Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Ezra Earns an "A"

Classes start around here tomorrow; a summer of inaction drools to a conclusion. Right about now, I'm hoping against reason that I'll get some students like Ezra Klein:
The Bush administration is the Enron of political organizations. A teetering pile of plausible deniability, front politicians, and diversions. Rove keeps George's hands clean, Cheney gets the rap of plutocratic grand vizier, Rumsfeld gets the blame for Iraq, Bolton is a loose cannon someone must've accidentally wheeled into the UN, DeLay is the theocrat, and so on and so forth. The bucks stop nowhere, they just twirl and dance in the wind, a bit of inadvertent political performance art. And there's George, an oasis of ignorance in a maelstrom of incompetence. Past administrations have dodged accountability, this one's made it into a zen art.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Takeover at Cabazon

The Dinos of Cabazon
Originally uploaded by DBM.
Travelers between L.A. and Palm Springs have long cherished the two dinosaurs built by Claude Bell behind his Wheel Inn. The apatasaurus and tyrannasaurus have appeared in countless films (including Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) and amateur photos (including this excellent one by my friend Amy). But now they've been taken over by creationist nutjobs, who've turned them into an attraction called "Cabazon Dinosaurs."

According to an article in the August 27th L.A. Times, you can now climb up to the gift shop located in Dinny the Dinosaur (the apatasaurus) and purchase a souvenir toy dino with a label warning "Don't Swallow It: The Fossil Record Does Not Support Evolution." The Times article by Ashley Powers quotes Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, a group building a $25-million creationism museum in Kentucky, as saying "We're putting evolutionists on notice. We're taking the dinosaurs back. They're used to teach people that there's no God, and they are used to brainwash people. Evolutionists get very upset when we use dinosaurs. That's their star."

Apparently this effort to appropriate dinosaurs to creationist young-earth nonsense is an ongoing nationwide phenomenon. You can visit Dinosaur Adventure Land in Pensacola, Florida, where the slogan is "Where Dinosaurs and the Bible meet!" Or, if you are in the vicinity of Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas, you can contemplate the intermingled dinosaur tracks and human footprints at Carl Baugh's Creation Evidence Museum.

These efforts to use long-extinct giant reptiles to promote creationism are patently absurd. In that light, I'll leave the final word to Kevin Padian of the UC Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley: "Dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden, and Noah's Ark? Give me a break. For them, 'The Flintstones' is a documentary."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Alien at Our Buffet

buffetWhat goes into the Melting-Pot determines what must come out of it. If we put into it sound, sturdy stock, akin to the pioneer breed which first peopled this country and founded its institutions; if these new stocks are not only sound physically but alert mentally, then we shall develop a race here worthy to carry on the ideals and traditions of the founders of our country. But if the material fed into the Melting-Pot is a polyglot assortment of nationalities, physically, mentally and morally below par, then there can be no hope of producing anything but an inferior race.

— Robert Ward, “Fallacies of the Melting-Pot Idea”
The Alien in Our Midst (1924)

Via Eric at Alterdestiny, we read of the Minuteman invasion of New Mexico, to whose border defense a group of mouth-breathers from Alabama have commited themselves. What would inspire the Alabama Minutement Support Team to rise up in defense of the white identity and traditions of the American Southwest? If you're Gary Buie, the question is a no-brainer. The Albuquerque Tribune explains:
Used to be, Gary Buie and his family could go down to a local buffet in Birmingham, Ala., and fill up on comfort food and familiar eats.

Slowly, the all-you-can-eat buffet began to change. Six months ago, he and his family made the trip and were the only ones speaking English, he said in a telephone interview from Birmingham.
Yeah, nothing ruins a plate of salisbury steak, butter beans and cornbread like a room full of people speaking Spanish. And for what grave traumas -- aside from the impending liquidation of the Aryan race -- do Gary Buie and his family have to seek out "comfort food"? It's all so stupifying.

I only wish that Tribune had told us whether the buffet in question was in fact a Chinese restaurant.

