Sunday, May 31, 2009
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
It is good to be back in Texas. Had Mexican food for dinner. After a month of rainy dampness, i enjoy the heat, but it's draining me. Sleep will feel nice.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
It has been a great trip. Last night I painstakingly made sure to download everything I had worked on at my office computer from my flash drive to my laptop, a process that is essential lest some of the work get lost if I work from the wrong version. I packed up and watched the Champions League final, a somewhat anti-climactic 2-0 Barcelona win. This morning I had intended to come to the office early, but whether it's because I grew up poor, am cheaper than I'd like to admit, or am a glutton, I decided to have a bit of a cook up of all of the perishable food I had left. Which was not too much, but was enough to leave me pretty stuffed -- a couple of eggs, four bangers, several glasses of milk, three glasses of juice, and, of course, cheese.
I'll miss Keele. It is far enough off the beaten path that no one just ends up here. Which means that I may not be back for some time, though I'd like to assume that I'll come back someday. It's been a wonderful month. A productive month (I worked on some 20 different documents this month, though a few were tied to my presentations here). A month of opportunity. I'll pay for it with what will seem like an immensely long day, but then the reward will be that tomorrow I'll board a plane bound for Texas, bound for home.
None of this would have been possible without the support of the David Bruce Centre for American Studies at Keele University, and particularly the help and support of Axel Shafer, the center director. Many individuals came to my talks, welcomed me into their classrooms, took me out for coffee or meals, and generally made me feel like I was part of Keele. I will never forget that. And I will miss it.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
It's been a wonderful 24 hours. A dear college friend, an American expat now living down in Cornwall, came up. She stayed at new friends' she had met through her sister in law and they kindly came and picked me up yesterday evening. They are, in the local parlance, posh, with a gorgeous house in Crewe, just a few miles from Keele. They overfed us and plied us with good wine (and port, and scotch . . . much of it with, need I say it, amazing cheese) and wonderful conversation. More importantly, I was able to catch up with Gillian. Then today she came to campus with her two children. It was great having them here because I did some things on campus I had not yet tried, including playing a cutthroat game of hide and seek in the stunning nature reserve behind massive, imposing, impressive Keele Hall. There was tree climbing and grass throwing (I was the big victim of the newly mowed projectiles) and running and silliness and tree climbing. There was a late English breakfast. And there was lots of reconnecting with an old friend I get to see too infrequently.
Now I am simply trying to get as much done as possible before giving in o the inevitable reality that time has run short here at Keele. I am saying my gradual goodbyes and am lamenting tasks left unfinished, goals left unmet, opportunities squandered, but also celebrating tangible production in the form of newly printed pages and newly saved files and freshly minted experiences. Tonight I'll watch Manchester United take on Barcelona for the Euro Cup Finals. I will pack. I will sleep in Keele for the last time, at least on this trip. And I will awake with London awaiting my arrival.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Because I'm not a dunderheaded asswit like Sean Hannity (and his ilk), discussions about countries being better than one another, and blindly jingoistic discussions about the United States being the greatest most awesome and fantastic and free and bestest country in the whole wide world hold little interest to me. Such preening simply re-enforces what the rest of the world thinks about Americans without contributing anything useful to our understanding of America and without recognizing that America's demonstrable greatness sill leaves us with a country riddled with flaws and shortcomings.
America is best understood as a country always in the process of becoming. One need not embrace a Whiggish interpretation of history to believe that the future can be better than the present, especially when it comes to the United States fulfilling ideals that even on paper have not always been especially virtuous (3/5 compromise, anyone?). I love my country. But that love is not blind, nor does it exist without an awareness that mine is not the only country worth loving. (And I suppose I am something of a country polygamist in any case; I love England and South Africa and Ireland and have had flings with several more in between, and if I'd have had a bit more time and a bit more money I'd have given in to Norway's and France's come hither looks a bit earlier in the month. Though I do always return to the United States in the end.)
Which is why I am thinking of cheese. Because I love cheese. Love love love love love it. Cheese makes just about everything better and makes almost nothing worse. And cheese in the UK and Ireland (and from what I understand almost all of Western Europe at the minimum) is a gazillion times better than the cheese in the United States.
"But dcat," I can hear you saying, "I can get excellent cheese in the United States if I go to the right places."
And this is true, sort of, though our regulation both of food generally and of foreign foodstuffs in particular means that actually it's not entirely true from both a quality and an availability perspective. And more to the point, good cheese in the United States is the domain of the affluent. If you are willing to spend $10 in the right kind of specialty shop you can get decent cheese, but in general, even that is likely to pale compared to the blocks of cheese that I can get for under £2 (the exchange rate can be volatile, but for now about $3.50) by randomly grabbing blindly whatever is available on the shelf at the on-campus grocery store, which no one confuses with an especially great grocer's. For real selection I would have to go into town where a fat man's bounty of cheese awaits. Still, just about any cheese I pick off the shelf here is going to be better than just about any cheese I pull off the shelf at a grocery store in the United States.
The same goes for chocolate. But I like cheese better and as both a consumer and someone who likes to cook, am on more solid ground discussing cheese. The cheese here is really freaking good.
So eat it, Hannity, you insufferable douchenozzle.
Another example of the strides we have taken comes from the most unlikely place, Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County. Philadelphia was the scene of perhaps the most notorious race murders during the civil rights era, the killing of civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney during Mississppi's Freedom Summer in 1964 (this is the story that provides the backdrop for the deeply flawed movie Mississippi Burning). Philadelphia also was where Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign for the Presidency in 1980, which may be excusable, but at that kickoff he gave a speech in support of state's rights, which, less than a generation removed from Freedom Summer, was and is inexcusable. A remarkable thing happened recently in Philadelphia. The city elected its first black mayor, a Pentecostal minister and former city manager named James Young. Philadelphia is 56% white (though Young only garnered a third of the white vote) and it does not appear that Young's election will raise any racist ripples.
We should not overstate what Young's election means. (This year Montgomery County High School in Georgia held separate but equal proms for white and black students, as it has just about every year since the schools there were desegregated in 1971.) But we also should not understate what it all means. As the civil rights activist Charles McDoo has often said, those who say things haven't gotten any better were not there. Things have gotten better. but that does not mean we have gone far enough. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that we have.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Conan, meanwhile, has always been my favorite of the three. I was living in Boston (well, Somerville) in abject poverty when Conan's show debuted, and while I know that he is hit or miss with many people, I liked the show from the beginning, at least in part because he is willing to take risks that Leno never would and is a bit zanier than Letterman, whose ironic detachment occasionally feels slightly calculated even if it is a persona I like more than Leno's. I'll be rooting for O'Brien when he makes his debut next week, and will be wishing him well as the subtext -- Leno is not thrilled to be leaving the 11:30 slot -- plays out. I suspect that early on Leno's fans, who qualify as firmly middle-brow, will resent the new interloper, but hopefully Conan's audience will have time to bloom.
Yet whatever their mixed record for society (Josiah Wedgwood also was an ardent anti-slavery activist and was active in a host of what we might call progressive social causes) the products that came from Wedgwood are undeniably beautiful. I spent much of the afternoon -- the first absolutely beautiful day of my trip, warm and sunny and clear -- at Wedgwood yesterday with Axel Schafer, the director of the Bruce Centre and the closest thing I have to a host or sponsor here. We had lunch at Wedgwood, then went to the shop where I took care of the gifts that will allow me safe passage back in to to my home, and then spent a long time in the brand new museum facility, which houses thousands and thousands of examples of the craftsmanship that has defined Wedgwood products for 250 years.
