Wednesday, October 28, 2009

And the Winner, By TKO . . .

A little while back Aaron Bady, blogging at Cliopatria, took on an argument by John McWhorter. This is a rough chronology of events: John McWhorter kicks the snot out of a straw man that he created about African American Studies. Aaron Bady, a real man, steps up in the place of the straw man. Bady proceeds to kick the snot out of McWhorter. Well done, sir.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

At Least I Have My Heal . . . Oh, Wait

I'm back from my epic trip from the Petroplex to the Phoenix area, out east to Washington, DC for the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) conference, and back here. I think I touched down in at least eight cities courtesy of Southwest's sometimes circuitous routes, but I made it back in one piece. Well, sort of. On Friday night/Saturday morning I awoke to tonsils swollen to four times their normal size. It was like swallowing a punching bag. Gagging on one's own epiglottis is not a fun experience. I got a shot yesterday and they are now only twice normal size, so hopefully I'm on the way to full recovery.

Until then, and until I dig my way out from under this pile that has accumulated, I'll leave you with this post from the FPA Africa blog in which I analyze the current state of the ANC and of South African politics more generally. I am trying to spin this into an op-ed, and if I do, you'll be among the first to know.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On the Road Again (Phoenix to DC Edition Self Indulgence Alert!)

I have a heavy travel week coming up. I am off to the Phoenix-area this week for the first few days (Let me just say this: U2) and then am heading straight to Washington, DC where I am giving a paper on democratization in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa at the Association for the Middle East and Africa's (ASMEA) annual meeting. I'll post as I can.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Least Shocking Revelation Ever

Just read in this week's Entertainment Weekly (article not yet available online) an explanation as to why it is apt that the documentary drawing from Jackson's rehearsals for his planned tour will come out around Halloween:
"Halloween was Michael's favorite holiday."

Really?!? A holiday when young children just show up at the doorstep dressed in costumes was Michael Jackson's favorite holiday? I, for one, am shocked.

(Too soon?)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Loving v. Virginia, 2009 Edition

Think issues of race are not still with us? Well, consider this story for as long as your stomach can handle it:

A Louisiana justice of the peace has refused a marriage license to an interracial couple. he's not a racist, mind you (we know this because he says so) but he's just thinking of the children:

"I don't do interracial marriages because I don't want to put children in a situation they didn't bring on themselves," Bardwell said. "In my heart, I feel the children will later suffer."

Apparently being a justice of the peace in Tangipoa Parish also confers on one great wisdom about the ways of marriage. Because, you see, in addition to his expertise on race, Keith Bardwell knows that interracial marriages do not last long. Again, we know this because he says so.

Loving v. Virginia settled this question in 1967, and even that decision came a century too late. Welcome to "post-racial" America, 2009.

[Hat Tip to my former student, Mary.]

Black Dynamite!

Oh, yes. Oh, dear God, yes!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cleveland, Brown

John McWhorter: Not a fan of The Cleveland Show. From what I've seen, neither am I, and for many of the same reasons McWhorter cites. For those unfamiliar with McWhorter's work, he is usually described as a black conservative, though I do not think he embraces the label, and he very rarely "plays the race card" (itself an accusation almost always levied by people who have done or said something racist, but that's a post for another day) making his argument that The Cleveland Show is "Family Guy in Blackface" especially biting.

Take a Lookie Look at Tom's Bookie Book

Tom's book is coming to us in the spring. Consider this just an amuse bouche.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Defending Tenure, Defending the University

In a letter in Sunday's New York Times Book Review Peggy Troupin made as nice a defense of both university education and the tenure process as you'll see in a limited space. I will quote in full:

I went to Harvard with Michael Shapiro (hello, Michael!) and would like to answer his letter to the editor (Sept. 20) in response to Drew Gilpin Faust’s Sept. 6 essay, in which much frustration was manifest. Since graduation I have worked in academia, university administration and the private sector. The university is essentially a medieval institution, a bazaar of intellectual goods hawked by hoary promulgators of many divergent truths. It mysteriously produces, after four years, educated people — university graduates. No one has ever figured out another way to do this. However, the university cannot survive without government funding (replacing the church support of medieval times), contingent upon compliance with an array of complex regulations and laws. This has given rise to an entrenched quasi-governmental bureaucracy of managers.