Opus Dei

opusThis interview with Berke Breathed reminds me on a number of levels why the general state of things has gotten worse since Bloom County ended its run in 1989:
Q. Have you done any strips that took up, in any form, the misleading pre-war reporting on WMDs?

A. Yes, and they weren't appreciated by my clients a year ago. It's a different time than it was in my prime years, for sure. I can't even print the word "gay" in my strip without losing clients. To say the least, editors are weirdly on edge right now. I think they're all worried that they may have to become religious pamphlets in order to survive.

Q. What do you think of newspapers' overall performance in the past three years relating to the war?

A. Here's the preferred order of indictments after the coming investigation by a special prosecutor on the fraudulent build-up and motives for America's most recent military blood-letting: Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld, Howell Raines, Gerald Boyd.

You notice I mention nobody at the Washington Post. It would be like criticizing my mother.

Actually, that's probably the same rationale that editors applied when it came to reporting on war issues.

I like the idea of a "preferred order of indictments." As a debating topic, it beats the shit out of all those AFI "Top 100" lists.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Flash Gordon, Savior of the Universe

flashgordon4At some point in the 1980 film Flash Gordon, Dr. Hans Zarkov describes how he managed to thwart the erasure of his mind at the hands of Ming the Merciless. After being strapped into the hideous device, Zarkov explains, he began thinking of old baseball scores, the names of family pets, songs from old musicals — any random scrap of memory to which he might cling in desperation. It's a philosophically powerful moment, I think, in an otherwise vacant film.

I reflect upon the struggle of Hans Zarkov at the start of every academic year, when my faculty colleagues and I are treated to a several-days-long frontal lobe bludgeoning known as "Convocation." Plied each morning with trays of pastries and fruit, vats of coffee and an endless river of orange juice, we surrender ourselves like fatted calves, brainmooing ever so gently as we gather for meeting after soul-banishing meeting. This year we descended into the circle of hell known as "Assessment," a land whose lingua franca is a pidgin consisting of three parts corporate chatter to two parts astrology. As my department's "assessment coordinator," I have learned this language well enough to know its seductive lures. To put it oversimply, "the assessment movement" is an externally-driven process that asks universities to provide fresh, quantifiable data — which we call "metrics" — proving that the university's "stakeholders" (i.e., the legislature, the business community, the public in general) are earning proper returns on their investments. Faculty are asked to "drill down" into student performance, generating program-wide "goals" and specific, measurable "outcomes" that may, so the ideology goes, one day supplant traditional "surface" calculations like grades and graduation rates. Faculty are asked to "buy in" to the movement, so that the material reality of assessment — the fact that it is driven entirely by state legislatures and national accreditation agencies — might somehow be disguised as a sort of democratic groundswell guided and "nourished" by those who actually teach. Assessment gurus encourage faculty to initiate campus-wide "dialogues" devoted to the question of "how we know" that students are learning. (Thus, the implementation technocratic instruments is confused with genuine epistemological issues.) Simultaneously, "the culture of assessment" is supposed to envelop the lives our students, offering them meaningful ways to evaluate their own progress, to "honor the paths" they have chosen for their education.

Thus it has gone for much of the past three days. If I could not remember the sequence of World Series champions from 1903 onward, or the names of all the songs from the first two Iron Maiden albums -- nuggets of trivia that my wife constantly insists have replaced important information (like when to give our dog her antipsychotic medication) -- I would have succumbed to the very fate Hans Zarkov so successfully avoided.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Grief-Based Politics

kramskoy-griefAnd now, we present this week's obtuse argument from the Weekly Standard. Listen to Noemie Emery, one of the anti-feminist "feminists" employed by the right to bludgeon uppity women with sacks of nickels, as she scolds Cindy Sheehan and her supporters:
In the four years or so since September 11, liberals have found a new weapon of preference, and that weapon is martyrdom. They have discovered grief as a tactical weapon. They tend to like grief they can use. They use it to arouse guilt and sympathy to cover a highly partisan message, in the hope that while the message may be controversial, the messenger will be sacrosanct and above reproach. Since 9/11, they have embraced this tactic repeatedly, and each time with a common objective: to cripple the war, to denounce the country, to swing an election, but mainly to embarrass and undermine the president.