From Wedgwood (after stopping in briefly to watch a local cricket match) we went on to a massive, lovely public garden. Flanked by a lake, as well as by an upscale shopping district that one must traverse in order to gain access to the gardens -- canny, that -- the area (Trentham, I believe) is a pretty good example of what was once upscale public amusement -- think of it as Disney for the Victorian set -- but that has increasingly become accessible to the masses. We did a great deal of walking, perambulating around the perimeter of the lake, as well as throughout the gardens along grassy footpaths and gravel paths, pausing to read the descriptions of the development of the park, going to an elevated stand to overlook the whole tableaux, checking out the merging of old architecture -- an ancient banquet hall exposed to the elements with the new craftsmanship of the garden layout.
From there it was off to the Sneyd Arms for a meal -- I had fish and chips -- and an ale, and then home, tired from the walking and happy for the sun's revitalization. Four days are left in my latest England adventure, and just three in Keele, with today my last full day to work before a friend rolls in for a couple of days, and then Thursday I tie off loose ends and drag myself and my bulky bags, which will be no lighter after a month here, to London and the multiple trains and tubes that will lead me to a hotel, to Heathrow, and eventually on to Texas.
Oh, and Happy Memorial Day. To any veterans who might be reading: Thank you for your sacrifice, your bravery, and the honor you do to our country.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
I have a little extra jump in my step because in addition to working on my book on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s, I have also been working on a project on Massive Resistance to the Integration of Ole Miss that I have dabbled with off and on for several years. Indeed, it has its roots in my MA thesis at UNC-Charlotte, and even before that the idea took form as a seminar paper at Williams. In recent years I had envisioned the project as a series of journal articles, and indeed one of these, an article on the role of football in the Ole Miss crisis, came out last week in the latest Sport History Review. But all along I thought the project might make for a short book. As I have been working on the project these last few weeks, the disparate sections started to congeal, and increasingly I felt that indeed a book was waiting to peek out of this larger project.
Well, yesterday I contacted a publisher, and it looks like we are going to see if this is a workable project. I am a little nervous because a respected senior historian has been working on what is supposed to be the defining book on Ole Miss and race for going on two decades. And after competing with really big-name authors with both Bleeding Red and Freedom's Main Line (SHAMELESS!), one would think I would have learned my lesson. But for now I am moving forward. We'll send this one out and see what the press' internal reviewers think.
It's another crisp day at Keele, though I have to admit we've seen relatively little rain. I actually even have been able to wear my strappy sandals today, though admittedly that is as much about wishful thinking as about the facts on the ground. Tomorrow will be another quiet one, though in the afternoon I will be going to explore some of the local area's points of pride. In the meantime, it's time for dinner. My recognition of the lack of rain usually results in a downpour, so i think it might be best for me to scamper out of here while the sun is still shining. I think a pub dinner is calling my name.
Friday, May 22, 2009
When I got back form Oxford I was in a bit of doldrums, I must admit. But suddenly just a few days later I realize that I am a short-timer here at Keele. One week from today I will be on an American Airlines plane bound for the United States. (Just as a courtesy -- if you are flying internationally, I'd avoid American. It is a terrible, terrible international airline. And I have flown a lot of different airlines, so I do have a broad basis for comparison. Come to think of it, I'd avoid American domestically as well, but given that my choices on the domestic front flying from Midland-Odessa tend to be Southwest or American first and foremost, I just have to live with American's awful, awful, bad, terribleness. Have I mentioned the awfulness?) Given that my calendar is beginning to fill up, my guess is that the next few days will fly by fairly quickly.
With a week to go, here are seven things I am very much looking forward to:
1) Seeing Mrs. dcat. These long trips were a lot easier when I was single, as there was no one to miss back home. Damn her and her ways!
2) My shower. I am really seriously sick of taking baths every morning.
3) Wearing shorts and a t-shirt. They say here that rainy Mays equal great summers. Good for them. I want to see some sun. To hell with the UK summer!
4) Mexican food (4a) My kitchen. I am going to cook a fifteen course meal (give or take) my first day back. I've been able to do some decent cooking in my flat, but ingredients are of necessity limited, the space is tiny, and my tools are fairly shoddy.
5)TV. Or not just tv, but my tv, and especially sports plus my accumulated tivo fare plus bucketloads of digital cable channels.
6) Different clothes. I get sick of the same suitcase load of options, even if I packed reasonably thoroughly enough.
7) My bed. Queen size, nice pillows, a good mattress. Oh -- and a warm body. (See #1).
Oh -- did I mention that it's rainy again today? Did I really need to?
Thursday, May 21, 2009
You also should check out the main FPA Blogs page that consolidates the work of all of the organization's bloggers. We are the largest network of foreign affairs blogs on the web (or so they tell us!) and our readership has been huge and growing. Even if you do not always check out the Africa Blog, bookmark the main page to get as good an overview of a range of global issues as is available anywhere.
I believe (or perhaps merely couch hope in its more optimistic cousin) that most will survive and will adapt because there will always be a legitimate need for university presses and their variegated missions and there will be enough far-seeing folks at the presses, in the universities, and in the legislatures to help them by. But these are troubling times, and the fact that many will survive and adapt is probably slim solace for those that do not. Genoways' essay is essential reading for anyone who loves books and journals, especially literary journals, and who understands what a central role publishing ought to be to serious universities. Let us hope his cri du coeur does not go unanswered.
As my checking account begins to get sorted -- it usually takes a day or two for charges from here to register, more for the inevitable fees that accompany some transactions, including the multiple fees attached to an ATM withdrawal -- it seems clear that I probably should not risk a big trip this weekend. I have a ton of traveling still ahead this summer, am a short-timer with at least one trip in England next week before heading to London and the trip home. And I would like to maximize my Keele time. So all of that indicates that the sensible thing to do would be to stay home. Of course I am not exactly renowned for always doing the sensible thing, so do not be shocked if the next time you hear from me I am bound for Oslo or Vienna or something.
Got the new glasses. They are expensive but fine. For those who know me, they are a bit chunkier than my old pair, a slightly more Buddy Holly or Elvis Costello look. Mrs. dcat probably won't be too thrilled -- she prefers a slightly more understated look. Methinks she'll be happy enough to have me back, however fleetingly, that she'll overlook my brazen eyewear-related fashion choice.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Now I fully expected Boston to rank at the top -- I could not even think of a city that would come close. So how to explain the methodology, and therefore the results, whereby Indianapolis (with exactly one championship during the time period under discussion, the period since 2000) ranks number one and three Canadian cities are in the top ten? (With Vancouver being ranked #3 -- do they count the Grizzlies, who did not leave town until after the 200-2001 season, in which the Grizz had a .280 winning percentage? Or the second half of a 1999-2000 season when they were slightly worse?)
