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Monday, January 17, 2005

Pacific interlude

So we just got back from our secret undisclosed location, where Janet and I delivered papers and Nick and Jamie got some sun.  Nick had taken to counting the number of days during his winter break when the sun did not appear in State College (namely, all of them); he had in fact begun to doubt the heliocentric theory of the solar system (it is only a theory, after all), and by New Year’s Day was seriously entertaining the possibility that the planet rests on the back of a giant turtle and is swathed in cotton. Jamie was up for the trip too, since he always likes to travel to a “new state, never done before,” and Janet and I were wheezing and honking our way around the house with nasty nagging post-holiday/ post-MLA colds and sinus infections.  Hawai’i seemed like a good place to go– assuming, of course, that we could get there through the surprise four-inch snowstorm that arrived in central Pennsylvania the very day we were supposed to drive to Harrisburg for our flight (through Chicago to Honolulu), and assuming that we could load up on enough Nyquil and vitamin C to keep our bodily effluvia from messing with everyone else’s bodies all up and down the passenger cabin.

“We’re going to be the family everyone hates,” Janet suggested, plausibly enough.

“On a nine-hour flight, too,” I said.  “Honestly, I wouldn’t want to sit next to me.”

“I’m going to ask the flight attendant to move me away from me,” Janet replied.

Actually, it was not clear that any of us would be sitting next to any of us on that Chicago-Honolulu flight, since we’d all been assigned disparate single seats, and we thought that in Jamie’s case, at least, this might be a bad idea.  But it all worked out eventually, and after rising at 3:30 AM in Harrisburg and catching our 6 AM flight out of the frozen North American tundra, we touched down in O’ahu at 2:30 the same day, January 12.  And we somehow made it back safely on the 15th and 16th, flying from Lihu’e (in Kaua’i) to O’ahu to Los Angeles to Chicago to Harrisburg and then driving 90 miles to State College, changing our clothes twice along the way (don’t ask how) while leaving all that fine Pacific brine sticking to our weary bodies.

You may feel free to envy us (as Derek Smalls once said, I envy us), because Hawai’i is quite nice this time of year.  Then again, you should also know that I met a chicken quesadilla in Kailua that incapacitated me for 24 hours, making life exceptionally unpleasant in certain respects and reducing me to a diet of small sips of Gatorade on Friday.  By which point Janet had acquired a migraine aura, as she informed me just before she took the boys to lunch during my talk.  “I can contract diphtheria,” offered Nick helpfully, while Jamie reminded us yet again that the aquarium we’d visited on Thursday morning merely contained black-tipped reef sharks whereas the Sea Life Park near Waimanalo had hammerheads, and “maybe we would go there– be good idea.” Jamie never did get to see his hammerheads, but before his parents were laid low by a few of the frailties to which mortal flesh is heir, he had climbed to the summit of Diamond Head, complaining all the way– except at the top, which he decided was “cool.” Also, we hung out for a while with grad-school compatriot Susan Schultz and her family; Susan teaches at the U of Hawai’i-Manoa and is the founder of the Tinfish Press, which you should go check out right now by means of that handy hyperlink.

Fun fact! Many people know that Hawaiian names are based on the twelve-letter (five-vowel, seven-consonant) alphabet devised by nineteenth-century Christian missionaries who transcribed the natives’ spoken language (just before they stamped out hula dancing, wave riding, and smiling), but very few know that the missionaries based their limited choice of consonants on some of the trains of the BMT branch of the New York City subway system: K, L, M, N, and W (they had long since committed the J, Q, and R for missionary use in the Caribbean).  Later, in a spirit of generosity and with an eye to the future, the missionaries threw in H and P for use during rush hours, and decreed that the M would also make local stops on weekends.

Another fun fact! South Pacific was filmed in Hawai’i even though Hawai’i is actually in the North Pacific.  Watch carefully when Mitzi Gaynor sings “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair,” and you can see the water swirling down the drain counterclockwise, which, because of the Coriolanus Effect, only happens north of the equator.  Director Joshua Logan smugly predicted that no one would notice the slip, but history has proven him wrong!

Finally, on the political front, I don’t see what’s the fuss about a little annexation here and there.  This should be a happy time!  Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.  Besides, as the Cato Institute points out, Hawai’i’s annexation has been proven to be beneficial to the hotel, golf, and wedding industries.  More importantly, Hawai’i represents the westward leading edge of a realization to which North Americans have been remarkably slow to come: namely, that we’ve occupied the wrong damn land from the start.  Think about it.  As I type these words in the northeastern US at roughly 41 degrees above the planet’s equator, the air temperature outside is 15F, with a wind chill of -2.  In Chicago it is 9F; in Minneapolis, 1F; and in Winnipeg, Manitoba, just under 50 degrees north, it is now an ungodly -17F.  These are simply unacceptable conditions in so-called “temperate” regions.  By contrast, even frozen Helsinki, way up there at 60N, is 45 degrees warmer than Winnipeg today, 13 warmer than State College.

The lesson is clear for those who think globally: U.S. out of North America now.

Posted by Michael on 01/17 at 03:44 PM
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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

MLA out of Iraq

Last week I ended a post with the thrilling question, does the Modern Language Association have the authority to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan? I know the suspense has been excruciating for many of you, so before too much more time passes, I thought I should let you know that for now, the short answer (as determined by the MLA Executive Council in February 2004) is no.

