Saturday, December 13, 2014

John Updike, Rabbit Run

On this front, Deresiewicz was wrong. What a tawdry waste of talent this book is. The style is perfect - the minute perceptiveness and uncanny prose is as remarkable as his short stories - but there is no substance in it. I spent the entire 250 pages hoping that Rabbit Angstrom would just fall down a well, and take his entire town's dreary, declining existence with him. It's hard to imagine how this bleak collection of frustrated, dimwitted sadsacks managed to animate three subsequent novels.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Silence and noise

Harvard has a finals week tradition called Primal Scream, which entails a large number of undergrads imbibing vigorously, disrobing completely, and then running around the quad screaming. This term, a group of students concerned about racism determined that this event would be the perfect setting in which to stage a silent protest. The Crimson dutifully chronicles the results of this prudent judgment, in prose and pictoral form:
As student streakers began to gather, talking and shouting, just a few yards away, the protesters, some of them clad in black sweatshirts with the words, “I ♥ Black People,” stayed silent. After failing to quiet the students with a megaphone, Khurana was lifted onto the back of a half-naked man, from where Khurana tried to quiet the crowd again. 
When the streakers continued to talk, the protesters broke their silence, chanting, “Silence. Silence.” Meanwhile, shouts of “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” erupted from the group of runners, drowning out the calls for silence by the protesters. Primal Scream participants have also chanted “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” during past runs.

“This is absolutely ridiculous, this is absolutely ridiculous,”one of the protest organizers, Aubrey J. Walker ’15, said to his fellow protestors. “We’ll wait here all night. Guys, look to your left, look to your right, these are your brothers and sisters and siblings. All we ask is for four and a half minutes of silence.” 
Shortly after, a group of streakers from the back of the crowd began to run in the opposite direction of the protesters, and the rest of the streakers followed in a lap around the Yard. The protesters turned to face the streakers after they finished their first lap around the Yard, forcing some streakers to run off the path and into the middle of the Yard. Some runners chanted, “black lives matter!” while others shouted obscenities.
No satire could improve on this reality. I'm not sure there will ever be a more complete encapsulation of Harvard than the photo of the Dean of the College perched on a shirtless student's shoulders yelling ineffectually into a megaphone at a crowd of drunk, naked kids and protesters in the rain.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

"People are trying to turn being a woman into a profession"

In one of my occasional forays into vintage Crimson reportage (some great day, all school papers will digitize their archives), I came across this profile of Judith Shklar from 1972. I've been struck in the past by the aversion of  some of the sharpest mid-century female minds - Arendt, Didion - to feminism, and found the same sentiment (Arendt's "zat's not serious") here:
"Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner," she jokes, "but I always take people at their word. When I was in school, the women I knew there were at the top of the class." She throws this out with a kind of proud matter-of factness. "When most of them said that they preferred married life. I believed them. Perhaps I was naive. But now people are trying to turn being a woman into a profession, which is the worst kind of tokenism." She has the distinct sense that American women are suddenly being harassed by the magazines and newspapers they read for new but still wrong reasons. "Too much empty discussion of the role of women and her family can lead to just as disastrous effects as sex-discrimination. American women are being bombarded with articles on how to run their lives and those of their families. You'll notice that the tone is always threatening and pseudo-scientific" (two pet hatreds of Dr. Shklar's). "It's going to get worse--the pressure is on everyone. A less destructive way is needed." A student's impression affirms this attitude. "Her reaction to Women's Lib is probably to stop all that snivelling about insignificant issues, take care of yourself, and get on with it."
While we're lamenting poorly-verified sources and other journalistic failings in the immediate present, it must be said that this profile has it all. It's fawning and poorly written (what is a "metic's metic"?) and the student descriptions of Shklar are inexplicably anonymous, because praising your professors is surely one of those life- and reputation-endangering ventures requiring special protection. Still, this is a pretty prescient prediction.

UPDATE: Someone on Facebook also points to this lecture by Shklar with even more on this topic in the middle.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Self-inflicted campus hate crimes, Chicago edition

Peeps, remember all those times when racists vandalized Scripps College, the KKK invaded Oberlin, anti-Catholic thugs assault a guy at Princeton, and so on? Well, those same ruthless nogoodniks have struck again, this time at UChicago.

