Tuesday, October 25, 2005

White House Defends Presidential Seal From Parodists

It appears that President Bush can't stand getting grilled by The Onion. White House lawyers have contacted The Onion in an effort to stop the satrical newspaper from posting the presidential seal on its website, where it features a parody of President Bush's weekly radio address.

Given the Bush Administration's poor record on differentiating between news and propaganda (more accurately, on passing government-produced propaganda off as fair and unbiased reporting) this attack on The Onion is not unexpected. Perhaps the team at the White House feared that The Onion's Bush parodies were too 'reality-based' and, thus, could be legimately confused for an official statement from President Bush, whose actual statements suggest that he has been inhaling too deeply for too long from the ideological fumes fed to him by his Right-wing handlers.

We'll have to wait and see whether Bush turns this case over to the trial lawyers that he loved to attack during the 2005 campaign...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Vets for Common Sense Oppose Torture

I've been too busy to blog lately, but the site could use some new content, so I'm posting an e-mail message I received this morning from an old buddy of mine who is a Sgt. in the U.S. Army. Since this was a personal message, I'll keep his name anonymous and leave it up to him to identify himself if he wishes.

Listen up, maggots!

Veterans for Common Sense - a non-partisan group of vets and fellow travelers who share a deep concern about our nation's politico-military conduct - continues its petition campaign to demand a genuinely independent investigation of our country's use of torture, extradition, etc. in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gitmo and elsewhere around the globe.

Peruse the link below, read the letter and background. If you concur, add your name to the list and forward to anyone else you think might be interested:
Veterans for Common Sense

Drive on,

Last night, I watched the Frontline documentary The Torture Question, which made it disturbingly clear that the torture at Abu Ghraib occurred as a result of new rules regarding the treatment of detainees that were implemented at the Guantanamo Bay facilities. Watching the show, I was sickened to see evidence of the abuses committed by representatives acting on behalf of the United States and to learn that such abuses were condoned by Donald Rumsfeld and others in the Bush Administration.

It will be interesting to see whether the House passes and Bush vetoes the Senate's anti-torture resolution, which was a necessary gesture to the rest of the world that the American people do not support torture. In any case, it's good to know that soldiers and others in the military community are organizing in order to express their opposition to torture. It seems like a 'no brainer' but these are strange times. Ultimately, I suspect, it will be captured U.S. prisoners of war, in Iraq or other future sites of conflict, who find themselves subject to torture with the U.S. government unable to make a legal or moral case against such treatment since the Bush Administration has indicated that it regards the Geneva Conventions obsolete in its vision of a New World Order.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Wayne C. Booth R.I.P.

Glad to see that the New York Times featured a fairly lengthy write-up about the death of the literary critic Wayne C. Booth Monday morning. (Glad too that they didn't do a hatchet job on him the way they did to Jacques Derrida.)In my opinion, Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony is a book that every contemporary literary critic should read. His distinction between stable and unstable ironies provides a useful heuristic for beginning to unpack the paradoxes involved in attempting to interpret modern and postmodern texts that present readers with communicative aporias that seem to endorse a nihilistic vision of a meaningless universe.

Monday, October 10, 2005

How Recent Neoliberal Novels Justify Free-Market Inequalities

Writing in The Boston Globe, Walter Benn Michaels explains how American universities and colleges play a crucial role in promoting a neoliberal world view regarding inequalities. By promoting the virtues of 'respecting the other,' an ethos borrowed from multiculturalists, and creating the illusion that they are meritocracies, these institutions of higher education enable students and alumni to justify the extreme material inequalities in American society. As Michaels notes, "The imaginative world of neoliberalism, then, is a world where it's OK for a few people to be rich and a lot of people to be poor but where it's definitely not OK to make anyone feel bad about being poor."

The bottom line is this: "for neoliberals...it's prejudice not poverty that counts as the problem." Moreover, this lack of concern about eliminating or reducing poverty is displaced by a concern (whether faux or genuine doesn't really matter) about eliminating or reducing class prejudice, a position that left-wing and right-wing egalitarians both share.

Michaels' article begins by examining how two recent novels about contemporary life at America's elite schools, Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep and Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons can be read as products of the neoliberal imagination. His analysis is particularly good at identifying why the authors chose to set their books on college campuses:

Schools loom larger in the neoliberal imagination than they did in the liberal imagination because where the old liberalism was interested in mitigating the inequalities produced by the free market, neoliberalism-with its complete faith in the beneficence of the free market-is interested instead in justifying them. And our schools have a crucial role to play in this. They have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty, or, to put the point the other way around, they have become our primary mechanism for convincing rich people that we deserve our wealth.