First, they are going solely by winning percentage. Which is just inane -- in the time that Indy has won one title between its two teams that count (the Pacers and the Colts) the Boston teams IN THOSE SAME TWO SPORTS have won four championships. And the Red Sox have added two. Winning percentages in sports with actual championships are fairly meaningless as anything other than a rough aggregate. North America isn't the freaking British Premier League. And thank God for that, though relegation in our sports leagues would be awesome.
But how to explain the Canadian presence? Well, despite not counting Major League Soccer -- an exclusion I can live with, though why include the NHL in that case? -- the survey counts THE CANADIAN FUCKING FOOTBALL LEAGUE! That's right -- Vancouver's football team counts as much as the Cleveland Browns just because they are in the position every year of winning their Gray Cup. Any of the worst Cleveland Browns teams of any one of the last ten years (which provides a bevy of options) would take an all star team drawn from the best Canadian Football League team of the last ten years and would rape, pillage, plunder, and rape that team again. This is not even an argument I will have. I am simply right.
Look -- no argument drives me insane more than when some nimrod claims that a great college sports team in any given year would beat the worst professional team in that sport. The best team will have ten to twenty guys become professionals, not all of whom will pan out. The worst professional team still consists of much more talented players all of whom, tautologically enough, managed to become professional football players. Last season's historically woeful Detroit Lions would beat last year's Florida Gators by fifty every time out. But I will make the claim that the collegiate "national champion" (fuck the BCS) in any given year would easily be able to compete in the CFL, which draws its talent from a pool that does not include the 250+ new players drafted into the NFL. The talent disparity so clear between even the worst (real) professional team and the best college team in that same sport is fully mitigated when talking about the talent level in the CFL.
Anyhow, the upshot: The Toronto Star sports section is clearly populated by ridge-browed asstards.
This is why we should probably just take over Canada.
Nonetheless, when abroad I miss American sports and will go to great lengths to see baseball, football, basketball, and even hockey if it is televised anywhere. Late last night one of the British networks that I can access in my flat (I could probably see every game of all of my sorts were I to own a satellite dish or full cable package) played the live feed of the Nuggets-Lakers game, which I was able to watch until halftime rolled aound at 3 am, and even then I went to bed to avoid seeing the lowlights of the C's-Magic series.
But there is an interesting approach to presenting American sports here in the UK. While they pull in American feeds, either live or tape delayed, they have a British studio show. The same guy does all of the shows for the big three American sports, or at least the weekly games of the week. He's an affable enough fellow and certainly likes and knows the game well. Then he has a sidekick. And the sidekick fits one of two models: He is either an American player drawn from something like the 29th tier of former players -- a guy you've never heard of, or whose four-game cup of coffee with the Reds got him his stint (as former star) -- or else he is a British athlete who played one of the sports with a comparable level of accomplishment. And again, these people are generally fine, know the game, did play the game, and they tend to be good at bringing the games to an audience that might not know it all that well, though something tells me that the huge percentage of the community watching the late-late-late night programming may come from a knowledgeable expat community.
But again, all well and good, and done far better than we do rugby or cricket, and probably not much better than we do soccer.
But then here is the kicker. When they show their highlights packages, rather than simply crib from Sportscenter or from TNT/ABC, the British highlights are put together with what I can only assume is some American expat in his 20s, and the quality is laughably bad, like the substitute local news sports reader for some rural market. He's way too loud and gratingly enthusiastic for the highlights, tries to be hip and colloquial, has lousy timing, and is generally a complete amateur goofball. And I do not mean by the standards of professional broadcasting.
You know how the lowest rung of argumentation is when someone says "who are you to criticize? Could you do that?" It's a dumb argument because it means no one can pass judgment on anything except those in their own professional areas of expertise and that no one thus can have any opinion but to be an accepting automoton. nonetheless, even using that crude measuring stick my answer is: Absolutely. I would do a much, much better job of narrating the sports highlights than this guy. I have a modest but real background in broadcasting sports on the radio, I know the games, I know how to modulate my voice, and I know better than to refer to a dunk as a "flushjob" on two consecutive highlights. Pretty much every time I am here I am tempted to figure out who produces these shows and to add my services -- I have written quite a bit about sports, not many people here could plausibly claim to know all three games better than I do, and I also understand British sporting culture.
In any case, it's still raining off and on here. I. Am. So. Sick. Of. Rain.
Oh, and in case you haven't noticed, British politics are in quite a state.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I just returned to my office after a trip to the Student Union, where I discovered that my Paris trip is likely not going to happen, and where I stumbled upon arguably the worst chicken sandwich in the history of chicken sandwiches. But by adding a huge packet of chips I ended up paying only £3, which is not bad. I mean as far as costs for a big packet of hot chips and an awful chicken sandwich.
I can see out my office window that the weather has turned again. When I walked to the union the sky still had a great deal of blue popping out from the clouds, but it's pretty well completely enveloped by gray clouds now and it has started to rain. An hour or two ago it poured torrentially, just as it did yesterday when I was walking form one side of campus to another. It appears that the sky is opening up again now.
In case any of you are curious, you can get a history of Keele here, the university home page is here, the History Department here, the American Studies Department here, the David Bruce Centre for American Studies here, and links to pictures of campus here. I have not yet taken my camera out of its case to get some shots of campus, but that might be a goal in my now apparently Frenchless weekend, assuming I can get some sort of break in the rain.
Monday, May 18, 2009
One of the interesting aspects of train travel is how much of the hidden world you see. By their very nature train tracks cut a swath through a country, but they usually try to do so in ways that are unobtrusive to most (which is to say, to the upper-middle and upper classes. So one ends up seeing a great deal of hustle and bustle in places like garages, or the loading docks of warehouses, or the parking lots of office buildings the shiny facades of which are presented to the public. Train tracks overlook fences and reveal the mundane. Yet there are aspects of the mundane that we rarely see.
Partially it is a function of the country's scale, but train travel in Britain is great. It is convenient, and if not exactly cheap, it is also not exactly expensive. Trains are frequent -- one can leave Stoke-on-Trent station every hour at seven past en route to Oxford. Coming back there are two trains an hour, largely because the Cross Country Rail route to Stoke is one that passes through Birmingham and Manchester. If I end up going to Paris this weekend, I'll almost certainly end up going via train for at least part of the route.
As I say, Oxford was great. Caught up with RoJo right away and stayed at his family's North Oxford home. Managed to round up a couple of the Armitage Shanks each night along with some other friends of theirs and sat around talking and joking and arguing. Saturday afternoon involved a grand ramble through vast Port Meadow, which though I did not really realize that a meadow could be such a thing, is quite famous. Four of us, and three big, rambunctious dogs, walked for miles and miles along a river bank, passing through docile bovines and regal equines, through muddy bogs and near a nature preserve. We earned our pies and ale that night, much of which we enjoyed at the Gardener's Arms, one of the most preferred pubs of the Armitage Shanks, alongside The Lamb and Flag (drinks on Friday evening) and The Turf (lunch on Sunday) and a few others.