Last month, threatening and racist things were posted on a student's Facebook account, galvanizing the whole campus to action to fight the hate (and also galvanizing a federal investigation into the origins of the hate). Much hate was fought before it became clear that the source of the threats was the student who reported them. As usual, this was shocking news to all, because as we know, elite American universities are hotbeds of hate, so the likelihood is always high that such baroque threats are real. However, should the discovery that this was merely another false threat mean that things are ok and everyone should go back to studying? As the college press release gravely informs us, the answer to that question is emphatically,
No. As Vice President Coleman’s message pointed out, “That conclusion does not erase the seriousness of this episode, the harm it has caused to individuals and our broader community, or the consequences for those responsible. Whatever its purpose, the language used in this incident does not constitute discourse and will not be tolerated. Its use underlines questions about campus climate already raised in other contexts. These emerging facts do not in any way diminish the University’s commitment to a diverse campus, free from harassment and discrimination, as articulated by the president and provost in their message.”
As I mentioned in my previous post on this phenomenon, the discovery that a campus catharsis-inducing hate crime was self-inflicted has never impeded any college administration's commitment to histrionic over-reaction. That is because what self-inflicted hate crimes always prove is just how ubiquitous the hate in question really is. We're so steeped in hate that people sometimes get confused and inflict it on themselves without even noticing. Then they absentmindedly report it to their universities as an act committed by someone else, until they manage to recall how it came about (when investigators show up at their doors with some unusual evidence), and graciously correct the record. As the college admin puts it, self-inflicted hate crimes "underline questions about campus climate already raised" the same people who committed the hate crime against themselves. It's just more efficient that way.

My question is this: According to the Maroon article, President Zimmer's initial response to news of this crime was to promise that the university "would pursue criminal prosecution of the individual behind" the Facebook post. At the time, the hate crimer's friends dismissed this response as "reactionary at best" (Marx weeps). Now that the culprit's identity has been revealed, I wonder if the university will stand by its commitment to criminal justice, or if it will instead discover that what's really important at a time like this is not anything so vindictive and reactionary as punishing individuals, but rather that we take advantage of this opportunity to come together as a community to heal the wounds inflicted on us all by the ambient hatred sewn in our social fabric that was finally brought to light in this unfortunate incident, and to move forward toward progress, uniting in solidarity in our embrace of diversity, et cetera ad nauseum.

Serious people may ask serious questions about this pattern of behavior, especially in light of recent doubts about Rolling Stone's UVA story, which is not quite the same thing, but perhaps a relative in the larger campus hoax family. Why do students and professors lie about being victimized? The easy and insufficient explanation is "for attention," but there are many other ways to get attention - call in bomb threats during finals, show up to class naked, invent Facebook. The people behind self-inflicted hate crimes are all almost all campus activists and the hate crimes they inflict on themselves are of a piece with their prior involvement fighting sexism, racism, anti-gay bias, social liberalism, whatever. They're trying to advance their causes through these stunts, and the most common public statement after the fact that I've come across goes something like, "I was frustrated that everyone else was paying insufficient attention to my pet issue, so I dramatized it to show them how big a problem it really is." (Our Chicago culprit expresses this sentiment on his Facebook.) After the fact, there is always speculation that the hate-crimer is mentally ill and so should be an object of pity rather than derision or punishment, and it's certainly true that pulling such a stunt takes a foolhardiness that most college students - activist or pacifist - lack. Still, the mental illness explanation is too just-so: because we like to say that no sane person would do something doesn't mean that the person who does the thing is insane. So I'm open to other theories of the self-inflicted hate crime.

