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Saturday, January 31, 2004

Why don’t liberals “get” disability rights?

Great question-- and a great new essay by Mary Johnson, available at Ragged Edge Online.  I’m (liberally) quoted in it, but that’s not what makes it worth anyone’s time.  It really is a vexing question-- and a crucial one for anyone who takes seriously the possibility of thinking in terms of universal rights.

As you’ll see (if you click the link, of course), I think there are many things that liberals just don’t understand about disability when it comes to civil rights-- it’s like it’s not even on the radar until it affects their lives or the lives of someone close to them.  This was certainly the case with me-- as I admitted some years ago in the introduction to Simi Linton’s book, Claiming Disability:

“I now believe that my resistance to disability studies is of a piece with a larger and more insidious cultural form of resistance whereby nondisabled people find it difficult or undesirable to imagine that disability law is central to civil rights legislation.  Here’s what I mean.  Just as I was ‘liberal’ with regard to disability, so was I ‘liberal’ with regard to gender and race:  I supported (and I continue to support) equal pay for equal work and initiatives such as affirmative action regardless of whether those initiatives would ever benefit me.  I did not fear that I would become black or Hispanic someday; I was not reserving the right to a sex-change operation; I simply supported civil rights with regard to race and gender because I regarded these as long overdue attempts to make good on the promise of universal human rights.  It is for the same reason that I support gay and lesbian rights today, with regard to marriage, housing, childrearing, and employment.  But for some reason, even though disability law might someday pertain to me, I could not imagine it as central to the project of establishing egalitarian civil rights in a social democracy.  Gender, race, sexual orientation-- these seemed to me to be potentially universal categories even if I myself wound up on the privileged side of each; disability, by contrast, seemed too specific, too . . . special a category of human experience.

“The irony, of course, is precisely this:  even though I knew that gender, race, and sexual orientation were unstable designations, subject to all manner of social and historical vicissitudes, I had yet to learn-- or to be taught-- that disability is perhaps the most unstable designation of them all.”

At the same time, there are some issues on which liberals and disability-rights activists will not agree, particularly with regard to what’s sometimes called “death with dignity” and (at the other end of the life course) the “ethics of selective abortion for fetuses with disabilities.” (Again, Mary Johnson’s essay is terrific on this.) And that’s because on such issues, the question of autonomy is a genuine conundrum.  Which is another way of saying that I do not know what to think about it.  And I’m willing to bet that if you consider seriously questions like:

--how do we proceed when confronted with a conscious incompetent patient who has previously expressed the wish not to be sustained in such a condition, but who might very well have “changed her mind” about living (with “changed her mind” in scare quotes because mindedness is precisely what’s at issue)?  (this was a question for one of the plenary sessions of the 2002 meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and the Humanities, in which I participated)


--is it right and just to compel a person to take medication against his will if the effect of the medication is to render him competent to determine whether he should take his medication?  (this came up in two papers presented at the “Disability and Democracy” panel I chaired at the 2001 MLA convention)


--what is the best course of action for a pregnant woman whose amniocentesis suggests that her fetus, upon coming to term, will have significant disabilities that her husband is unwilling to care for?  (you might want to look here or here for examples of how people have handled this one),

you’ll wind up thinking more deeply and more confusedly about the liberal ideal of autonomy, too.  In the meantime, check out Mary Johnson’s essay.

Posted by Michael on 01/31 at 08:57 AM
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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Literary theory is dead and I feel fine

Literary “theory” was pronounced dead today by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Interpretation.  “The news should come as no surprise,” said longtime theory-critic John Hollander at yesterday’s CSI press conference.  “Theory has been dying for years—the only problem is that the ‘theorists’ themselves have been in a state of profound denial about the fact.” In a separate statement, eminent Yale critic Harold Bloom added, “alas.”

Hollander pointed to the infamous 1997 “Paris video” in which postmodernist-deconstructionist-nihilist literary theorist Jacques Derrida is seen swimming in the Seine, but in which only his head is visible above water.  “The members of the Branch Derridean cult managed to convince themselves that they could keep blathering on about the contradictions between the ‘literal’ and ‘rhetorical’ meanings of words, even though their leader was obviously unable to distinguish fantasy from reality,” said Hollander.  “But now that even Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton has renounced ‘theory,’ it’s time for Derrida’s acolytes to give up the ghost—so to speak.”