But while I am happy to have gotten to Oxford, I may not go to Paris, which I hoped to accomplish this weekend. I managed to fix the glasses situation of Friday morning with superglue and the repair job held and does not look too ridiculous, save for the fact that the result is noticably crooked and that it left an indelible smear of superglue on the corner of my left lens. It's precarious, and at some point will break again. So I headed on down to Newcastle (not the Newcastle way up North with the famous Ale and the football team that is likely to be relegated after this coming week's Premier League conclusion, but a smaller one that nonetheless provides the closest market town to Keele, because lord knows that England has run out of names for places) to an optometrist. But of course my eye insurance does not carry here, and things in the UK can be more pricey. Plus, I went to the aged shop of a colleague rather than to the massive chain store, and supporting locals is great, but it's not cheap. In any case, in two days, and some £350 later (trust me for those disinclined to figure out the exchange rate -- it's a huge amount of cash) I'll have new glasses that will look much like my old glasses. I will, I imagine, feel akin to how I always do after a costly car repair -- I spend a bunch of money to get back my car as it was status quo ante. The necessity of the transaction does not make it particularly pleasurable. Keele has a university travel center, so hopefully they have some acumen on reasonably priced trips across the way to France. Otherwise, that trip will have to wait for another time.
Part of my need for new glasses and unwillingness to roll the dice on them lasting out the trip is that within a day or two of my return to Texas I have to turn around and head to New York. I am being interviewed for a documentary on the Freedom Rides and do not want to roll in to my close-up looking like Professor Frink.
Today for lunch I was invited by a retired senior professor in the history department to a quaint out of the way pub in one of the nearby villages. Bothomley is one of seemingly countless little villages in the area. Many have nice, ancient homes, most have one little pub that serves as the center of community life, though some of those pubs are dying as the housing market for those lovely homes become the domain of rich folks buying a holiday house. This pub -- I believe it is the White Horse -- has the requisite character and serves a lunch that draws people from all around. We got there by noon to beat the rush, and while we were early enough to be the first to order, within minutes the two tiny rooms were bustling with conversation and orders from the bar and the clicking of forks on plates. I ordered oatcakes, a regional specialty, that can best be described as an oat pancake or crepe folded around cheese and onions and in this case (there was some discussion as to what constitutes a true oatcake) tomatoes, beans, and bacon (British version). It was tasty and filling. We were also accompanied by an elderly cardiologist who was one of professor Adams' contemporaries. The conversation was lively and wonderful, breaking all laws of subjects that are supposed to be taboo (politics and religion were fair game) and ranging far and wide. It was a wonderful afternoon and helped me to fight off some mid-trip doldrums that crashed over me last night upon my return.
I'm back and with less than two weeks to go now. My time is open and I hope to get a ton of writing and revising done in my remaining time here. If only the damp, raw, rainy weather would pass. That's not great for the mood. Suffice it to say one of the many things I am looking forward to upon returning to Texas is stepping into glorious, unremitting heat. Which I will enjoy for a few minutes before wistfully saying "boy, it was nice and cool at Keele."
Friday, May 15, 2009
Breaking one's glasses abroad is nearly intolerable.
Breaking one's glasses on a day when one is supposed to catch a train to Oxford makes one wonder if one is being punished for previous sins.
Breaking one's glasses when one qualifies as blind as a bat sans glasses is fate's cruel way of playing a joke.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
When I am abroad, I don't have a car. If I had a car, I would drive it. But also, when I am abroad, I tend to live on on near university campuses, where even if I did have a car, my parking spot at my residence would almost certainly be about as good a spot as I could locate. But also, in most places in the world, and England and Keele certainly qualify, there is simply more of a walking culture. On campus, the default mechanism is walking, and one would come up with a reason not to. At home, the default mechanism is driving, and one comes up with reasons to walk.
And I do not mind. I enjoy walking, even though I am not the biggest fan in the world of hiking (not because of the walking, but because of the pointlessness, mostly). But there have been times in my life when even hiking took on a utilitarian bent. When I lived in South Africa in 1997 hiking became another way to deeply immerse myself in the country, and I had friends who hiked, and we'd camp and have a wonderful time. I suppose I could recapture that in the United States, and in the right context and with the right people, I am certain I would. But I also think that in 1997 I simply walked everywhere. It became the norm. If I left town, I went with a good friend who had a car, and certainly did not reject rides as they came. But I also thought nothing of walking 2-3 miles to a friend's or girlfriend's house if a ride was not available, something almost unimaginable in the US.
These days my walks cover a fairly familiar path. I leave my flat, which is probably several hundred yards or so from the middle of campus. I go down to the news agent at the student union and pick up The Guardian and The Independent (yes, I still stubbornly cling to news print even though I also subscribe to numerous newspapers online and well know the direction of the newspaper industry's fortunes). From there I head somewhat back in the other direction to come to my office. In the evening I might walk home, but usually do so via the grocer's in the same general area as the news agent, and I might walk to the pub. I certainly walked more when I was at Oxford in 2005, or in Grahamstown in South Africa whenever I return there. But in both cases those were simply functions of scale -- Oxford is bigger than Keele, and the town is more integrated into the university; Rhodes University is part of Grahamstown, adjacent to the main part of town.
I'll go home for two weeks and will walk less, or when I walk it will be purely as recreational endeavor, as Mrs. dcat and I like to go for walks, oftentimes on the big loop around campus. But that will be walking to walk, as opposed to walking as a modus vivendi, as it is in so much of the rest of the world, and as it is for me here.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Discovered the postgrad pub here that everyone raves about. Well, not discovered, it was already there. But I found it.
Walking home (sober) I stepped off the sidewalk to let three students pass. But the sidewalk was on a slope, and the sidewalk is flanked by a thin strip of concrete that protrudes an inch or so above the surface. The ground on the slope was muddy and slippery, I wiped out, and smashed my shins directly on the concrete trim. My biggest problem at first was saving face, which became impossible when the very sweet students kept trying to help me, and I just wanted to get away. Then I discovered, once my shame faded that a contusion that size of a cricket ball (culturally assimilated!) has instantly sprung up on my leg.
They show The Wire at 11:25 on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights on BBC 2. They are in the midst of season two, which is probably my least favorite of the five seasons but is still among the greatest television seasons ever put on the screen. I was ready to go to bed when it was done, but I noticed that NBA basketball was coming up. I assumed it was a highlights show of some sort. Nope -- Celtics-Magic Game 5 live! I was up all night. Great win for the guys in green, coming from a double digit deficit to take a 3-2 series lead.
Still got up early to come to campus to participate in the last meeting of the Southern History seminar. I talked a bit about school integration, focusing on Ole Miss, a topic on which I am working on a project of undetermined outcome.
Had lunch with several faculty and graduate students before my research presentation, which I thought went quite well. I was happy with it anyway, and we had great conversation afterward and I have several great ideas to carry me forward.
Tonight Wigan Athletic Club is nearly the last line of defense between Manchester United and another Premier League title (ManU may still need a tie this weekend if they do win). Given that Manchester is about 40 minutes away from Keele, I expect a heavily ManU crowd to gather at the student union, so I might have to go check it out, as a live Premier League game appears not to be in the cards. Plus I have a soft spot for plucky Wigan, which was promoted to the Premier League when I was in Oxford in 2005.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
One major similarity between academic culture in the United States and in the UK is the enveloping sense of pessimism about academic life. The list of complaints is remarkably similar in both cultures despite the separation of the Atlantic. And the criticisms have credence. I will list just a handful: Students are apathetic/ill-prepared/worse than they once were/entitled/lazy. Administrators are daft/invasive/clueless/capricious/annoying/ignorant and insensitive to the needs of professors/departments/programs. Politicians intervene in the world of higher education without any real clue as to how things work and with ideological blinders firmly in place. We are too reliant upon time consuming assessments and metrics that do not actually tell us anything useful. Academic fads and fashions that tend to be imposed from above shift without warning. Technology leaves us in a state of flux on issues ranging from research (our own and our students -- the Wikipedia problem in the case of the latter), copyright, and library acquisitions. The effort to rigidify research outputs does not serve research or learning. The over-reliance upon student teaching evaluations re-enforces the consumer model and shackles professors and in turn hinders good teaching. The list goes on.