Michaels skewers neoliberals for making classism, understood on the multicultural model of failing to respect cultural differences, appear to be the core problem. By making this move, which not only accepts poverty as a given but also naturalizes material inequalities, neoliberals have effectively become conservatives.

On this model, then, class is turned into clique and, once the advantages of class are redescribed as the advantages of status, we get the recipe for what we might call right-wing egalitarianism: Respect the poor. Which is also, as it turns out, the recipe for left-wing egalitarianism.

If in 1950 Trilling thought there were no conservatives or reactionaries, we might say today that there are only conservatives and reactionaries. Where the neoliberal right likes status instead of class, the neoliberal ''left" likes cultural identity, and its version of ''respect the poor" is ''respect the Other." That's why multiculturalism could go from proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management technology in about 10 minutes.

Today, what Trilling called ''diverse social classes" has turned into what we just call diversity. And diversity gives us what we might call the fantasy of a left politics-a politics defined by its opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia and hence by the idea that what we should do with difference is not eliminate it but appreciate it.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Blood Money and Biogeographical Ancestry

I'm posting this link for I, who is teaching an American Literature and Culture course that focuses on issues of race and nativism in 1920s American fiction. Her class just finished Willa Cather's The Professor's House, which deals with, among other things, the ideological appeal that a vanishing race, namely, the ostensibly authentic indigenous Indian or Native American culture that had disappeared, held during an era in which immigration became a particularly contentious issue.

The article demonstrates that notions of racial purity still inflect debates about American Indians. It describes how black Indians who have been denied tribal citizenship by one of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, are turning to science in order to establish their claims to a tribal identity. The whole scenario offers yet another example of the detrimental effects of conflating racial and cultural identities. Or, as Walter Benn Michaels might put it, in American discourse appeals to cultural identity have displaced or replaced appeals to racial identity. But don't be fooled: the logic of exclusion tends to work more or less the same when it comes to defining people according to racial or cultural critera that posit some allegedly authetnic norm.

The black Indians, are descendents of former slaves of the Cherokees. These slaves gained their independence in 1866 and most of the Freedmen were assimilated into the tribes without many problems. That changed in the 1980s with the passage of legislation authorizing tribes to construct, you guessed it, casinos on Indian reservations. The prospect of sharing in casino profits and government reparations paid to some tribes for the seizure of their lands has resulted in an enormous increase in people claiming Indian ancestry in the past couple decades. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some tribes are denying citizenship to people who are direct descendents of Indians.

How this will all play out remains unclear. The Bush administration has sided with the Indian tribes against the black Indians, claiming that the government has no mandate to meddle in Indian affairs. (Anyone else wonder why Bush Sr.'s administration didn't take that position with regard to the use of peyote in tribal ceremonies?) The Supreme Court has tended to agree.

However companies are marketing DNA test kits, which cost from about $100 to $300, that provide users with their genetic profile. While this information can't establish whether a person's ancestors belonged to a particular Indian tribe, it can indicate their "biogeographical ancestry" based on what percentage of their genes come from where.

For details, read Brendan I. Koerner's Wired article, Blood Feud.

Editorial note: It's great to see Wired, a magazine whose quality fluctuates, publishing more than celebrity profiles of tech investors and entrepreneurs or hype about new high-tech gadgets targeted at status-conscious hipsters.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Political Riposte to 'Anonymous'

I first posted this as a riposte to comments that were left in response to my Signifying Marks (Friday, September 30, 2005) entry. Since it's so damn long compared to my recent posts, and since I won't have time to do much blogging in the next few days, I thought I'd upgrade it from a riposte to a main entry, where it might be read by a few more people...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your concern. I still have grading to do and reading and writing to do this evening before I head to bed, so this has to be quick and dirty…

This is my personal website, not the course website, so you can stop worrying about me making students read my blog. I assure you that I have no desire to teach student my personal political beliefs. I'm concerned first and foremost to teach them about literature. I teach at a public university and most students went to public schools. The sad fact is that far too many of them are unwilling or unable to read and analyze texts. (Why that might be is a question that'll have to wait for another day.) I primarily teach fiction - modern & postmodern novels - and my job is to teach them how to read closely and make coherent arguments about these texts.

Political topics, of course, come up in class, but I don't see how it could be otherwise. Most top-notch literary writers, from Shakespeare to Pynchon, write texts that are engaged with the pressing political issues of the day. When politics (however defined) does come up in class, I do by best, for pedagogic efficiency not least, to keep my personal political beliefs hidden. My agenda in such instances is to try to get students to understand how and why, say, Nicholas Mosley or George Orwell (to name writers often identified directly with the political Right and Left) make particular ideological claims in their writing.