The tenure system — antiquated, ritualistic and of course unfair — by its very quirkiness protects the academic side from being engulfed by the administrative side, as does the independence of departments. Without these inefficiencies, universities would become little better than branches of government, and the variegated thread to our cultural past would be broken. As long as we don’t tamper too much with the core model, we can limp along and pass something of value on to our children, so they can complain bitterly, in their turn, about the cumbersome, inefficient, unfair and bizarre institution called “the university” (and become educated in the process).

Tenure protects the many so that it can protect the few who most need protecting. There are two kinds of political immersions that can get a professor into trouble. The most obvious of these is simply their politics-qua-politics and how that might have an effect on research, writing, and teaching. But there is also the protection that professors need to be able to speak up within their own world -- academic politics themselves. Especially at smaller institutions it is easy for faculty to have run-ins with administrators over issues of academic policy. And while the outside world oftentimes imagines the academic hierarchy as clear -- naturally a Dean outranks a professor, right? -- the reality is that the demarcation is never that clear, and tenure protects a professor who might be every bit as professionally accomplished, and in many (many, many, many) cases more so than someone who chose to become a dean or VP from being steamrolled based on the real but dubious hierarchy. Professors should not have to forsake teaching and writing to be influential, and tenure in part protects shared governance and standing up against those who no longer speak for what happens in the classroom and in the archives and labs, or who speak with the vision of an administrator.

Updike's Papers

I am not the world's biggest fan of literary criticism as it too often manifests itself in American universities (ie: po-mo/post-structuralist blather). But good writing about books and authors is just about the most important thing imaginable within the walls of a university (other than the teaching, reading, and writing history, of course). Were I an early stage American literature graduate student in Harvard's English department I'd be making a beeline to Houghton Library, Harvard's main repository for archives, rare books, and the like, to check out John Updike's newly acquired papers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The NRO's Descent Into Badness

The sun will rise, the sun will set, and The National Review will continue its descent into farce. National Review Online’s editorial about President Obama winning the Nobel Prize is far from the worst effort NRO has put forward lately. Faint praise aside, we’re going to look at this magnificent piece of scat bit by bit. As is my custom, I will blockquote theirs and preface mine with ***:

Well, that didn’t take long. But it was almost inevitable: the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama. As “the world” hated Pres. George W. Bush, “the world” loves President Obama.

*** Scare quotations marks: the domain of shitty college writers and, well, shitty journalists. Good start.

What do we mean by “the world”? We mean the editors of Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian. The faculty at Brown University.

*** Brown University? What the fuck? This is an odd non-sequiter. But I see where you are going here. You’re going to list “stuff we don’t like” knowing your readers will all follow you, nodding in rhythm.

The secretariat of the United Nations. We mean Lord Malloch-Brown, not Václav Klaus.

***Oooh – name dropping. NRO hates the rest of the world. Except when it does not.

When President Bush visited Iraq for the last time, a foe of his threw a shoe at him. The shoe-thrower was taken to be “the world.”

*** By whom? One citation, please. I would like one fucking citation asserting that the shoe thrower = the world. Oh, sorry, “The world.”

Hugo Chávez even made laughing reference to him recently at the U.N.

*** This is incoherent. To whom is the “him” referring to in this sentence? We must assume Bush, even though between “him” and Bush come both Chavez and the shoe-thrower, not to mention the passive construction “was taken” which must allude to some subject of some sort, though sentence structure is not a strength in this particular editorial.

Many Iraqis admire and appreciate President Bush. They do not count as “the world.”

*** This is just a peculiar sentence. I am sure some Iraqis admire President Bush. But since it is NRO that is making such hay out of this “the world” conceit, it is perhaps not surprising that they are able to come up with a vague example in opposition. Kudos for defeating that straw man you so bravely created, editors! Now kick him when he’s down.

Very much counting as “the world” is the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

*** Ok. This is really getting to be bizarre. We are talking about the Nobel Prize. So the Nobel Prize Committee is going to play a role. Yet rather than simply go after the Nobel Prize Committee to begin with, the chosen subject of this editorial is “the world.”

They practically define it.

*** For fuck’s sake, learn how to use pronouns. And as importantly, how not to. This editorial (see how it works?) is a complete jumble.

Every year since 1901, the peace prize has been given by a committee of five Norwegians. They are appointed by the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. The Nobel Peace Prize always reflects the consensus of Norwegian politics.

