell you there are over 90,000 titles out there, there aren't more than a couple dozen that are as direct, frank and compellingly written as Dreams From The Monster Factory.

You've probably guessed by now that the "monster factory" is the prison itself, a place where violent people are, Schwartz contends, warehoused in such a way as to refine their capacity for violence and return them to society as even more dangerous people than they were when they were originally convicted. "In fact," Schwartz argues, "everything about the system of prosecution and defense is set up so that criminals get into the habit of denying their responsibility." As she explains, the whole system of criminal justice, and the brutality of being imprisoned with thousands of violent people like themselves, creates an atmosphere in which felons perceive themselves as victims:

After their trial, if they're convicted, many don't change their mind-set. Why should they? To truly confront what they've done requires confronting the shame and fear and reality of their situation. Few people choose to do this, because it's difficult. ...So criminals blame someone or something else -- the cop who caught them or their lousy upbringing -- for their circumstances and spend their time growing angrier and angrier about being treated like an animal. They are usually full of rage when they are released, and less prepared to function as citizens; the predictable products of the monster factory. (127)

Given that increasing access to higher education is not on the national agenda but that the ever-politically popular and ambiguous "getting tough on crime" is, the outcomes (that the United States has the largest prison population in the world, that there are more black men in prison than in college) are going from bad to untenable. Furthermore, according to the United States Bureau of Prisons, incarceration rates are still trending up: in 2007, 506 out of every 100,000 men were in prison. Fifty-three percent of the prisoners incarcerated in the United States are serving sentences connected to a violent crime, which is not a surprising statistic until you realize that, while violent felonies are in some ways related to expanded drug trade and drug prosecutions in the United States, only 20% of felons are incarcerated for a felony drug crime alone.

There are things about this book that make it highly teachable: one ongoing theme is what it means to create empathy between and among people who have good reason to distrust and even detest each other. At its most basic, all violence, including the violence internal to prisons, is likely when people fail, or refuse, to recognize each other's humanity. Perhaps what I like best is that the portraits of prisoners, victims and guards are complex and well-drawn, discouraging readers from romanticizing anybody or taking refuge in the idea of pure evil. Critical features of RSVP are honest and provocative. For example, Schwartz bluntly points out that it is entirely reasonable to want to punish someone, even to physically hurt a criminal, who has caused innocent people pain by selfish and cruel behaviors. She's not even certain it's a bad idea. And she doesn't minimize the fact that human beings are capable of terrible things, or that to become the victim of violence changes a person's life forever.

But Schwartz also believes that, by and large our system is failing, and that we need to refocus -- not on "fixing" it -- but simply doing better: funding rehabilitation techniques like RSVP that we know can work, rejecting forms of incarceration that we know will fail. Sometimes success and failure are illustrated in the same person: not just prisoners, victims and guards, but Schwartz herself struggles with demons that can sometimes overcome her. Glimpses of her complex private history reveal the violence and anger passed down in her own family that have given her useful insights into how damaging emotions and behaviors reproduce themselves. Alternatively, her work in prison caused her to see herself and loved ones in a new light. But this ongoing recognition and reflection about self and other re-emphasize throughout the book that the ethic of RSVP is to teach prisoners to acknowledge and take responsibility for the monster within. The more subtle point is that all of us have monsters within, and that when the law-abiding community disidentifies and permanently disassociates itself from the law-breaking community, peace and justice are not restored for anyone. Worse, when the only point of prison is to actively separate the felon from the community, Schwartz argues, it also allows the felon to separate from the consequences of what he has done and transfer the responsibility elsewhere -- to a drug habit, to childhood abuse, to bad luck. Inadvertently, by employing these mitigating factors in court, defense attorneys often create a narrative that erases the victim and justifies the felon's belief that he is, in fact, the injured party.

Schwartz doesn't address several important topics that have become the focus of contemporary critiques of imprisonment: the privatization of prisons, the political influence of prison guards' unions, the ways in which prisons are viewed as a source of jobs for communities that have lost their industrial manufacturing base, or the large, false convictions for capital crimes, and important debates about why so many black men spend part of their lives in prison and what the social effects of that are on our communities. It's not that she doesn't think these are compelling questions -- she does. It's that she is doing something else, something that works.

She's changing people, one at a time.


Here are reviews by Helen Eppstein in the The New York Review of Books and Eyal Press in The Nation.