The rest of the article recounts what Emery believes to be a pattern of duplicity of "the left," which -- driven to madness by the re-election of George W. Bush -- has devolved to such a squalid condition that its only strategy has become the partisan mangling of authentic grief. We hear once more about the "Jersey Girls," the Wellstone funeral, and a handful of other predictable examples of the "grief-seeking missiles" who comprise the Democratic left. As a craven finale, Emery asks us in a strange turn to pinch out a tear poor Sheehy, whose moral frailty and parasitic handlers have only immiserated her further:
She is now the vehicle for a collection of losers, who will use her, and then toss her over and out once she has served their purposes, or more likely failed to do so. Her family has broken up under the effects of this circus; she has now lost her husband, as well as her son. Please, send her back to her therapist, and what is now left of her broken-up family. And please--do not try this again.

It's hard to know where to begin dismantling this shack of stupidity, but it's worth pointing out that Emery's paragraph -- edited ever so slightly -- could stand as a perfect example in the as-yet-unwritten "Hegel for Dummies," in which a claim suddenly reverses course and dismantles itself. Using grief as a "tactical weapon?" Prodding the nation's sympathy "to cover a highly partisan message?" Sanctifying the mourner and elevating him beyond reproach? Embracing the tactic repeatedly in the pursuit of a narrow objective?

Whatever else we might say about her, Sheehy has nothing on the President, whose public performances throughout the Fall of 2001 were exemplary displays of politicized grief. Bush dwelled incessantly on his own punctured psyche, which he used to mirror the nation’s collective trauma; at every available moment, he personalized the terrorist attacks and the wars he has launched in their wake. Forging his own unique hybrid of Christian fundamentalism and pop psychology, Bush collapsed the registers of public and private suffering into one another, ceaselessly confessing his pain and announcing his resolve to the world. In a statement that he would -- and still does -- avail himself to repeat at every possible opportunity, Bush personalized the experience of 11 September 2001 and vowed to Congress and the nation that “I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” In a culture that has grown accustomed to the public sphere as a kind of “wound culture” -- as an arena for private disclosures, confession and pain — this kind of self-absorption allowed Bush to construct an idealized national community rooted in his own bewildered victimhood. Thus, where Bill Clinton famously claimed to feel our pain, Bush asked us to dwell constantly in his. Moreover, he seems to regard that pain as having epic historical meaning. In less scripted moments, Bush wandered even further into the murkiness of self-help discourse, suggesting on occasion that the attacks might be understood as a rite of passage, a moment of national growth that “brought out the best in our Nation” while helping us “learn a lot about ourselves and our friends in the world.” He even claimed once -- with no evident response from the nation's gag reflex -- that adversity “introduces us to ourselves.”

So to summarize Noemie Emery:
(1) Grief + opposition to the war = illegitimate, brainless, parochial leftism
(2) Grief + endorsement of the war = legitimate, fulfilling, encompassing patriotism.

As John Stossel might (but wouldn't) say, give me a fucking break.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Long Time, No See

Panic buttonAs the comments to my last post have grown increasingly plaintive and demanding, I'm dropping back in for a moment to assure my five or six faithful readers that I have not descended into a heroin stupor, nor have I wandered into the woods, Timothy Treadwell style, to be gobbled by bears. Truth be told, after zipping off to California in early August for a wedding (and then returning home to perform a wedding in Juneau), I came to the sphincter-clenching realization that my summer was quickly drawing to a close. One of the special joys of my job is that — now four years into it — I have not yet had a semester in which I had fewer than two brand new classes to prepare. This fall, I'm introducing courses in labor history and historiography for the first time; last year it was an introductory, interdisciplinary social science course and a seminar in the intellectual history of American Empire; and so on and so forth, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper: et in saecula saeculorum. Much of this burden is of my own making. I could easily cycle through a handful of courses rooted in my areas of specialization, whatever those happen to be. On the other hand, as the only US historian on my campus I feel obligated to teach the array of classes that students might expect to find in any other history program — and this requires that I step outside the usual spheres of expertise, at least to a degree. I could never teach a course on the Revolutionary War or the market revolution, but given enough time I could probably figure out how to teach a moderately successful semester on the social history of immigration, even though that's not technically "what I do."