*** This strikes me as generalization, but again, it also strikes me as seeming more damning than it really is. I am not certain what is so shocking about a Norwegian body reflecting the consensus of Norway.

And that consensus is, in a word — a word the Norwegians might well choose — “progressive.”

*** Just when I thought the writing could not get any worse . . . .

Others might call it left-wing.

*** I wonder who these "others" might be.

In any case, the Nobel Peace Prize almost never disappoints the editors of Le Monde, the faculty at Brown, etc.

*** This is the second reference to Brown. This makes absolutely no sense in the context of an editorial about the nefariousness of “the world.” Yet NRO is doubling down on their inapt argument.

The committee has said, “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. In the past year Obama has been a key person for important initiatives in the U.N. for nuclear disarmament and to set a completely new agenda for the Muslim world and East-West relations.”

*** Naturally the least objectionable paragraph in this entire piece is almost entirely a quotation.

That is true (at least in part). The Nobel Committee appreciates Obama for his repudiation of all things Bush.

*** Well, repudiating all things Bush makes sense both on the merits and in the politics. Nonetheless, this reductionist argument brings us right back to that straw man again. Poor bastard, being revived only to be beaten up again.

The new president has frozen out America’s allies in Eastern Europe, causing great consternation among them.

*** Actually, the new president has done no such thing. What he did was scrap a program that has never for one brief and shining second shown any signs of working in favor of allocating resources to something that might work. It seems perplexing that now conservatives want to set the bar of international relations down to “consternation” when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world. Or “the world.”

He has put “daylight” between America and its No. 1 Middle Eastern ally, Israel.

*** Perhaps. Or perhaps he has “put daylight” between America and the utterly unjustifiable policy of continuing to build settlements in the West Bank. These are not the same things. Binyamin Netanyahu is not Israel. And Obama’s view is one that has support in many Israeli circles.

He kept almost mum when Iranian democrats massed in the streets to demand a more decent life — the American focus is on negotiating with the regime.

*** This is reductionist piffle. The internal politics of Iran are first and foremost an Iranian matter. Obama spoke out – not loudly enough for some, to be sure – against the crackdowns on the opposition. The American focus is not on negotiating with the regime – that is a tactic, one of several in the arsenal, which also includes the sanctions that the administration just helped impose. This is the sort of profound dishonesty that has come to characterize The National Review.

He gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, the U.N. official who presided over Durban, that hate-Israel jamboree.

*** Yep. Many of us opposed that move, though reducing Mary Robinson to the Durban conference ignores a far more complex person with a far more complex history. Asserting that the most important thing we need to know about Robinson is her role in Durban is akin to asserting that the most important thing we need to know about Ted Williams was that he was a lousy bunter.

He yukked it up with Chávez, giving him a soul-brother handshake and calling him “mi amigo.”

*** He did no such fucking thing. He engaged in the niceties of diplomacy. Sometimes that involves holding hands with Arab heads of state, sometimes that apparently involves peering into the soul of despots, and sometimes it involves using rudimentary Spanish and not being a dick to foreign heads of state. And who the fuck uses the term “soul-brother handshake” in the year 2009? Honkies, I guess. (Honkies who write for magazines that opposed the Civil Rights Act. But that’s tracing a history of the magazine’s relationship with race that can wait for another day. But don't think I am not on to your little game, NRO.)

He went along with an invitation to Cuba to rejoin the Organization of American States — this despite that fact that the OAS is supposed to be for democracies, not police states.

*** Have you seen the countries on the OAS member list? Haiti? Venezuela? I thought conservatives were the ones who took stock of the real world. That “supposed to” shit is pure “progressive” squishiness I tells ya. Our Cuba policy has been stupid for more than a generation by the way.

He had America rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council, which, under Bush, we bowed out of: because it was dominated by such lovely regimes as the ones in Cuba, Zimbabwe, China, Syria, and Sudan; because it existed almost solely to defame Israel.

*** The UN Human Rights Council sucks. It also is almost certainly not going anywhere. Better to be on it and reform from within. We get it though – you’re the one true voice for Israel.

All these moves of Obama, the Nobel Committee appreciates immensely.

*** Holy fucked up syntax, Batman, what is the subject of that sentence?

This is an American president in their own image, the kind of president they will cheer and honor.