What's quite remarkable about this as a strategy is how often it works, in spite of the usually rapid revelation that it's a lie. Despite some mealy-mouthed regret rhetoric out of Chicago about the Facebook threat being fake, both the students and the admin continue to insist that the hate it conveyed is real and the university's planned response must remain unchanged in light of this discovery. But I suspect UVA will be a little different: because the story had national reach, the admin and the campus activists can't so flippantly dismiss its invalidity and dig in their heels like Chicago. That only works when the whole country's attention isn't riveted on the little doings of your campus. There is a certain reasonableness to the widely-voiced concern that if people dwell too much on the UVA story's defects, no one will believe legitimate rape allegations ever again, so to avoid that bad outcome, let's just chalk this all up to a "troubled woman" being exploited by a feckless reporter and put it behind us asap. That's the line in self-inflicted hate crimes - let's not let this regrettable error "distract" us from our mission - and in those cases, it usually works. Maybe that's even the best approach to the UVA story, but I think that this concern won't be enough to override the public's dislike of being duped, as it often is on campuses where those who dislike being duped are fewer and quieter than those who believe in the cause. Had such a false or inaccurate rape accusation been lower-profile, it's possible that it would've had the same local result as the typical self-inflicted hate crime: the university would express regret at the inauthenticity of the particular incident but insist that it only "underlines" the urgent need to do whatever it was planning to do when they still believed it was real. But this was too big and sensational a hoax, and it raised the stakes too high. But, on the other hand, maybe not.

So much for the serious people and their serious questions. On the whole, my favorite analysis of the Chicago situation comes from a student quoted by the Maroon observing one of the hate crime-inspired protests :
Second-year Edward Huh said that he thought that the message of the protest was somewhat muddled..."It was like a Sosc paper with no thesis,” Huh said.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Liberal babies

Phoebe asks, what does the hare-brained woman in my previous post mean by "liberal parenting"? While we must admit that she seems a bit confused on all fronts, she does seem to mean something more than the culture wars or ideological liberalism (always opposed to conservatism) that Phoebe has in mind and something closer to, in fact, "17th Century pamphlets". Thus sayeth 21st Century Liberal Mother:
I want my two daughters, 6, to think critically, to fight for fairness and justice whenever they can. I want them to value equality above all else. But sometimes, I also need them to do what I say.
This is pretty fundamental liberalism, the sort opposed not by "conservatism," but by the 17th century alternatives - divine right or patriarchal absolutism. This liberalism follows from the premises of our regime: our government is legitimate because we, as naturally equal individuals, consented to it. Because of our natural equality, it would not be legitimate for us to be ruled by other people, "to do what they say," unless we agreed to this arrangement, and we would never reasonably agree to an arrangement where we'd be ruled by the arbitrary will of another person, but only by the impartial will of a law that treats us all as equals.

Enter children. They do not consent to be ruled by their parents, or anyone. What right have we to rule them then, and to rule them by our arbitrary (parental) wills at that? Well, we can say, with Locke, that children "are not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it," and must be educated into their birthright. Very well. And how do we educate children to their birthright equality? Here is where roads diverge. 21st Century Liberal Mother has taken an intuitively simple road: if the point of childrearing is to bring children into a state of equality and to teach them to see other individuals as equals, then the best way to raise them is by having them practice equality. Parents will treat their children as equals in the household (and teachers will do the same in school), so that children can rehearse the experience of adult equality without adult repercussions for occasionally slipping up and, say, dominating the playground occasionally. Because what is the alternative? If we raise children hierarchically, by treating them as inferiors to us whose own desires (to eat cake all day) matter less than what we desire and impose on them, then how will they ever grow into adults who understand and respect the principles of equality and consent that undergird our regime? And here I will offer the tempting dissertation spoiler for which you were all waiting: turns out that the experience of living under a hierarchical authority to which we do not consent as children is necessary to understand equality as an adult. We are better off without congruence between the liberal family and the liberal state, even though congruence seems more logically intuitive, especially to people who are not viscerally familiar with the fractious and willful nature of children.

