Thursday, April 19, 2007

Exclusive: Joe Carver's Mea Culpa

This is for the sake of posterity. Everyone needs to know that on April 19, 2007, Joe Carver, that musical snob and marginal excuse for a friend (I keeeeed!), admitted he had been wrong about the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way, and I was right. Right, right, right. Nya nya nya nya boo boo!

carrolltondebate [11:39 A.M.]: a belated mea culpa
carrolltondebate [11:39 A.M.]: that Dixie chicks record was awesome
carrolltondebate [11:39 A.M.]: you could not have been more correct

Tragedy, Responsibility, Hypocrisy

The tragic shootings at Virginia Tech have inspired posturing all over the physical and electronic marketplace of ideas. Gary Lavergne, director of admissions research at the University of Texas at Austin and author of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he makes a provocative, sentimentally appealing, but ultimately problematic declaration about Cho Seung-hui:
In 'Sniper in the Tower' I concluded...that "[Whitman's] actions speak for themselves"....Charles Whitman was a murderer; he killed innocent people. We should not forget that. In Virginia we appear to have a Whitman-like character. It is vitally important for all to remember that there is only one person responsible for what happened in Blacksburg, and that is the man who pulled the trigger....Before we identify and learn the lessons of Blacksburg, we must begin with the obvious: More than four dozen innocent people were gunned down by a murderer who is completely responsible for what happened. No one died for lack of text messages or an alarm system. They died of gunshot wounds. While we painfully learn our lessons, we must not treat each other as if we are responsible for the deaths that occurred. We must come together and be respectful and kind. This is not a time for us to torture ourselves or to seek comfort by finding someone to blame. Maybe as a result of the tragedy we will figure out how to more effectively use e-mail and text messages as emergency tools for warning large populations. We may come up with a plan that successfully clears a large area, with a population density of a midsize city, in less than two hours. Maybe universities will find a way to install surveillance cameras and convince students and faculty members that they are being monitored for their own safety and not for gathering domestic intelligence. All of those steps might be helpful in avoiding and reducing the carnage of any future incidents. But as long as we value living in a free society, we will be vulnerable to those who do harm -- because they want to and know how to do it.

While there is a certain emotional appeal to the idea that we should isolate the blame, and not "blame each other" (not the same, he ignores, as identifying institutional faults that exacerbated the tragedy), his argument simply isn't true. There is not, there is never, only "one person responsible." There may be one person responsible if we file down and systemically demarcate and limit the meaning of responsibility, but such a finding only occurs after we do the philosophical work (consciously or unconsciously) to so limit. The problem is not merely that more systemic and "radical" interpretations of responsibility exist (although I find those explanations much more compelling than a lot of other people do because they help me understand and forgive individual transgressions). The problem is also that even within the very same code-system of bourgeois legalism and individualism this author assumes, we routinely make judgments opposed to the "one person responsible" thesis. We do so every time the state brings charges against a tavern for a drunk driving death, charges against a doctor or hospital for misdiagnosing a patient who then goes on to kill others, charges against a Nazi hate group for a series of racist murders committed by someone who read the group's literature. We routinely hold that there are several, often complex, varying levels and degrees of responsibility. And that's a good thing. This author has no moral or legal basis to declare the shooter to be the ONLY one responsible for what happened. And for him to go further and declare that it is "vitally important" for us to remember this...well, that seems to betray an agenda that makes his argument fair game.

Meanwhile, President Bush did his presidential duty and spoke at the memorial service for those killed at Virginia Tech. Best summary of the implications of that visit comes from David Walsh's article yesterday:
As governor of Texas, Bush presided over the executions of 152 human beings; as president, he has the blood of thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands. His administration has made unrelenting violence the foundation of its global policies, justifying assassination, secret imprisonment and torture. Speaking of the Blacksburg killings, Bush commented: “Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone—and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.” If he and his cronies were not entirely immune to the consequences of their own policies, it might strike them that they could be speaking about the masses of the dead in Iraq, who have also done “nothing to deserve their fate.” The president, in his perfunctory remarks, appeared anxious, above all, to put the events behind him. Bush’s comment that “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering” comes as no surprise. He recognizes instinctively, or his speechwriters do, that considering the “violence and suffering” in a serious manner would raise troubling questions, and even more troubling answers.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Anthem For Doomed Youth (1917)

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of their guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid fire
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(Poem written by Wilfred Owen, 1917)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

more on why the left must reject oppressive religious movements

No, not religion in general.