Speaking from beyond the grave, deconstructionist and former Nazi collaborator Paul de Man agreed with Hollander.  “I was wrong from the start,” said de Man.  “And I want to give you all an example of precisely how wrong I was.  Remember that reading of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’ I did many years ago?  The one that took the closing couplet of the poem?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

-- and suggested that ‘It is equally possible to read the last line literally rather than figuratively, as asking with some urgency the question . . . how can we possibly make the distinctions that would shelter us from the error of identifying what cannot be identified?’ Then I went on to say, as you might recall, that ‘the figural reading, which assumes the question to be rhetorical, is perhaps naive, whereas the literal reading leads to greater complication of theme and statement.’ Well, I must have been high,” de Man admitted.  “Frankly, there’s no way to read that line literally.  The whole premise of my argument was flawed, because, in the end, language just isn’t that ambiguous.  Obviously, Yeats’s point is that you can’t tell the dancer from the dance, because—if you’ll pardon the analogy—there’s no difference between the words on a page and the way they might be read, or ‘performed,’ by any given reader.”

Responding to reporters who found this “confession” too damn confusing, de Man tried again to simplify matters.  “OK, I understand that rhetorical questions in Yeats’s poetry might be a bad place to start if you’re looking for interpretive certainty.  Very well, then, take the simple question ‘what’s the difference?’ For a long time, I convinced people that you could read this utterance in two different ways—as a question that asserted a ‘difference’ when taken literally, and as a question that denied that very difference, or insisted on its irrelevance, when read rhetorically.  But that’s so much horseshit.  I mean, come on.  Words aren’t all that hard to understand, are they?  Really, we all know how to distinguish real from rhetorical questions, especially when they occur in written texts, don’t we?”

British Marxist theorist Raymond Williams, dead since 1988, concurred with de Man.  “I didn’t care all that much for deconstruction when I was alive,” said Williams.  “But I agree with Paul now—most of what we theorists were doing was bunk.  Take for example my book Keywords, where I provided a series of historical analyses of words like art, class, criticism, culture, experience, literature, masses, society, and work.  I predicated that book on the claim that ‘some important social and historical processes occur within language, in ways which indicate how integral the problems of meanings and of relationships really are.’ And I insisted on understanding these words not in terms of their origins or their current usages, but as records and palimpsests of social change; I really thought that I was undertaking ‘an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical—subject to change as well as to continuity—if the millions of people in whom it is active are to see it as active.’ But who was I kidding, really?  Words like ‘culture,’ ‘class,’ and ‘original’ have never changed their meanings, and most reasonable people know that those meanings have always been pretty clear.  I know it, you know it, everybody in the English-speaking world knows it.  I was just blowing smoke, and I’m sorry.”

Perhaps most strikingly, Eve Sedgwick has come forward to second the confessions of Williams and de Man.  “Queer theory is hogwash,” Sedgwick insisted at a recent conference, “Queer Theory: Nonsense or Hogwash?” “If you think about it seriously for a second, the homo/hetero divide isn’t an important conceptual division for contemporary thought in any sense of the term.  I know I made a big deal out of this in Epistemology of the Closet, but between you and me, I was just out of my bird.  Every sane person knows that gender and sexuality are pretty straightforward affairs—that is, I mean, we all know that people are pretty rational about these things.  They know what they want, and they work to maximize their interests, sexually speaking.  Cognitive science proves this.  And listen, while I have you here,” Sedgwick added, “I have to say that the literature of the past two centuries offers a pretty clear record of the facts.  Please don’t listen to these people who go on about the ‘homosocial-homoerotic’ dynamics in Victorian fiction, and please don’t read too much into poets like Walt Whitman or Hart Crane, either.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned since leaving Duke University, it’s that words and things generally are just what they seem to be.”

Blogging from a remote undisclosed location, literary critic and cultural studies theorist Michael Bérubé testified to his sense of relief at the news of theory’s demise.  “Irony died a few years ago,” he said, without “apparent” “irony.” “So it’s about time that these bizarre, elaborate queer-Marxist-deconstructionist theories about ‘meaning’ died too.  From here on in, things will mean just what people say they mean—and they better mean it this time.”