So this woman seems to mean by liberal parenting what I would call "congruence parenting": - modeling your family life on the political principles of your state. But the distinction Phoebe is interested in - helicopter vs. free-range parenting - is a different one that I don't really see among this particular person's problems. This latter distinction turns more on our estimation of the goodness of children's uninstructed natures, whether childrearing should aim at curbing and shaping children's uninstructed natures or at preventing them from being curbed and shaped by outside influences. Helicoptering begins from the assumption that children left to their own devices will not become literate, disciplined, oriented towards the right ends, etc. So they need their parents to basically build them up from scratch into adults. Free-ranging assumes the opposite - that the methods of educating by adding things to a child like a school curriculum and music lessons and sports and basket-weaving is all going to corrupt and distort the authentic individual in the child, and turn him into someone worse. This opposition also fits uncomfortably into contemporary categories of liberal vs. conservative, since it arises from the late 18th Century opposition between empiricism/rationalism vs. romanticism. But there are both romantic and rationalist strains in both contemporary ideologies, so there's no way of easily identifying either helicoptering or free-ranging with the right or left. A cursory look at the history of American homeschooling in the late 20th Century will make it immediately obvious how free-range parenting can be harmonized with everything from fundamentalist Christianity to hyper-leftist secularism.

Finally, sitcoms that illustrate these tensions. The obvious one Phoebe overlooks is Gilmore Girls: a very young mother who raises her daughter as an equal, the daughter is growing up much more responsible and mature than her mother. One reading of this might be that congruence parenting works just fine, but only by accident, since it inspires such revulsion in children towards their parents' failure to act responsibly that they decide to shoulder all the responsibility themselves. But even there, we should recall that the arch-adult grandparents are brought back into this family at the beginning of the show, and they come at precisely a moment when the liberal parent is shown to fall short. Lorelai wants to send Rory to private school, but can't afford it. Responsible, sober New England WASP grandparents swoop in, pay for school, and insert their authoritative presence into the plot, creating a foil (and compensation) for Lorelai's lack of authority over Rory. Even though I always found Lorelai such an insipid character that I could never get into the show, it's a pretty good encapsulation of the competition between congruence and authoritarian parenting.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How my dissertation contributes to knowledge

Do not fear, people of America who entirely lack common sense, help is on the way, in the form of a several-hundred page account of familial authority in the political thought of the 17th century! Once you've finished it, you will understand your error completely. I'll bet you're on the edge of your seat in anticipation. And people scoff that academia isn't relevant to the real world.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Suggested causes for underemployed student activists

There was perhaps a time in the idyllic past when the primary similarity between undergraduates and graduate students was their mutual engagement in study, or the pursuit of knowledge, or some other lofty and discreditable end. But that time has come and gone, and new times call for new practices. One thing I've noticed about undergrads is that they now resemble grad students in a new and more important way. Like grad students, they face a world of diminishing possibilities for new, self-aggrandizing ventures but increasing expectation for them. For us, the problem is that we must produce original research, but everything has already been published. For them, it's that they must burnish their activist credentials, but everything has already been protested.

Just as this pressure leads desperate grad students to write on the most obscure and inane stuff they can think of (I cannot, alas, link my own work here for evidence), it forces beleaguered undergrads hungry for recognition to demand justice for wrongs that have never even happened. For example, last week, someone emailed a barely literate death threat containing a dose of anti-Asian racism to lots of Harvard undergrads. The threat was forwarded to the police and the FBI and the CIA and the White House, etc., investigated, quickly found to have come from some stupid kids in Europe playing a prank, nothing at all happened on campus, and most of us moved on with our lives. But for some students, such an opportunity to call attention to gross injustice could not be squandered. Had the university administration, in communicating with students about the grave danger and offense they faced from these emails, been sufficiently sensitive to student...sensitivities? Perhaps not. For why had only the university police sent us email updates, and not all the administrators, with information about the resources available to the traumatized victims of mean pranks?
Some students at the event said that those emails were insufficient, with many adding that they had expected an email directly from the dean of the College regarding the threat. “All I ask for is a College-wide email...saying there has been a great loss, there has been a great tragedy in our community and in our midst, these are the resources, we feel for you,” said Shengxi Li ’15, who had received the emailed threat.
A great loss and a great tragedy has occurred in our midst with the sending of a fake death threat, and no one even feels for the undergrads and how they might be coping with this veritable war crime. But no, the college dean totally feels for them, and admits it's all his fault that he didn't get in touch sooner, and left all the touching to the other 25 administrative offices that touched us with updates about our unfolding campus tragedy of prank email but whose touching lacked his human touch. In the future, he promises, he will report to his clientele promptly about every matter that comes up.