The recent news that anti-globalization movements have directly reached out to, and worked with various Islamic groups, including sexist, homophobic, and anti-democratic groups, should disturb us deeply.

There are plenty of progressive, democratic religious groups, including Islamic groups, to work with. They may not attract attention because they don't kill babies or assassinate people with whom they disagree, but they're there, and they're far better candidates for progressive causes.

Last year, Fred Halliday put it very well:

...while it is true that Islamism in its diverse political and violent guises is indeed opposed to the US, to remain there omits a deeper, crucial point: that, long before the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadis and other Islamic militants were attacking "imperialism", they were attacking and killing the left - and acting across Asia and Africa as the accomplices of the west. [...] The reactionary (the word is used advisedly) nature of much of their programme on women, free speech, the rights of gays and other minorities is evident.There is also a mindset of anti-Jewish prejudice that is riven with racism and religious obscurantism. Only a few in the west noted what many in the Islamic world will have at once understood, that one of the most destructive missiles fired by Hizbollah into Israel bore the name "Khaibar" - not a benign reference to the pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the name of a victorious battle fought against the Jews by the Prophet Mohammad in the 7th century. Here it is worth recalling the saying of the German socialist leader Bebel, that anti-semitism is "the socialism of fools". How many on the left are tolerant if not actively complicit in this foolery today is a painful question to ask.

(More about the status of women in conservative Islam here...straight from the proverbial horse's mouth, in a clumsy attempt to disco around the issue...)

I think it's time to start a drive to get a broad coalition of progressives, socialists, and left democrats to publicly denounce, and renounce affiliation with, all religious extremism, and all religious movements that advocate the persecution of (or any degree of violence against) labor movements, religious minorities or members of other religions, sexual minorities, women, etc. This is not about being unduly "purist" or fragmentory. This is about foolishly --fatally foolishly-- assuming that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Halliday concludes that the left
does not need slogans to understand that the Islamist programme, ideology and record are diametrically opposed to the left – that is, the left that has existed on the principles founded on and descended from classical socialism, the Enlightenment, the values of the revolutions of 1798 and 1848, and generations of experience. The modern embodiments of this left have no need of the “false consciousness” that drives so many so-called leftists into the arms of jihadis.

Maryland Passes Living Wage Law

Yay! This is from James Parks at the AFL-CIO Weblog on April 9:
Maryland today became the first state to require contractors to pay workers a living wage, the fruit of a months-long coalition campaign that included union members, religious leaders and civil rights advocates. On its last day in session, the Maryland Senate voted, 31-16, to approve the measure, which was passed by the state House last week. Gov. Martin O'Malley(D), who campaigned for the legislation, has promised to sign the bill.
The new law will require service contractors doing business with the state to pay employees $11.30 an hour in urban areas and $8.50 an hour in rural areas. The state's minimum wage is $6.15 an hour.
The final vote is another step toward lifting thousands of Maryland workers out of poverty, says Fred Mason, president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Happy Easter?

Yesterday's AP article on Easter throughout the Islamic world was somewhat enlightening. Publicly celebrating Easter is extremely illegal in Saudi Arabia. In this context, the strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam is not only ridiculous but also fundamentally backward and cruel. Incidentally, it should not be ignored that Saudi Arabia is the one Islamic nation that the U.S. ruling class is most likely to ass-kiss on any given day. That Easter is openly celebrated in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and even Iraq, is evidence that not all interpretations of Islam are as intolerant as Wahhabi Islam is.

In case the hinted argument isn't getting through, gentle reader, I'll be more blunt: Religious pluralism is more progressive, more advanced, more morally and politically defensible, than the lack of religious pluralism. Progressives should not feel the need to defend repressive versions of Islam any more than they would feel the need to defend repressive versions of Christianity, Judaism, or (if a repressive version of it existed) Zoroastrianism. We need not take sides in the pointless and destructive battles between reactionary right wingers of the Christian and Islamic variety.

And if you get a chance, read Mansoor Hekmat's "Rise and Fall of Political Islam."