Posted by Michael on 01/28 at 04:22 PM
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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Title VI update

In this post:  three recent essays on H.R. 3077, the bill that would create a federal Advisory Board to oversee international studies programs that are funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, and its prospects in the Senate.  The board in question would consist of seven people:  two members would be appointed by the president pro tem of the Senate and two by the Speaker of the House, on recommendations from the majority and minority leaders. The other three would be appointed by the Secretary of Education, two of whom would represent agencies with national security responsibilities.  That’s right-- a board determined mostly by Bill Frist, Rod Paige, and Tom DeLay, with Nancy Pelosi and Tom Daschle getting one recommendation each.  No reason for concern here, folks.

As a recent memo from the National Humanities Alliance puts it: “The House bill creates what it calls an ‘advisory board’ that in fact is much more. This board has the power to ‘investigate’ individual faculty members and specific classes on campus and it can issue reports. An advisory board ought to be truly advisory. It shouldn’t have broad, nearly unlimited powers and it should not be free of reasonable supervision by the Department of Education. What’s more, the composition of the board is too narrow to reflect the broad range of needs in international education.”

And as you might guess, the culture warriors behind this bill-- people such as Stanley Kurtz, Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes-- couldn’t care less about the vast majority of work done by international-studies programs in the United States.  For them there’s only one issue:  Israel and the Arab world.  (Sad to say, the American Jewish Committee released a six-page single-spaced memo last week strongly supporting H.R. 3077.) But you can read the arguments for yourselves:  Martin Kramer’s, Zachary Lochman’s, and Todd Gitlin’s.

Posted by Michael on 01/27 at 08:13 AM
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Sunday, January 25, 2004

New York Times op-ed page infiltrated by contrarian Marxist-feminist anti-marriage radicals

And about time, too!  My friend Laura Kipnis, author of Against Love and contributor to (among many other things) the forthcoming volume The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, edited by me, dissects the Bush administration’s $1.5 billion boost for state-sanctioned heterosexual coupling right here.

Also check out Tom Burka’s January 14 news flash, “White House to Promote Marriage of Neil Bush and Britney Spears.”

What I want to know is, does this plan give us married people any way of enhancing still further all the benefits the state already bestows on us?  For example, if I confess to the Bush administration-- or maybe just to John Derbyshire of the National Review-- that the sight of all these attractive gay men in American popular culture has been causing me to . . . well, waver . . . do I become eligible for some of this cash?

Posted by Michael on 01/25 at 05:17 AM
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Friday, January 23, 2004

Taking care of business

On Tuesday of this past week, one of my senators, Arlen Specter (that is, not the guy who fantasizes about man-on-dog sex), in his capacity as chairman of the labor appropriations subcommittee, called Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to a hearing to review the Department of Labor’s proposed changes in the rules governing overtime pay.

Perhaps you’ve heard about these new rules.  By changing the definitions of “professional,” “executive,” and “administrative” employees, the Department of Labor will-- by its own estimate-- render 644,000 American workers ineligible for overtime.  But that number, like all numbers that come out of this administration, is utter garbage.  In fact, the proposal itself says that another 1.5 to 2.7 million workers “will be more readily identified as exempt.”

Yet even that doesn’t tell the story, because the Labor Department estimate only counts workers who are currently paid overtime-- not all workers covered by overtime protections.  The Economic Policy Institute puts that number at 8 million.

And get this:  In keeping with my earlier theory about how the Bush administration treats military veterans, the new regulations would render everyone ineligible for overtime who learned their trade while serving in the armed forces.  You know, every time I’ve thought that these plutocrats and their toadies can’t get any scummier or more vile, I’ve been wrong.  Last summer, Greg Palast had a few choice words on the subject:

Nevertheless, workers getting their pay snipped shouldn’t complain, because they will all be receiving promotions. These employees will be re-classified as managers exempt from the law.  The change is promoted by the National Council of Chain Restaurants. You’ve met these “managers” - they’re the ones in the beanies and aprons whose management decisions are, “Hold the lettuce on that.”

My favorite of Chao’s little amendments would re-classify as “exempt professionals” anyone who learned their skill in the military. In other words, thousands of veterans will now lose overtime pay. I just can’t understand why Bush didn’t announce that one when he landed on the aircraft carrier.

OK, so on Tuesday Secretary Chao appeared before this Senate subcommittee, and here’s what she said:


“Our intent is not to take away overtime-- not at all.  Our purpose is to protect workers.”