*** I know this is supposed to be an insult. It’s not. Just FYI.

For them, Obama is a dream president, just as Bush was a nightmare president. He is the first “post-American president,” as John Bolton and others have said.

*** Ah, yes, the old impugning his Americanness trope. And naturally John Bolton is the most useful person to use to define a president he opposes.

For “the world,” that is a dream president.

*** Seriously – did they farm out the writing of this thing to an intern? And not their best one?

Our Declaration of Independence speaks of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” A decent respect is not a need for approval.

*** And since no one is saying that it is, I have no idea why this quotation and the assertion that follows is included in this essay.

Besides, who is mankind? Merely the Nobel Committee and the shoe-thrower, or Bush-loving Iraqis, too?

*** To whom is this question aimed? Again: Give one citation, just one, from the administration, or indeed from the Nobel Committee, implying that Iraqis do not matter or bolstering the case of the show thrower. You cannot just make shit up. Well, sadly, you can and do. But it’s still made up.

We might ask another question: Whose approval would President Obama rather have: that of the Nobel Committee or that of the Rotary Club in Butte?

*** Well, yes, as far as false dichotomies go, this is a particularly terrible one. Why is Obama being asked to choose?

In recent years, the Nobel Committee has done everything possible to express its abhorrence of Bush and his ways.

*** To which I say: Good job Nobel Committee. George W. Bush was a shitty president. Let’s go have a drink. As long as the Rotary Club of Butte does not want to go – they get priority.

In 2001, they gave the peace prize to Kofi Annan and the U.N. The message, in part, was: “America, you’d better not respond to 9/11 by yourselves, or too aggressively.”

*** Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Going virtually alone in the wrong war at the wrong time was all kinds of dumb, though. I’m no huge Kofi Annan fan, though, so: whatever.

The next year, they gave the prize to Jimmy Carter, and, here, the chairman of the committee was refreshingly candid: saying that they were honoring Carter in order to give Bush “a kick in the leg,” or, in our own parlance, a black eye.

*** What, are your readers so fucking dumb that they would not have been able to figure out that complex leg-kicking metaphor? Actually, strike that question as unnecessary.

A more honorable president might have refused that award, if given for the purpose of bashing the current president.

*** This is certainly my favorite argument: That others should reject the Nobel Peace Prize. This is the equivalent of being pissed at your favorite indie band for having an album that sells a lot of copies and thus spoiling your view of their purity. Jimmy Carter does lots of things that drive me mad. I oppose many of his politics, including many of his views on Israel. But taken as a whole, the man has given his all for humanity. Dispute his receiving the Nobel if you’d like. But to ascribe malign motives for something like this reveals someone as being small and petty. Sand it ain’t Carter.

Another black eye came in 2005, when the committee gave the award to Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei has said explicitly that his goal — his only “brief,” as he has put it — is to prevent military action against Iran. Accordingly, he has repeatedly downplayed that country’s nuclear progress. And the IAEA has repeatedly looked foolish, and blind. In Beijing the other day, ElBaradei said that the number-one threat to peace in the Middle East is . . . Israel, and its nukes.

*** More reductionism. When you use words like “only,” a single exception destroys your case. Given that ElBaradei took his post with the IAEA in 1997, the argument that his sole concern has to do with the Bush administration or its successors is a Goldbergian use of history, which is to say: wrong. Furthermore, the IAEA did work to try to prevent the spread of nukes after 9/11. Again: debate the case on its merits. Don’t lie and misrepresent just to make your case easier to win in the echo chamber. (Especially when you have a decent case.)

In 2007, the Nobel Committee went with Al Gore and the U.N.’s global-warming people.

*** Um, yes. Is there an argument here, or have you just given up?

And now, in 2009, Obama.

*** I have no objections to this sentence. Well, it does not really have a subject. Or a verb. But it’s probably still the best crafted sentence in the essay.

This award will cause people — will cause “the world” — to say that America is back in the fold, back in the good graces of “the world.” After a season apart, under the cowboy Bush, America is a citizen of “the world” once again. In the Nobel Committee sense of “the world,” we are.

*** The funny thing is that there is an argument here that a better writer and more intellectually honest editorial board could have put together. And it could be a good one. But the scare quotation marks, the unwillingness to consider that global opinion toward the United States has improved dramatically with the emergence of Obama (or what some would call “facts” – I can use those little quotation marks too!) and the bizarre and random hopping from lily pad to lily pad have all obscured that argument.