While students less tenacious for justice might have accepted this mea culpa, our students will not rest until every human rights violation contained in this non-event has been brought to light. For yet more injustice was perpetrated by the university in their atrocious handling of this matter than we knew, because TAs were not "sufficiently informed" about the death threat. This does not mean they were not informed, since in fact all graduate students were informed, repeatedly, but not sufficiently so. For, lacking this all-important additional email from the college dean to complement the emails received from the university police about how nothing was happening, how could we TAs possibly provide appropriate consolation to our charges during this dark time of totally non-credible threats:
Several student attendees said all professors and teaching fellows, not just students, should have been notified of the threats through an official email from administrators in response to the incident...Teachers could then have been a source of emotional support for undergraduates affected by the threat, the students at the discussion said.
The dean agreed on this point too, and promised to flood our inboxes with redundant information from multiple university offices next time that nothing happens. Perhaps justice has finally been achieved, and students can rest easy with a new line for their cover letters about the time when they saved Harvard from the scourge of malicious spam email by ensuring that there would be more email to address the original email. If it were not for their brave stand, we might only hear about nothing happening before and after it didn't happen and only from one source. But for our vigilant undergrads, no crisis is too nonexistent to let pass without full investigation of the possibilities for protest and administrative concession, so I have faith that these stalwart guardians of democracy will uncover even more foul injustice contained in this scandal in the coming weeks. (UPDATE: I was right, there is more.)

In the meantime, I would like to call the attention of would-be student activists who didn't manage to notice the gaping holes in the sensitivity of university email protocol in time and are now looking for other causes with which they might make their names to some of the more shocking and inhumane practices going on right underneath their noses. Did you know, for example, that the university library closes at 7 PM on Fridays, 8 PM on Sundays, and 5 PM on Saturdays? 5 PM! People, that is a great loss and a great tragedy in our community! The Ed School library is little better, being open only until 7 for most of the weekend, and the Law School library is too far away from my apartment (consider the safety threats of walking alone at night!). Now, you may counter that the college library is open quite late during the weekend, but is that not like being told that you may receive an email from HUPD about a campus crisis that's is about to not happen but not from the college dean? What is the purpose of having the other libraries if they are not open? Where is the equality? The democracy? The justice? Graduate students do not want to work in the smelly college library, where they run the risk of being seen, indistinguishable in dignity and desperation, by their own students. How, truly, can we be a great institution of higher learning if we do not prioritize our libraries, which are almost the most important things at a university, after the student protests?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

John Updike, Olinger Stories

Remember when our recurring nemesis William Deresiewicz wrote this stunning review of a new Updike biography that was so lovely that it compelled us to go read Updike immediately although we never had the slightest interest in him before? Well, we did that, while still dangerously under the influence of our recent reading of Cheever, and found that Deresiewicz was right, the stories are wonderful. The bait in Deresiewicz's review was the promise that Updike would contribute to the vindication of my desire to find something valuable in nostalgia, which all right-thinking people treat as a low-minded self-delusion but which I can't figure out how to understand my life without:
Updike’s nostalgia is not for a specific historical moment; it is the ubiquitous modern ache for time past, and in particular, for youth. We applaud it when it comes to us in cultured Continental form (when the odor is of madeleines and tea), but less so, for some reason, here...Atheism, alienation, and angst; elitism and cosmopolitanism; aesthetic 
austerity and experimentalism; political and spiritual extremism: these were not for him. Updike’s life and work are testaments to the idea that mid-American values, beliefs, and sensibilities are adequate to address and interpret modern experience. 
This is pretty much the sum of the middle-brow conviction that I don't know how any amount of education, travel, reading, or haranguing from the sophisticated will flush out of me. But, admittedly, it's hard to reconcile this conviction with the small-scale misery of the homely but thwarted aspirations and the dread of death despite the smallness of life experienced by nearly everyone who actually lives this way. So you can either reject all that bourgeois nonsense in the blind hope that the unknown is better, or you can try to dignify these small sufferings, to make the mundane momentous by recording it. Updike is aggressively concerned with this kind of sanctification.