Saturday, April 07, 2007

University Politics

I teach at a university, but I've never been comfortable in academia. It pays the bills and I enjoy the teaching part of it. I don't feel at all politically compatable with "colleagues" even when I find them nice people personally, and, yes, even when they call themselves liberals, leftists, or radicals. And situations like the one I am about to describe remind me why I feel this way, but also why I feel like I need to stay around...

Harvard Law School's "gadfly" (and recently converted torture advocate) Alan M. Dershowitz has made it his personal cause to convince DePaul Law School to deny tenure to Norman G. Finkelstein. In addition to writing a book taking Dershowitz and others to task for exploiting the Holocaust, Finkelstein also accuses Dershowitz of plagiarism, saying some of the things Dershowitz wrote in his 2003 book The Case for Israel were not quite original.

How does a professor at one university communicate his desire that a professor at another university shouldn't receive tenure? As documented by the April 5 Chronicle of Higher Education, well, ruthlessly:

Last fall, with Mr. Finkelstein up for tenure, Mr. Dershowitz sent the DePaul law school faculty and members of the political-science department what he described, in a letter dated October 3, as a "dossier of Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions." "I hope that this will serve as an introduction and primer to the so- called scholarship that Finkelstein will present this term as he is considered for tenure," Mr. Dershowitz wrote. Mr. Finkelstein said in an interview on Monday that Mr. Dershowitz had embarked on "this frenetic and relentless campaign to deny me tenure." "He sent to every member of the law school ... a dossier which came, I think, to about 50 pages, leveling or, I should say, recycling all of the allegations he's been putting forth for the past couple of years. And he sent a copy of that dossier to every member of my department."The packet included what Mr. Dershowitz's letter called "some of the lies I am absolutely confident that Finkelstein told" on such points as
Israeli torture and whether or not Mr. Dershowitz writes his own books. In a telephone interview on Wednesday with The Chronicle, Mr. Dershowitz confirmed
that he had sent the information to "everybody who would read it." He said he had compiled the material at the request of some two dozen DePaul students, alumni, and faculty members who were alarmed at the prospect of Mr. Finkelstein's receiving tenure.
Now a lot of people say that academic politics are "small." Small-minded, perhaps, but in some cases, hardly small in magnitude...and, to be fair, most bourgeois politics fit that description: petty in conception but not in impact. And as much as I thought Dershowitz's book on the O.J. Simpson trial, Reasonable Doubts, was enjoyable, well-argued, and enlightening, I must say I have found most of Dershowitz's attitudes and positions to be not only reactionary, but the kind of reactionary one would expect from someone of great material and institutional privilege.

But more importantly: If Dershowitz did indeed plagiarize sections of his 2003 book, there is no doubt in my mind he won't lose his job, and it's doubtful that Dershowitz's immature nastiness will ruin the academic career of Finkelstein--all of which is more than one can say about Ward Churchill, whose head will end up on a platter for alleged sins just-short-of-routinely committed by other scholars. Not only were the findings in the Churchill case dubious, but the process itself violated the very rules of procedure and due process laid out in the Colorado University rules.

(In a phenomenon that is equally demonstrative of academic politics as microcosm, Churchill's situation has been exacerbated by his own long-term tendency to threaten, verbally brutalize, and dismiss others on the left who might otherwise have come to his defense more frequently and enthusiastically.)

The Churchill case, the battle between Dershowitz and Finkelstein, and countless other academic battles demonstrate that academic politics are not merely localized and irrelevant, but alternate as either microcosms or instantiations of larger political battles. This is a lesson which (although I won't get into the details just yet) I am learning myself as I attempt to make my own little section of the Communication Studies discipline more critical and educational. People get pissed off at you, and not merely for reasons of petty academic territoriality. Ideologies and empires are at stake--and given the fact that millions of working class youth (as well as nontraditional students) go through state universities, and that the line between private school privilege and public university access is at times thinner than we might think, the stakes may be very high indeed.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Introducing Noah Thomas Stannard

... born at 8:09 PM, March 28, here in Laramie.

"...modern psychology confirms common experience in teaching that to horrify a young child with stories of brimstone bells, and make it believe that it is a little devil who can only escape from that hell by maintaining a sinless virtue to which no saint or heroine has ever pretended, is to injure it for life more cruelly than by any act of bodily violence that even the most brutal taskmaster would dare to prescribe or justify."
--Bernard Shaw