My sources tell me that Chao later elaborated on this remark: “We have no intention of taking away overtime!  Seriously!  Why would you think that?” she said.  “Taking away overtime is the last thing on our minds.  We would never dream of taking away overtime.  We have always been opposed to taking away overtime, and these new regulations will ensure that no one’s overtime is taken away.  You can trust me on that.” Asked about the regulation’s explicit language “exempting” workers from overtime, Secretary Chao replied, “We will not take away overtime.  We are merely protecting workers-- from, er-- ah, from-- from overtime.”

Now, professors don?t get paid overtime, so of course I have no direct stake in this one.  But back in the day, my weekly overtime pay was the only reason I made enough money to afford the expenses of graduate school.  For many people, it’s what makes all the difference, month by month.  All those people could do themselves a big favor later this year by firing Chao and this whole nasty, cruel, greedy, disgusting crew she works with.  And over the longer term, folks, let’s try to establish a general consensus in this country that people who want to eliminate taxes on unearned wealth while slashing pay for ordinary workers are simply morally unfit for public office.

Posted by Michael on 01/23 at 01:56 PM
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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Raymond Williams interlude

I’m spending the day prepping my graduate seminar (W 3:30-6:30), titled “What Was Cultural Studies?” --and I don’t have time for further commentary on Iowa or the upcoming State of the Union, but two things suddenly occurred to me while I was rereading the opening chapters of Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society.  One: there seem to be very few commentators on academe who have any idea that the field of “cultural studies” begins with analyses of the meanings of the term “culture” over the past two centuries.  It’s not just books about Madonna, people.  It’s an inquiry into the functions of the idea of culture in modernity, where “modernity” means, roughly, “the development of plural and secular forms of political organization together with the rise of industrial capitalism and its successors.” For Williams, the changes in the “structure of meanings” of words such as industry, democracy, class, art, and culture “bear witness to a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life: about our social, political, and economic institutions; about the purposes which these institutions are designed to embody; and about the relations to these institutions and purposes of our activities in learning, education and the arts.”

Two: every once in a while someone complains that literature professors like me are attending to contemporary politics instead of spending all our time studying literature.  I have no idea where these people get their bizarre notion that professors of literature have, by their choice of profession, signed over their other rights as citizens.  But perhaps it’s worth suggesting to a couple of these addled souls that their blinkered idea of “literature” owes much to one of the central paradoxes of Romanticism.  In Williams’ deservedly famous words:

“Than the poets from Blake and Wordsworth to Shelley and Keats there have been few generations of creative writers more deeply interested and more involved in study and criticism of the society of their day.  Yet a fact so evident, and so easily capable of confirmation, accords uneasily in our own time with that popular and general conception of the ‘romantic artist’ which, paradoxically, has been primarily derived from study of these same poets.  In this conception, the Poet, the Artist, is by nature indifferent to the crude worldliness and materialism of politics and social affairs; he is devoted, rather, to the more substantial spheres of natural beauty and personal feeling.  The elements of this paradox can be seen in the work of the Romantic poets themselves, but the supposed opposition between attention to natural beauty and attention to government, or between personal feeling and the nature of man in society, is on the whole a later development.  What were seen at the end of the nineteenth century as disparate interests, between which a man must choose and in the act of choice declare himself poet or sociologist, were, normally, at the beginning of the century, seen as interlocking interests: a conclusion about personal feeling became a conclusion about society, and an observation of natural beauty carried a necessary moral reference to the whole and unified life of man.  The subsequent dissociation of interests certainly prevents us from seeing the full significance of this remarkable period, but we must add also that the dissociation is itself in part a product of the nature of the Romantic attempt.  Meanwhile, as some sort of security against the vestiges of the dissociation, we may usefully remind ourselves that Wordsworth wrote political pamphlets, that Blake was a friend of Tom Paine and was tried for sedition, that Coleridge wrote political journalism and social philosophy, that Shelley, in addition to this, distributed pamphlets in the streets, that Southey was a constant political commentator, that Byron spoke on the frame-riots and died as a volunteer in a political war; and, further, as must surely be obvious from the poetry of all the men named, that these activities were neither marginal nor incidental, but were essentially related to a large part of the experience from which the poetry itself was made.”

Closing polemical lit-crit point.  Read next to Williams, Harold Bloom’s early work on the Romantics looks like the learned but whimsical work of a garrulous poetaster.  (This would be before Bloom decided that he was the contemporary incarnation of Falstaff-- even though he has no sense of humor whatsoever.)

Posted by Michael on 01/20 at 07:53 AM
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