Read Times Higher Education, the weekly magazine for higher education, and one quickly realizes that with the exception of configuration and formatting and the vast and impenetrable gap between English and English and one could be reading the Chronicle of Higher Education in terms of many of the lamentations and concerns and debates. And yet my colleagues both here and at home should take a longer view. I am in the midst of reading three books about higher education. One is a collection of essays from academics in the humanities and social sciences calling for a radicalized and more politically engaged professoriate. Another of the books comes from a respected historian lamenting the state of the academy at least in part for the opposite reasons from his colleagues in the collected essays. And the third book wants to remind a skeptical profession of the utility of that most beleaguered and endangered species: the classroom lecture. But here is where we should perhaps take solace, step back, realize that the sky is not falling, and understand that higher education is always in crisis. The three books? The radical historian Theodore Roszak's collection The Dissenting Academy, published for the first time in 1967; historian of the Soviet Union Adam Ulam's The Fall of the American University (1972), and British education specialist Donald Bligh's What's The Use of Lectures (1971). I am not arguing that we should be sanguine about some of the very real threats we face. But I am willing to make the case that we overstate our dire sraits both here in the UK and back at home. Universities are remarkably adaptable. And one thing we should realize is that invasive administrators, clueless (and also invasive) politicians, disappointing students, and transformations in technology (inter alia) have always been with us. But so too have committed and sensitive administrators, wise and understanding politicians, and clever and dedicated students, and we have always adjusted to the new technologies. I, for one, do not lament the rise of the electronic library catalogue.
Vincent Vega had it right in this case: It's the little differences. And in academic culture there are lots of little differences between the US and the UK. But on most of the big things, including our fears and complaints, we are all part of very similar basic cultures of higher education. And thirty years from now we will probably be able to read a whole host of books from academics lamenting academic life in 2009 even as a host of such books and articles are being published at the time. Twas always thus, and always thus will be. As with most aspects of life, when we look back in the not-so-distant past and look for a golden age, there is one discovery to be made: there never was a golden age.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Then that afternoon, Weednesday May 13th, I give my research presentation, "'Digging in For a Long Fight': Bus Boycotts, White Supremacy, and Black resistance in the US and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s." That will take place at 2:30 in the David Bruce Centre Seminar Room (CBB 1.030). If you happen to be in the general vicinity of the University of Keele, you can see me present a talk about what amounts to the first three chapters of my next book.
Thursday I am leading a seminar on the American West for the director of the Bruce Centre, who is out of town and offered me the chance to take his class for one of its sessions. I have two hours, and we'll mostly talk about regional identity and what it means. I have no particular expertise on the West, but I do feel as if I know a bit about regionalism in the United States and how regional identity can be contested.
My reward for work well done (or, for that matter, for work done) will be a trip down to Oxford where there will be a no doubt debauched reunion of the Armitage Shanks. I look forward to returning to Oxford, to seeing good friends, and to closing down all manner of pubs and bars. Until then, though, I have writing to do.
Oh, and as good news goes, this is pretty exciting as well: HBO has picked up David Simon's new series, Treme. Simon is, of course, the genius behind The Wire. Treme will be set in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
The people watching was equally good. A high percentage of the patrons were clearly locals, drawn either from the surrounding village (I think it is Keele Village, but I am not certain) or else from the university community. There were slightly soused women in funny hats all dressed up and just returned from an ascot. There were men in tweed and herringbone who seemed frozen in another era, mid-century mannered Englishmen out for a pint, perhaps back from a fox hunt (the area screams fox hunting), saying things like "the man who raised me was of the traditional sort. He said what he meant and he meant what he said." (I normally hate reconstructed dialogue, but I liked that one so much I actually punched it into my Blackberry at the time.) There were young lovers and older couples and groups celebrating birthdays. There were people so pale they seemed one step removed from albinism. Men shouted at the football matches using words like "bugger" and "bloody." And while the law now allows pubs to stay open later than it once did, last call is still at 11:00 in the Sneyd Arms.
I do not want to fetishize an imagined English tradition nor to reduce the night to a set piece. The pub has its share of spiky haired young men speaking loudly to impress the young women with their very modern decollotage, the television is connected to satellite, and while the menu has abundant traditional English fare it also offers nachos and fajitas and Chinese food and burgers. But there is unquestionably a traditional, rural, local vibe to the Sneyd Arms that makes it appealing and that connects it to past generations of students and locals and the occasional visitor, tucked away in a corner, reading the books section of The Guardian and whiling away the hours with pints of bitter.
Saturday, May 09, 2009
I just put in a pretty good week of work, and while I am at the office now and have been for a few hours, I do not necessarily want to come in first thing in he morning and work all day. I brought some dvd's, including a couple of tv series, just to make sure that I could kill down time and, frankly, to allow me to stave off boredom early in the trip. Season two of Hill Street Blues has served me well the last 24 hours or so when campus quieted down (well, more on this in a moment) and left me to my own devices. And here I should be plain -- I am toying with a weekend trip to Paris while I am here, and Thunderstick spent much of Thursday encouraging me to take off this weekend. It pains me to say it, but he was probably right.
In any case, I opted for a mellow night in the flat last night after deciding not to try my social fortunes at one of the on-campus pubs, a graduate pub that apparently is run by a member of CAMRA (the Coalition for Real Ales) and is supposed to be quite good. It was too late to slip in for a quiet pint (I was in the office until about ten last night). But also outside of a very raucous student union I would estimate that a couple of hundred or more students were lined up to get inside of what promised to be a chaotic undergraduate experience. I envied them even as I acknowledged that I have always hated those jam packed nights. I decided at that point to avoid the masses and head toward home. I could have hit the quiet pub past my flat, but in the end opted for a quiet night at home. I stayed up too late, throwing my carefully cultivated sleep schedule off, which is oftentimes more of a key to staving off loneliness than you might imagine. If one is up when everyone is asleep and asleep when most people are up, it is not good for the mindset.
In any case, I promised myself to go out a bit earlier this evening, before the undergraduate maelstrom, and having gotten a reasonable amount of work done these last few hours I intend to fulfill that promise. Ideally by this time next weekend, the loneliness will have abated both through knowing more people and by having more of a comfort zone with this new place where I find myself. Of course by this time next weekend I'll be amidst the legendary Armitage Shanks in my old stomping grounds in Oxford (might the Manor Bar come into play? I suspect that it might) so I'll have somewhat alleviated my social anxieties by reverting to a familiar world.
Friday, May 08, 2009
So a little about the University of Keele. The university is located on its own somewhat isolated hilltop surrounded by little villages, outside of which are a number of small towns in the North Midlands. The nearest real cities are Manchester and Birmingham, each an hour or so away. Of the surrounding towns, one, Stoke-on-Trent, is large enough to support a Premiere League team, if that is any sign of anything.