The committee would never have given the award to Ronald Reagan, much as he did for peace, and much as Mrs. Reagan may have wanted it for him. (The committee did award Gorbachev, however.)

*** Gorbachev did more than Reagan did on the issue at hand. And Reagan countenanced Apartheid South Africa and noxious regimes throughout South America. But a Reagan-Gorbachev pairing would have been a good one – and in the future that is the approach the Nobel Committee would take, only to take incredible grief for it.

Years ago, National Review made the editorial quip that the Nobel Peace Prize, every year, should be given to the Defense Department: because the American military was the world’s foremost guarantor of peace.

*** Blah blah blah. It wasn’t as clever as you thought it was then and did not warrant repeating now. In any case, who is the Commander in Chief of the military right now? Or is 2009 the one year it does not hold despite your invoking it now?

A few days ago, there was a rumor that Harry Wu, the anti-Communist dissident from China, would win the peace prize. That was terribly unlikely. Would the committee ever honor Oscar Biscet, the Afro-Cuban political prisoner who is a symbol of hope, defiance, and decency in that country? A virtual impossibility.

*** Counterfactuals are fun. Because they are incontrovertible. Lots of people don’t win the award. John Lewis is a personal favorite of mine. He will never win it. That does not make the exercise an ignoble one.

President Bush gave a Medal of Freedom to Biscet (in absentia, of course); Obama gave one to Mary Robinson. That neatly illustrates the difference between those two presidents, and between types who win the Nobel prize and those who don’t.

*** No. No it doesn’t. It does no such thing. What it does is shows that the editors at NRO sure can cherry pick to make the most fucktarded of arguments in a piece full of developmentally challenged assertions.

Alfred Nobel, a great man, wanted his prize to go to “champions of peace,” men and women who genuinely contributed to peace in the world. He deplored the “absurd and futile efforts of windbags who are capable of thwarting the best of aims.” Can Barack Obama really make a contribution to peace, the way the Reagans of the world genuinely do? Reagan got no peace prize, but he made a huge positive difference, and the world, along with “the world,” should know that Oslo doesn’t always know best.

*** Why was Reagan then not the foundation of this piece? Why did he not appear in the first paragraph? How the fuck can the editors of the National Review have no idea how to structure a fucking opinion piece? (Ronald Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985 and individuals in his administration brokered illegal arms for hostages deals with . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . Iran!!!!)

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama's Nobel

Oh, this is not going to help the crazy coming from the right: Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. There is a chorus already emerging even on the left that he should turn it down. I think that's probably easier said than done, however. For one thing, it's always easy to tell someone else to turn down a Nobel Prize. But for another, you probably don't want to slap the Nobel Committee in the face by rejecting it. My advice, not that anyone is taking it: Take the prize as a gesture of the peace we want and use it as whatever leverage you can to succeed in bringing about peace or at least a world that resorts to diplomay first rather than last.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

"A Good Pan of Chicken"

The New York Times had a great feature a while back on small-town West Texas football.

Hat Tip to my student, Cannon.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Olympian Ideal!!! (Self-Indulgence Alert)

On page 7a of the print edition of today's Odessa American readers saw this, under the title: "Reading, Riding." (The image is copyright protected so I cannot post it. Odd, since one would think I would get some proprietary claim over a photograph of myself.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thom Yorke's ??????

The New York Times has the skinny on Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke's new side project, which as of yet is untitled and is going under the presumably temporary moniker ??????. I liked Yorke's solo album and almost certainly will like this new band's output, but I nonetheless would prefer that Radiohead put out a new damned album, thank you very much.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Past Isn't Everything

A college with a history-only curriculum? As a history professor who is known to privilege my discipline above all others, I'm supposed to love this idea, right? Not so fast. I am a firm believer in a liberal arts education and believe that history ought to be front-and-center in such a curriculum. But I do not think that history ought to be alone. Literature, sciences, the arts, social sciences -- these too matter. I cannot imagine a university that only produces history majors being a university I would want to attend, or that I could imagine wanting to send kids to attend. I realize that the school in question is a junior-senior college, which changes the dynamic somewhat, but the idea of a single-discipline college or university crashes headlong into my love of a true liberal arts education.