The upshot of all this is that — in addition to wasting countless futile hours chasing Erik Loomis in the LGM Baseball Challenge — I have spent the past three weeks doused in my own cold sweat, prepping for two classes and working on neglected research while organizing files (a.k.a., "scrap-booking for professionals") for my mid-tenure review.

Come to think of it, being gobbled by bears doesn't seem like such a bad alternative. I think I'll marinate my exercise clothes in bacon grease and go for a jog.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Wedding Bells

ELVIS WEDDINGNot that any of you really care, but I'll most likely be on a total blogging hiatus until next Wednesday, when I return from yet another sturdy, heterosexual defense of the institution of marriage. Indeed, by next Wednesday I not only will have attended a posh nuptual in Northern California, but I will also have served as "wedding commissioner" — that's Chief Defender of Heterosexual Marriage to you — for a less-than-posh nuptual right here in Juneau. This means that I will have an unusually triumphant sense of my own authority, especially as it pertains to matters of connubial bliss. If any of you have particular questions related to marriage, or the absence or withering thereof, you should feel free to submit them in the comments section below.

Occasional co-blogger DBM — he of last month's Pangolin blogging — may or may not make an appearance while I'm gone. Be nice to him as he and his bride-to-be prepare to receive my Less-Than-Holy Matrimonial Blessing.

Evolution and its Discontents

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden VIIr
As nearly everyone should know by now, The Prez made remarks the other day to the effect that "intelligent design" and evolution ought to be taught side by side in public schools, like two yaks ascending the Ark. Breaking sharply from the methodology of his own administration, Bush offered a unique defense of free inquiry, suggesting that people should be exposed to all sides of a debate. (Insert WMD, ANWR, Medicare and Social Security jokes here).

"Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about," he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added: "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

As with any discussion of ID-Creationism and evolution, it's difficult to know where to begin with this (though as far as science blogs go, Pharyngula is a good place to start). Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with teaching students that intellectual disciplines are fractured, even divided in irresolvable ways over particular questions. Writing about the discipline of literary studies, Gerald Graff urged scholars years ago to "teach the conflicts" — to expose students to the significant disputes that have produced the various schools of interpretation that have defined the critical reception of literature. Similarly, any introductory methods course in, say, history or anthropology, economics or sociology will describe the pattern of the field in ways that alert students to its underlying plurality.

The anti-science coalition knows this much, and its proponents have learned quite well how to coast the surface of an enlightened discourse whose deeper implications they ultimately reject; they speak of "free inquiry," rational "argument," proper "debate," and the underlying agency of the autonomous individual to reach conclusions for herself as to the Truth of weighty matters. Turning history upon its head, they pose as contemporary Galileos standing before the entrenched might of the Church of Evolution.

"We interpret this as the president using his bully pulpit to support freedom of inquiry and free speech about the issue of biological origins," said Stephen Meyer, the director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture. "It's extremely timely and welcome because so many scientists are experiencing recriminations for breaking with Darwinist orthodoxy."

At the same time, however, the so-called "debate" has been utterly fallacious, deriving not from the routine course of scientific practice but from a concerted political campaign that mocks the very possibility of reasoned public conversation (e.g., by conducting stacked school board hearings, by slapping judicious stickers on high school text books, by appearing on CNN with Lou Dobbs, etc.). Proponents of ID-Creationism use the language of intellectual pluralism to great (and nihilistic) effect by blurring the question of what exactly they're asking us to consider. This is an encounter that is taking place not between two varieties of scientific thought but instead between biology and something else. (The flat-earth analogies don't go far enough here. These people are asking for the sort of curricular revisions that would result in the teaching of Pliny the Elder as an "alternative" to anthropology, or St. Augustine's "City of God/City of Man" dichotomy as an adequate method comparable to modern historicism. For that matter, we might as well revive the study the phlogiston theory in Chem 101) In effect, the calls for pluralism amount to incoherent yodeling. What these folks seek to gain in the realm of "free inquiry," they at once subtract by eroding the public's understanding of what science (and disciplinary knowledge more generally) is all about.