We're going to start Graham Greene's The Quiet American soon, and I'm sure that the current war in Iraq will come up. Why? Because the Iraq War is mentioned in the book's "Introduction" by the American writer Robert Stone. However, I do not intend to make the Vietnam/Iraq parallel a focus, though I will probably spend time discussing why Greene was regarded by many as a conservative and why some critics complained that The Quiet American was, if not anti-American, than unfair to America's anti-Communist foreign policy in Southeast Asia.

But you probably could care less about the politics of literature and the literature of politics. It's the 'politically incorrect' dog image on my blog and the possibility that I made students go to my website to view it that inspired your wrath.

I'll have you know that when we discussed this image in class I began by saying that the point was not to make a political point, but to talk about formal analyses of signs and what is gained by following Saussurean linguists and treating the sign as being comprised of two components: the signifier and the signified. This image was useful for a variety of reasons, not least because of the visual pun involved (see wally's post above). However, the main focus of our discussion was about the question of intention and whether or not is was accurate to describe - as the person who posted this image online did in jest - the dog's urinating on a sign (and I stressed that it could just as well be Kerry, Nader, Tony Blair, etc.) as an act of 'free speech.' I could say more about our discussion of meaning, belief and semiotics, but there's a Discussion Board for that on the Blackboard course website, which is only accessible to registered students in my English and American Fiction class.

Because UIC is strapped for cash, classrooms aren't equipped with monitors for computers. I passed around a blurry black and white xerox of the image at the beginning of class while taking roll, but our discussion was primarily based on a quick description of the image. I did inform students that they if they wished they could look at the image on the Blackboard course website, but I did not direct them to my blog.

Have I directed students to my blog? Yes, but it was for purely pragmatic reasons. At the beginning of the semester a fair number students were not yet 'officially' in the campus computer system, which meant they could not access the Blackboard course website on UIC's servers. Therefore, I posted my syllabus and the booklist on my blog. I made a point of letting students know that this was my personal site and that the views expressed there did not reflect those of the university. I remember they laughed at that. Did I secretly want them to read my posts and decide to speak out, say, against government-sponsored torture? No, I wanted them to know what was on the syllabus: where my office is, what the campus policy on plagiarism is, and what they had to read for the first week, etc. You get tired of hearing the same questions over and over in the first week.

Did any political indoctrination occur as a result of students visiting my blog? I suspect not. Did any of them decide, say, to join Amnesty International or protest against torture at Abu Ghraib? I highly doubt it. Did any of them read anything at all? Maybe. I have had a couple students approach me about 'indie rock' music. Perhaps they saw the links to Paul Westerberg, Sonic Youth, Bloodshot Records, etc. on my blog? I hadn't given it a thought until reading your post.

Would I like students to read my blog? Sure, but I don't actively seek them out. Like most bloggers (I suspect) I like the idea of someone else reading my posts. Why else would I do it? (I know Dr. Johnson would label me a fool for not writing for money.) I post online and although it's really a labor of love for me, it's nice to know that one has an audience, however small that audience might be. Since I don't get many comments on this site, it's kinda exciting to hear from you. Even though your tone was nasty (anonymous posts tend to be more vehement I've noticed) it was funny to hear you refer to the "liberal element in Chicago" and my "asinine abuses of power."

But a teacher's job is never done, and I've spent far too much time on this riposte so I've got to sign off.

While you’re here in the blogsphere, I do have some advice for you. Since you’re someone who is concerned about ethics, and someone who believes in speaking his or her mind, you might reflect upon the nomination of Timothy Flanigan to the post of Deputy Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice. As Senator Barack Obama has noted: “Mr. Flanigan’s alleged involvement in the crafting of the White House ‘torture memos’ and his relationship with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff raise significant questions regarding his fitness to serve in the No. 2 post in the nation's top law enforcement department.” Perhaps, after further inquiries on your part, you’ll want to speak up and let your political representatives know that you object to Mr. Flanigan being approved for the position of Deputy Attorney General? It’s your choice, of course. Should you choose to voice your opinion, whatever it might be, on this or any other ethical issue, I encourage you to have the courage to express your thoughts in your own name (Call it an intuition, but I’m assuming that you live in a society where free speech is protected and are indeed a U.S. Citizen; if you prefer to be ‘Anonymous’ in, say, China or Iraq, it’s understandable). Your ideas and opinions will carry more weight with a signature attached.


The Python that Ate the Gator: A Parable About Gluttony

Even Aesop himself couldn't top this story, which might just be the best example of gluttony that I've ever encountered. Park rangers in Florida's Everglades National Park discovered the remains of a 6-foot long dead alligator inside a dead Burmese python. It seems that the python tried to swallow the alligator whole but then exploded. For those alligator chasers out there, you can check out a truly gross photo of the carcasses at the link above.

Kids, keep this story in mind the next time you're tempted to go back for yet another round at the all-you-can-eat buffet. [Loud Belch.]