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Thursday, 15 October 2009

Dittohead Forever: Rush Limbaugh Dropped From Bid for NFL Rams

Yesterday Dave Checketts, the executive leader of a group bidding for the N.F.L. Rams, announced Rush Limbaugh would be dropped from the group. Writing for The New York Times, Judy Battista reports that

once word leaked last week that Limbaugh was involved, several retired and current players said they objected to Limbaugh’s involvement and said players would not join the Rams as free agents if Limbaugh prevailed. Then the union executive director, DeMaurice Smith, expressed his personal concern about Limbaugh and encouraged players to speak up.

The players’ opposition to Limbaugh is rooted largely in his public comments about race. The most famous of those came when he spoke about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in 2003, while Limbaugh worked for ESPN.

In the wake of the controversy raised by his comments about Donovan, Limbaugh resigned from his position at ESPN. Six years later, Limbaugh’s racist comments continue to affect how people who work in the N.F.L. perceive Limbaugh, unsurprising given Limbaugh’s refusal to back away from his statement. Instead, Limbaugh went so far as to say

All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something [. . .] If I wasn't right, there wouldn't be this cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sports writer community.

Leave it to a racist like Limbaugh to explain that people get upset with racist comments because racist comments are true.

At the time of Battista’s report, Limbaugh vowed not to drop out of the group bidding for the Rams and the right-wing blogosphere is spinning all of this as a liberal conspiracy to silence Limbaugh.

If by silence the right wing means the refusal of workers to allow an infamous, proven, and unapologetic racist to gain partial ownership of the system in which they labor and to which they have dedicated their lives, then Limbaugh for now has been silenced. And if by liberal conspiracy the right wing means the social and political movement that begins with Abolition and continues through the Civil Rights Era, they have correctly identified the natural enemies of racists such as Limbaugh.

end of article

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Decline of the English Department

Early in his analysis of The Decline of the English Department, William Chace asserts that what is at the root of the decline

is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.

Chace sketches the history of the decline of the humanities, concluding that the notion that the literary humanities in particular have been at the heart of American higher education is [. . .] a mirage. Even so, Chace cannot help but nostalgically recall the masterly interpretations of literature’s greatest works by a former instructor whose authority it would have been ‘bootless’ [. . .] to question. The tension between the need to document the historical facts of the decline of English and the emotional significance literary studies holds for Chace structures the disillusion that unfolds in the distance between what is, to Chace, the rightful place of literary studies in higher education and its actual value to students and university administrators. For Chace, the historical coda which brings us to the present sorry state of literary studies is scored by the gentle but persistent undertones of a diversifying student body to whom books look smaller as well as the defunding of education in general. However, the major melody of this historical and continuing decline resides not in something that has happened to [English], but in what it has done to itself.

Chace documents this self-inflicted mortal wound in a lamentation about the multiplication of interpretive frameworks in English, identifying them as

myriad pursuits, each heading away from any notion of a center—[the proliferation of which] has prompted many thoughtful people to question what, indeed, the profession of literature amounts to.

His final recommendations can be summarized as a call for the return of order in literary interpretation and an exhortation to assuage undergraduates confused by the provisionality of literary critcal activity. Chace wants teachers of English to focus on teaching their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities.1

To his conclusion, all I can say is good luck with that. Having (let alone getting) faculty trained in the analysis of the objects, artifacts, and phenomena broadly understood as the legitimate domain of “English” to teach students how to write better is a waste of students’ time, teachers’ skills, and social resources. Chace considers teaching to write well a goal worthy in itself, but everything in US culture and commerce points to the fact that good writing is largely ornamental, something especially true as concerns literary writing. Without even addressing whether good (as opposed to competent) writing can be taught, does Chace really think that all the students flocking to study business management and the employers who will eventually hire them care how well those students can analyze literature in writing?2

The reasons for the decline of English as a discipline are beyond the ability of English departments to address. The decline is not the result of anthropological, sociological, theoretical, and philosophical approaches embraced by the discipline, especially given that these very approaches reinvograted the discipline beginning in the 1970s and kept the discipline alive at least through the late 1980s. What is chipping away at English as a discipline is the radical irrelevance of literature to the formation of personal identity, the founding of philosophical principles, and the shaping of social policy in an age of electronic and non-paper print media.

Chace’s well-written article comes to all the wrong conclusions, which just goes to show good writing don’t mean a thing. In among his seductive, nostalgic, and mistaken lines of argument, Chace notes

Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.

A larger discursus would summarize the points McLuhan makes in The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media about how paper-print literacy comes to seem thought itself in a culture dominated by books when, in fact, writing well and analyzing literature are only specialized forms of knowledge relevant only within the domain of paper-print, but this is not that discursus.

I’ll end by noting that what scholars of paper-print identify as signs of clear thinking, well-balanced argumentation, and adequate development are largely conventions of paper-print. In an age where television, film, video games and digital text dominate, what people believe to be persuasive argumentation takes forms that look nothing like the primary objects of study of traditional English departments. The future of the English department is the study of new media.

Evolve or die.

end of article

1 Which is different than arguing that instructors trained in the teaching of writing should place composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their teaching.
2 Please please please spare me your unsubstantiated claims about how skills in literary analysis translate to excellence in, for example, grant writing.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy, the Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

—. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Friday, 09 October 2009

Barack Obama Awarded 2009 Nobel Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the United States is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama’s appeal that “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”

2009 Nobel Committee

As an independent liberal, I am having a number of reactions to this statement. Part of me is thrilled at the committee’s recognition of the value the Obama administration has placed on multilateral negotiation and its acknowledgement of Obama’s rhetorical commitment to nuclear disarmament.

The empiricist in me is deeply worried that the preeminent award for the furtherance of peace and the recognition of achievements done to promote peace has been given to someone who has advanced policies that legitimate people as objects of torture. I am concerned about the awarding of the world’s most visible prize for peace to someone who not only has delayed withdrawing his country from hostile activities in two countries, but has made the case for increasing such hostilities in one of them.

Obama seems very aware of the tensions made manifest by this award.

end of article

Harry Connick Jr. Hates Blackface

The contestants, all medical professionals, are none too talented and, judging by their routine, racially oblivious. The audience cheers the jerking minstrels, clapping to the beat of a racial lampooning.

At 1:49 Harry Connick Jr. looks dumbfounded, and at 2:30 he gathers his wits and says

Man, if they turned up looking like that in the United States [. . .] They’d be like, “Hey, hey! There’s no more show.”

I think one of the legacies of the US’s horrific racial history is that Americans are clued in to the fact that racial miming has social meaning and that the social meaning blackface is something like “I enjoy black people because they are lolz and it’s funny when I clown like they do.”

Connick nails it when he says that Americans have

spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart.

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