The university was established after World War II when just as in the United States, there was an explosion of demand for higher education created by returning veterans, heightened post-war prosperity (which admittedly took longer to arrive in Britain than in the US), population growth, increasing globalization (admittedly not a word that would have been used in that generation) and a general transformation of the role of the university in society. No longer was higher education the domain of the elite few going to Oxbridge or settling for one of the other older universities.
And yet while Keele is new, it does not feel quite as new as its counterparts in the United States that emerged at roughly the same time. This is largely because the university is built on an old estate (I believe it was known, cleverly enough) as the Keele Estate. And so there are some aged, historic buildings, on an expansive, bucolic setting. There also is the natural beauty of the region, and the historic "Potters" that I do not know enough about yet to speak intelligently except to say that apparently the area is renowned for its pottery.
There certainly is a lot of new architecture, and much of it clearly went up in the 60s and 70s and so qualifies as what architects term "butt ugly," but in general the university has a lot of brick and stone and someone has worked hard to develop a really rather nice campus. My office is located in The Chancellor's Building, which has a few characteristics that seem to be a requirement for at least one building at every typical university: It is complex and easy to get lost in, the hallways are labyrinthine and narrow, there are lots of bizarre angles, alcoves, and hideaways, and it has a certain charm to it even if there is nothing especially spectacular or even aesthetic about the building. The academic wings also are connected by the central area which has, among other things, a cafe and a restaurant, an art gallery, and a few official offices.
The David Bruce Centre for American Studies is named after the respected former United States Ambassador to England, David K. E. Bruce. I was pleased to see that Bruce's biography was penned by Nelson Lankford of the Virginia Historical Society , where I was a fellow several years ago, and there is a copy in my office on the coffee table, which is a nice touch. The Centre is located on the floor where my office is, although really the Centre consists of the faculty, the fellow's (my) office, the seminar room and library, and a few administrative staff. At one point I guess American Studies was its own department or unit, but it now has been combined with the humanities faculty generally and thus in some ways has been reduced, largely because of what by all accounts is administrative shortsightedness. So there is another commonality between Keele and most other universities, including most in the States.
My office is a nice space. My desk faces the back wall, which consists mostly of a picture window that covers the whole length and more than half the height of the wall. I am surrounded by shelves of books that are part of the Bruce Centre library and that are in the process of being re-cataloged and re-shelved, though that project is thankfully in abeyance while I am here, so I just get to have an office that looks like a devoted Americanist's office, albeit surrounded by books that by and large could have been in the office of a mid-20th-century Americanist, which actually is not all that bad. One learns to appreciate the shoulders of those giants one stands upon when reminded of the great output of our predecessors. I have an little alcove behind me with a chair and another shelf, and on the window ledge is the requisite tea pot, while next to my desk is a chair for the visitors I am largely unlikely to have, even given that I am doing a tiny bit of teaching while I am here. The office is well lit and provides a nice place to work. My computer is new, though my monitor is old and a bit small, so that I can only see a few lines of my emails as I type them, and there are formatting issues with some of the newer, busier websites. But I have no real complaints, they are treating me very well, have equipped me well for productivity, and have done as much to integrate me into the larger community as quickly as possible as any fellowship I have ever held.
If only the office had a shower . . .
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Eugene Robinson takes on the very real and deeply disturbing possibility that The New York Times Co. might shutter The Boston Globe. He uses words such as "pimp" and "cannibalism" to describe the Times' behavior. It is hard to disagree with him.
At Salon Glenn Greenwald goes after Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic for what Greenwald (to my mind rightfully) calls Rosen's "smear" of potential Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Rosen basically relies on little more than anonymous sources to attack Sotomayor's intellectual abilities. long-time readers know my view on journalistic use of anonymous sources, especially when those sources are used simply to grind an ax or pursue an agenda. It is one thing to protect a source who would otherwise be in legitimate danger and whose evidence is essential to the telling of a story. It is quite another to rely on anonymous sources to provide the only evidence you have to accuse someone of being dumb, sloppy, or both.
Finally, Jonathan Chait at The New Republic asks what happened to conservatives cherishing the rule of law? It was vital when it came to pursuing Bill Clinton for lying about his infidelities. Apparently it is less important when it comes to the rather more significant matter of engaging in torture. I am not sure where I stand on pursuing convictions. It seems to run the risk of guaranteeing future tit-for-tat. At the same time, should being in a presidential administration automatically grant one carte blanche for what are, not to put too fine a point on it, human rights violations?
Yesterday marked my first real duties here at Keele. In the morning I sat in with an undergraduate seminar in Southern history. They have reached the Civil Rights Movement and so it made a certain amount of sense to have me there to toss in my random observations. The students were generally prepared, they watched the first episode of Eyes on the Prize, which clearly had a powerful effect and then had a discussion centered around some primary sources they had been assigned.
Keele operates on a bizarre schedule whereby they have a twelve week term, but after week then they broke for a month for Easter and then basically for what is Keele's "conference season," which is apparently a pretty lucrative period for them. Academic (and I assume other?) conferences in the UK are different from the majority of those in the US in that they are self-contained. So if Keele hosts a conference, it provides lodging, meals, and even pub nights in addition to hosting the actual meeting itself. So that has been going on for the last month, while the students were either preparing for exams or writing their course papers or, as you might imagine, simply enjoying a month off. Now they have returned for the last two weeks of classes, which must be very difficult for all involved. And for those classes with papers but not exams, the professors are pretty much at the whim of the students when it comes to attendance. That a good number of the students sowed up yesterday is a testament, I would say, to them, but also to the professor, Martin Crawford who embodies the respected senior British academic, and the students clearly adore him.
Then yesterday afternoon was the roundtable panel on President Obama's first hundred days. I had been working on that presentation virtually since my arrival, and had been reading and thinking about the topic for a few weeks. My fellow panelists were the respected diplomatic historian John Dumbrell, Professor at the University of Durham, and Keele political scientist and historian Jon Herbert. Our event was one of several on a vibrant Keele Wednesday afternoon, so there was competition for the audience, but we had a nice enough turnout and the panel went quite well, inspiring a lively q&a/discussion session that lasted well beyond the allotted time for the session. Obviously others will have to be the judge, but the feedback I got was that I acquitted myself well in my first real public presentation of my fellowship.
The gist of my argument was based less on Obama's performance (shorthand: Fine so far, but too early to make any real judgments) and was more of a reflection on the hundred days itself. I started off by comparing the Hundred Days to the NFL draft, which I had to explain to my British audience, inasmuch as during and after the draft th experts will et together and act outraged or otherwise absolutely certain in their convictions despite the fact that no one actually has any idea how the draft turned out. I feel a bit the same about the impassioned responses to any president's first fourtee weeks, two days in office. Here, if you'll pardon the self indulgence (on top of the self indulgence that is this whole diary conceit) is a sample from my talk, which I actually wrote out because I wanted to make a good first impression. (If you want footnotes, contact me; I basically stole the Napolean bit from Alonzo Hamby, for example.):
We draw on the first hundred days from the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course. I suppose it warrants recognizing that the concept antedates FDR, extending back as far the references to the period after Napoleon's triumphal return from Elba. But that resulted, ultimately, in Waterloo. So let us for our purposes do what Americans do best, which is to say, let us pretend the rest of the world and its history does not exist. For Americans, and admit it, for the rest of the world, the First Hundred Days evokes FDR.