When I teach the 1920s in my history survey course, the Scopes Trial usually makes an appearance. At that point, I sometimes ask whether they it matters that we live in a nation whose president doesn't understand the concept of evolution. For the most part, my students don't seem to have a problem with that. As the saying goes, "mission accomplished."

Monday, August 01, 2005

A Pig in a Tuxedo is Still a Pig

humor77Last week, the NY Times reported that the Bush administration, flailing about for the proper words to describe its mission, has decided to re-brand the "Global War on Terrorism," referring to it now as the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism." The test-marketing of "GSAVE" is evidently intended to suggest a less bellicose path toward the ultimate defeat of Evil. The Times reported that Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced recently to the National Press Club that he had "objected to the use of the term 'war on terrorism' before, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution."

Well where did people get that silly fucking idea, huh? Oh, wait — I forgot:

War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This Nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.

--GW Bush, 14 September 2001

On September 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war, but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.

--GW Bush, 20 September 2001

This military action is a part of our campaign against terrorism, another front in a war that has already been joined through diplomacy, intelligence, the freezing of financial assets, and the arrests of known terrorists by law enforcement agents in 38 countries. Given the nature and reach of our enemies, we will win this conflict by the patient accumulation of successes, by meeting a series of challenges with determination and will and purpose.

Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers, themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.

--GW Bush, 7 October 2001

Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.

In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world. Our Nation and our coalition are proud of this accomplishment; yet it is you, the members of the United States military, who achieved it. Your courage, your willingness to face danger for your country and for each other, made this day possible. Because of you, our Nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.

-- GW Bush, 1 May 2003

Remember that time we went to war against the terrorists? Yeah, man, those were the days. We were all about handing out ass-kickings and candycanes then — until one day we ran out of candycanes. Heh. But now that Karen Hughes is back in the administration, serving as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, it's all about the fucking rainbows and unicorns and porpoises again. You smell that? That's the scent of freshly baked cookies. I love the scent of freshly baked cookies in the morning. Smells like . . . sensitive girl shit.

Or at least that's what the Weekly Standard's Scrapbook seems to think this week, proving once and for all that there's just no pleasing the neocons. First they were angry that it was a war against terrorism and not against the "Islamo-fascists." Then they were mad that we wouldn't call it "World War IV" (World War III being what most of us refer to as the Cold War, the misnaming of which still angers dingbats like Norman Podhoretz and Eliot Cohen). And now this.

It sounds for all the world as if the Bush administration wants to fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, and--dare we say it?--more sensitive war on terror. And if you think you've heard that language before, you're right. It came from John Kerry last fall. Kerry described the war on terror as "occasionally military" but argued that it is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation." Richard Holbrooke, Kerry's senior foreign policy adviser, said: "We're not in a war on terror, in the literal sense. The war on terror is like saying 'the war on poverty.' It's just a metaphor."

Bush, if you recall, was aghast: "Anyone who thinks we are fighting a metaphor does not understand the enemy we face, and has no idea how to win the war and keep America secure." But that was then.

The Scrapbook, just to be clear, understands that winning the GWOT will involve more than the application of brute military force. And we're all in favor of learning about what others dream and what they value most. But what we have learned to our horror in recent years is that far too many people dream mostly of murdering us.

Indeed the disturbing thing about this fascination with rebranding the war on terror is that it, if we may say, came at a time when a resurgent Taliban is stepping up its activities in Afghanistan, al Qaeda bombers are running amok in London, and tourist hotels are being blown up in Egypt. This is self-evidently not a great time to shift from a "Global War on Terror" to a "Long Struggle to Portray Americans as Good People Who Don't Hate Muslims and Respect Religions All Over the World Even as We Try to Dismantle the Networks of Ideological Extremists Who at the Very Least Disagree With Us and May Want to Do Us Harm." Or whatever.

What's next, man? Some sort of fucking "global test?" Pass the frogs legs!