One of the stories, "The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island," calls this approach to sanctification through precise description "the evocation of days." Deresiewicz points to "Pigeon Feathers" to show that Updike takes writing to be an imitation of God's creation (and destruction). There, the narrator is reassured of his immortality when he examines the bodies of the pigeons he has shot, concluding that "the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let 
David live forever." In "The Blessed Man of Boston," the narrator is even more explicit about what he's doing: "O Lord, bless these poor paragraphs, that would do in their vile ignorance Your work of resurrection."

There is a lot that is reminiscent of Cheever in the Olinger Stories, but the foundation of Updike's idea of fleeting middle-brow happiness seems to be Christian faith rather than, as for Cheever, marriage:
"We would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins. We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves. From the dew of the few flakes that melt on our faces we cannot reconstruct the snowstorm." 
What a thoroughgoing piece of Protestantism that is - pleading for grace through self-abnegation - but for the anachronistic invocation of the novelist, this would fit comfortably into the rhetoric of the sixteenth century. We are worthless nothings who make no more impression on the world than a trail of snail shit in the dirt, our lives are a storm which we lack even the capacity to fully understand. All we have is the paltry power to recount a "few flakes" of our experience. But for all that melodramatic cringing, Updike's faith is much like Cheever's marriage - a flexible thing, subject to frequent assault and deformation, just as long as, in the end, it's not surrendered. You can cheat on your wife in Cheever, or renounce Jesus in Updike, but if you divorce or deny the possibility of immortality, well then civilization is lost.

But Updike seems to write mainly for the sake of the "evocation of days," and rarely gets so shrill about things. His similes are inventive, often because they pick up such mundane domestic experiences that you'd never remember them but for these promptings, as when a character described trying to comfort himself lying in bed at night "with the caress of headlights as they evolved from bright slits on the wall into parabolically accelerating fans on the ceiling and then vanished." A minute observation of childhood fixations. Nostalgia as simply an account of time passing in small lives can be funny too. This is one character's first effort to kiss a girl: "It was as if I had been given a face to eat, and the presence of bone - skull under skin, teeth behind lips - impeded me."

It's a mode of writing that's delightful while it lasts but can get tiresome pretty easily, when it becomes so much about making unexpected observations that plot is forgotten, or everything becomes indiscriminately significant in a desperate bid to record every last detail of living. Or maybe when Updike just gets too obsessed with adulterous sex to be any longer interesting, as even Deresiewicz's review, which emphasizes the early stories, suggests will happen. I suppose I'll find out about that in the next volume.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More Argentina

Public health campaign: get your blood pressure measured in the middle of the park

Chip flavors available in supermarkets of Buenos Aires: chorizo, asado, quesadilla, empanada, pollo con limon. Chip flavors not available in in supermarkets of Buenos Aires: any other flavors. These chicken chips tasted so much like an actual grilled chicken that my husband refused to eat them for fearing of spoiling real chicken for himself.

Porto Madera

Ambiguous midday meal consisting of parts of all other day's meals - breakfast, lunch, and tea.

A 200-year-old rubber tree that takes up approximately the space of a city block and is supported by special branch crutches.

The only copy of Locke I was able to find in the city. As against a million copies of Hobbes and the Heidegger/Benjamin/Foucault triple-package of bad ideas.


Empanadas stacked like potatoes, a sight that should be found in every supermarket.

Iguazu falls

Coati: basically a jungle raccoon. Cute but vicious.

The butterfly situation was out of control but the pretty ones refused to sit still for photos.

Full moon over the Iguazu River.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Outrageous indignities

When Fedex loses the box in which you shipped all your clothes from San Diego to Boston for the year, and you have to substitute several years' worth of careful curating and collection with the current clearance rack at Gap.

UPDATE: After talking on the phone with probably every employee of Fedex over a period of five days, the box has been located somewhere completely random and is being re-sent to me. This demonstrates the importance of having personal connections in the lost package world. Fortunately, I only purchased two duplicate items so far on final sale; the rest of my compensatory online shopping can go back whence it came. (But maybe I'll keep one skirt as, you know, a memento of this trial of patience, or a duly deserved reward for my suffering...)