And with good reason. The first hundred days of what historians call the First New Deal resulted in a flurry of activity. The Emergency Banking Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Alphabet soup of the CCC, PWA, and the ill-fated AAA and NRA. Some worked well, some did not. But all represent the larger driving principles of the Hundred Days; Elastic rather than static, pragmatic rather than ideological, experimental rather than dogmatic, and flexible rather than rigid, the programs of the Hundred Days, indeed the New Deal as a whole, were intended to, as any decent first-year student ought to be able to tell you, bring about the Three R’s of Relief, Reform, and Recovery. (And to my colleagues in the room teaching first-year students, keep in mind that I am speaking of the ideal, platonic form of first year students, and not, alas, of either yours or mine necessarily. Think of mine as a normative conception rather than a conception driven by normality.)
And the Hundred Days is a tremendously useful lens through which to view the FDR presidency. But it is useful not because in and of itself it has any particular utility – our obsession with base-10 tends to make us value numbers ending in five or zero more than those ending in, say, 3 or 7, even if inherently they are no more important or meaningful, and expressed another way, one hundred days is fourteen weeks and two days, hardly a logical or meaningful measure – but rather we utilize the hundred day benchmark because of the particularities of the historical context within which FDR operated. Those particularities give meaning to the concept of the hundred days; the hundred days does not give any particular meaning in and of itself. This, I believe, is why the hundred days has been so appealing but its invocation ultimately so sloppy. Devoid of a specific context, the hundred day measuring stick is arbitrary and meaningless. In fact it can warp meaning because it tries to fit ongoing processes into historical boxes for which the present may be ill-fitted indeed.
What is most perplexing about the resilience of the hundred days is that it was obsolete with FDR’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945. How many people – indeed, how many historians – can tell you much about the first hundred days of the presidencies that followed FDR’s? And of the ones that are memorable, how many are memorable because they were part of an organized effort to marshal energies in that timetable? The reality is that the hundred days model was a one-off, a singular phenomenon that journalists, with the help of historians desperate to be talking heads (CNN: Call me!) have perpetuated long after the idea had any historical utility.
Useful invocations of history are cognizant of and respectful toward context. The problem with most invocations of history is that they tend to ignore the context in the pursuit of a usable past. Absent context, however, the usable past tends to become a misused past. And a misused past tends to be most suitable for the ideological present.
I then address the questions of whether the Hundred Days might still be effective as a framing device, and failing that, as a descriptive advice before moving on to talk generally about Obama. Professor Dumbrell followed with a wide-ranging discussion on the Obama administration's foreign policy, Dr. Herbert on domestic affairs primarily. Both, though certainly men of the left, displayed a remarkable willingnes to engage with Obama critically, throwing yet another wrench into the thesis of an academy beset with leftist ranters.
I'll admit I'm having one of those days when inertia has set in. My next responsibility is my research seminar next Wednesday, and the best way to prepare for that is to spend most of the next few days working on my current chapter. But not writing is the easiest thing in the world, so I've been spinning my wheels. Which surely is unconnected to the fact that after the roundtable a group of us went out to dinner at a nearby pub, where I then stayed to watch the Chelsea-Barcelona Champions League semifinals (Barcelona won on aggregate goals based on away goal differential in the home-and-home semis. Ahh, soccer.)
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
I walked into my flat for the first time the other day and all looked fine with one exception -- no shower nozzle. Just a plain old bathtub. So for the last two mornings I have had two lines from Seinfeld running through my head. The first has been Kramer dismissing the idea of taking baths when he is having shower head issues as "lying in a tepid pool of his own filth." The second is when Kramer offers Jerry the chance to take a soak in the hot tob Kramer has installed in his apartment. Jerry demurs, referring to Kramer's hot tub as a "bacteria frappe." We are working on trying to rig up some sort of shower nozzle. Let's hope.
So I am settling in. I can just about make a beeline from my flat to my office in the labyrinthine Chancellor's Building several hundred meters away without any missteps. I am participating on a roundtable today on President Obama's first hundred days and so have been working on that, putting in some serious writing time yesterday and this morning. I am convinced that I will have the most productive month of my life if the pace of the first two days is indicative of anything.
I was invited to attend an undergraduate seminar on Southern history this morning, which enabled me to meet some of the students and to partake in the teaching process, something that is sadly rare in these kind of fellowship environments. And yesterday evening I attended a history department colloquium on the state of history at Keele past, present and future in which many of the lamentations sounded familiar and could be echoed by professors at the bulk of institutions in the English-speaking (and I suspect beyond) world. (Think: silly administrators, uncommitted students, a sense that the public does not get or appreciate history, declining funding, an obsession with assessments, shifting goal posts of expectations, the role of technology for good but also for ill, and so forth.)
It's been rainy and damp in the North Midlands, but there are vague rumors that the sun is supposed to re-emerge. Apparently the weather was glorious until my arrival. I'll beg off drawing any major conclusions from that and will hope that the coincidence will be revealed by a few sunny days to come.
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
One of my main adjustments, even after all of these years of international travel, is dealing with jet lag. Largely because in many cases my way of dealing with it is not to. But because my flight arrived at mid-day yesterday, rather than at the more common 8-9in the morning, I did not have to kill a full day. By the time I got to Keele it was in the aternoon, and once I got settled in, and after a nice pub dinner with the centre director, I only had to stay up for a little while longer in order to fight off really screwing with my sleep pattern. And as a saving grace, my flat has a television! It only has the five basic channels, but it's enough to provide background noise and entertainment. I had to be up this morning for some more introductory stuff, so while I could have slept another three or four hours, at least I will make that time up tonight rather than by sleeping in late and never quite adjusting.
Anyhow, sorry for the rather pedestrian reportage. Hopefully I will have something more clever to report in the days and weeks to come. Until then -- cheers!
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Under ordinary circumstances I would go paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line to eviscerate this screed against being a sports fan. But the article does not compensate for its idiocy with brevity, so I'm only going to have to address a few of the lowlights. I will excerpt some of the passages and then will provide my responses -- if you are a sports fan, enjoy:
Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month's collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.
Note the condescension. But also note that one could replace "spectator sports" with, say, movies (I bet you a thousand dollars Barash prefers the word "film") or theater or music or television, or even literature while making the same argument. In other words, yes, as human beings we sometimes do not make all of our own amusements. Even onanism, intellectual (a skill at which Barash seems particularly well equipped) and otherwise, cannot provide sole intellectual sustenance. Sometimes we rely on others, since we live in communities larger than ourselves, to help facilitate our various enjoyments. Or maybe Barash only watches movies in which he knows all of the participants. Plus sports have an added benefit: They are real. I love movies and tv and the other amusements, but I don't privilege them over sports largely because sports represent real drama played out in real time by real people with immense gifts and who do not have their lines or their blocking written out for them.
Now for the second paragraph:
Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. It's just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality — fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root — for dinner. But for the home team? Never.
Ha! See what he did there? Root can have two different meanings! Sports fans can root! Pigs do something entirely different, called "rooting"! David Barash is clever. I'd also bet I can list a whole lot of really really smart sports fans who have a perfectly fine grip on reality. Why, some of them are even in academia. Are they really all akin to pigs? Still, that little "root" wordplay? Priceless!
So instead of sports, he suggests:
Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.
Now this is so serially foolish that I really do not even know where to begin. Once again I'll point out the vicarious nature of, say, watching movies or going to the theater. But beyond that, I love his dualism -- if you spend three hours watching a ballgame, for Barash the logical conclusion is that your life is dull. It must be great to be one of David Barash's students, because it means you can get away with saying some really fucking inane, illogical things in the papers you write for him because David Barash is clearly a complete fucking moron. (Hey, he introduced the name calling.) You see, apparently no one who watches sports reads books. (Though I am going to place as an aside that I would bet you a thousand dollars that as a disciplinary imperative as a historian I've read a lot more books in 2009 than psychologist David Barash.) If you watch sports you do not talk with your family. I certainly am not going for a walk with my wife in the next half hour because I will also watch sports today. We own cats, so he's got me there. But if you watch sports and have a dog, sorry -- you have to pick one! Smelling a flower doesn't really take all that much time, but again, the logic is unassailable. And it is a proven fact -- sports fans never have sex. Which is why going to a ballgame is a bit like attending a Shaker meeting -- there are lots of old folks because of the prohibitions against sexual reproduction. If I ever quit on sports though, I am going to root the hell out of . . . (hey, another meaning for root! David Barash, watch yourself. I'm catching on fast!)
Then we get some some ham-handed differentiation between those who participate in sports -- which he sees as admirable, and thank God we jocks have his imprimatur -- and those who watch. Because they are obviously never the same people. People who love sports either only participate or watch, in David Barash's reading-prolific, wife-walking, dog-wrestling, flower-sniffing, cocksman's life. I'm not even going to waste much time pointing out with how absurd his argument is, or reminding you how those who have played the game often love the game in myriad forms. Because later on he drops this little gem:
Of course, there have been athletes who were admirable, even off the field. On balance, however, the probability is that successful athletes number among themselves more than their share of alcoholics, misogynists, sociopaths, and violence-prone dimwits and miscreants. After all, these are adults paid to play children's games, and there is simply no reason why the ability to do remarkable things with one's body — things that are generally quick and violent — should make someone worth emulating in any other way, and probably good reasons why the opposite is more likely.
Now this one absolutely infuriates me. For one thing, it's a pretty fucking brazen assertion without even a scintilla of evidence. And it is an assertion from someone who presumably does not watch enough sports to be making this sort of value judgment. There is also, Dr. Barash, no reason to assume that the ability to do, let us say "semi remarkable" things with one's mind "someone worth emulating in any other way." Therefore following your logic, I would assume that the probability is that successful psychology professors at the University of Washington number among themselves more than their share of pedophiles. The logic is exactly the same. Except that society generally does not give two shits about psychology professors, so their boy-rooting (when you play with fire, Scarecrow . . .) does not end up on Sportscenter or in the newspaper. And naturally a DWI makes news among the famous in a way that someone not getting a DWI does for reasons that ought to be apparent to anyone who understands a rudiment about how the world functions. And yet clearly based on the episodes he observes between stuffing his face in flowers, Barash is capable of drawing an evidence-free conclusion on athletes based on the public embarrassments of a tiny, tiny, minority. And if there is evidence, he doesn't cite it, which in its way is actually worse. Because I at least acknowledge that I have no evidence that Barash is a pedophile (though following much of his logic in this article, I also have no evidence that David Barash is not a pedophile. Work your algorithm magic, Google!).
Then there are literally hundreds of words of really lousy argumentation that are based on evolutionary psychology, including some claptrap about how we can fool the American oystercatcher by placing an enormous fake egg where her real egg is and she'll try to nurture it. And so somehow this is analogous to human sports fans for reasons that I am either too dumb or not dumb enough to divine. (Stupid American oystercatcher! Stupid sports fans -- watching a game you have come to love over the course of your life because it gives you enjoyment! What a silly fake eggsitter you've turned out to be!)
Much later, because Barash is really beginning to grate, and because you just knew it was coming:
Sometimes the rapport of identification can be harmless, not uncommonly resulting in giggles, laughter, yawning. Sometimes it is more sinister. As Koestler emphasized, the acts of greatest human violence and destructiveness have arisen not from personal aggressiveness or nastiness, but from self-transcendence in the form of seductive, mindless identification with a group. Think of Rwanda's Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, Nazis and Jews, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Israelis and Palestinians.
Yes! Yes!! YES!!! Godwin's Law! Godwin's Fucking Law!!! "Sometimes the rapport of identification can be harmless" but sometimes -- and surely in statistically significant enough doses to make it worth addressing -- Red Sox fans actually just want to machete some motherfuckers. ("Yankee fans.") That's just how we roll. And the death camps at Invesco Field? They really are something to behold. Seriously: Is he joking with this?
And for the conclusion, which I will take on sentence by sentence:
By we, the fan means the whole deliciously desirable, immensely seductive group.
You can assume that the "we" in that sentence should probably have appeared in quotation marks and refers to the tendency of sports fans to refer to their Gestapo units, er, favorite teams, with a strong sense of identification. The shame!
He means that he is no longer just little old himself, but something larger, grander, more impressive, more important, and thus, more appealing.
Want to debate whether the gendered language is intentional? In any case -- yes, again, many of us actually realize that we are not in and of ourselves a sustainable planet. We have to look outside of ourselves. I, for example, do not have David Barash's ability to regurgitate cud from one of my four stomach units, so I sometimes look outside of "little old myself" (hello, syntax!) and go to a restaurant. You know who else liked restaurants? Idi Amin.
Sports fans, in this view, are nationalists writ small.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Nazi nonsense. Except that "nationalism writ small" is an almost useless concept given what "nationalism" actually means as either a word or as a historical concept. It would be like referring to "giantism writ small." Given what giantism is, or what nationalism is, the idea of either being "writ small" indicates a desire to use an ad hominem that one does not understand.
Or oystercatchers writ human, which is to say, moved by inclinations less distinct and less automatic than the rigidly stereotyped response to releasers and the obedient superresponse to supernormal releasers that are found among many animals, but inclined to some sort of response nonetheless.
No idea what this means or what the framework for the analogy is. Just asserting an analogy is insufficient. And most professors in our varying disciplines try to stomp out this sort of fatuous attempt to grasp the world through shallow analogizing. Not David Barash. He got a Chronicle Review article out of it.
There is nothing unusual about it, although even now, I must admit, the whole business perplexes me.
This is the first sane thing you've said: Being a sports fan is an enormously common phenomenon. Given that fact, perhaps it's not everyone else who is wrong. Just a little self reflection might have saved us all this headache. You do not like spectator sports. I do not like evolutionary psychology. The difference is, I would not compare evolutionary psychologists to genocidaires.
But an oystercatcher would understand perfectly.
If you have a better nominee for the most fucktarded thing written in 2009, I'd like to see it. David Barash goes into the clubhouse (sports analogy! Achtung, bitches!) with a lead I do not see him relinquishing.
Saturday, May 02, 2009