The longer answer is that one of my more odious tasks at this year’s convention (one for which I volunteered, actually) involved reporting to the Delegate Assembly that the antiwar resolution they’d passed in 2003 was rejected by the Executive Council.  The resolution called on the MLA to urge “the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and reallocation of funds to reverse inattention to, and grave deficits in, funding of education and other human services.” One of the reasons the task was odious, of course, is that no one on the Executive Council (to my knowledge) would actually oppose taking some of the $150-billion-or-so we’ve spent on the occupation of Iraq, say, and diverting it to education and “other human services” (presuming, of course, that those “other human services” actually serviced other humans).  And, as I explained to the Delegate Assembly, the Council was not unanimous about this; we had a long and energetic discussion, the details of which I can’t divulge (your loss, I’m sure!) but the results of which are a matter of public record (you can consult PMLA 119.5 [October 2004], p. 1392, if you have it handy).

So I got up and said something like this:  there seem to be some misunderstandings floating around concerning the things that nonprofit organizations like the MLA can and can’t do.  Some people speak as if we have the power, as literature professors, to end the war; others speak as if we will be stripped of our nonprofit status the minute we open our mouths on a “political” issue.  Well, we don’t and we won’t.  The Executive Council has no qualms about taking action on political matters that fall within the mission of the Association; we approved the Assembly’s 2003 resolution to repeal the Patriot Act, and, acting on our own, drafted a three-page letter in February (the text of which can be found at PMLA 119.5 [October 2004], pp. 1388, 1390) urging the Senate to reject H.R. 3077, a bill which passed the House unanimously in October 2003 and which would create a politically-appointed “advisory board” for international-studies programs that would oversee and monitor the “activities” (undefined!  deliberately so!) of all grant recipients under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1958.  We sent that letter to all 100 members of the Senate, and when the MLA joined with the National Humanities Alliance to lobby the Senate directly, we focused on the members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, out of which the bill would come to the floor (though, thankfully, it never did-- at least not this time around).  Finally, late this summer we authorized then-president Robert Scholes to draft a letter to Colin Powell, protesting the State Department’s stupid-ass (my word, not Bob’s) denial of visas to sixty Cuban scholars who sought to attend the Latin American Studies Association conference in Las Vegas and the American Studies Association conference in Atlanta.

In other words, I concluded, when the issue at hand involves students and scholars of language and literature, we have a good deal of latitude, and the Council sees no problems with speaking out directly.  What we can’t do, according to our constitution ("the object of the association shall be to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects"), is to call for the withdrawal of troops.  Or, for that matter, for their redeployment to North Korea, should the mood strike us.

Well, reactions were more or less mixed, but this little speech didn’t go down at all with some people, who counterargued that insofar as our students are being recruited by the armed forces and shipped off to Iraq, “our common interests” include the protection of their interests.  At the time, not wanting to get into a pointless argument about a decision that already been made, I didn’t get back up before the Assembly and point out that the resolution actually said nothing about such students (it quite plausibly could have, in which case it would have been another resolution altogether).  But nonetheless, I wondered:  would the same principle hold if my students were going into the construction business?  Would the MLA thereby be empowered to comment on building codes and zoning laws?

Beyond that, of course, there’s the question of why anyone would appeal to the MLA to oppose the war in the first place.  Many of us individually-- myself included-- have opposed the war in Iraq since its latest version was first hatched, either sometime on the late morning of September 11, 2001 or perhaps somewhere between November and December 2000.  But I tend to think that organizations like the MLA really aren’t very good vehicles for antiwar activism.  To put this another way, they’re not well set up for opposing wars (either in their constitutions or their forms of organization).  It’s not a question of whether an MLA resolution urging the withdrawal of troops would actually have any effect (it’s a fun game, which everyone can play at home, to mock the idea that Rumsfeld and Cheney are even paying attention to us, or perhaps, even worse, drafting counter-resolutions condemning the MLA); I see nothing wrong with scholarly organizations taking political positions on matters that concern them.  (The American Library Association’s call for repeal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act is a model example, and more power to ‘em.) And I understand, or think I understand, the symbolic politics of speaking through one’s disciplinary organization.  But I’m curious about what other people think about this-- both about the question of the scope of MLA resolutions (for those of you who care), and the question of withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (might as well open the floor on the larger question as well!).  I’ll be gone for a week, but checking back in from a remote undisclosed location, so until then, over to you, folks.

In the meantime, let me just add that the final fifteen minutes of Finding Neverland are maudlin beyond human endurance, except perhaps in the case of Janet, who would happily watch a two-hour documentary involving Johnny Depp eating oatmeal.  See you next Tuesday with more capsule movie reviews!

Posted by Michael on 01/11 at 03:56 PM
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Monday, January 10, 2005

From the mailbag

A longtime reader of this blog (from the great state of Maryland) writes in to say:

Last year was good to you.  Your blog is now drawing the thousands. You even managed to get yourself into the enemy camp for a while, hanging out in the luxury suite at the GOP convention and later, camping out with FOF in Colorado.

But this year you need to think big. As you plan the goals for your blog this year, you should consider your legacy. With four more years of Republicans ahead of us, trying to destroy Social Security, infiltrate the universities, and take over the media (oh, yeah, that’s been done), you can use your escalating influence to create a vanguard oppositional movement in exile, on the web even. Specifically, you should consider a goal this year of encouraging new “start up” blogs from your readership. Gradually, like an Amway network, there’ll be so many of us spread out over the Internets, barking at our Democratic leadership in Congress to do something, we might stand a fighting chance next time.  And it might even help get you that V.P. nomination in 2016.

It’s up to you. You have the power.

You heard the man!  I have the power. So get thee hence and start blogging, you thousands of readers!! Bark at the feckless, rubber-stamping Democrats (but not Barbara Boxer)!!  Bark, bark, bark!!  We have neither the House nor the Senate, and thus not a single committee chairmanship, so there’s no hope from the legislative branch.  (Oh, sure, the Democrats can “call for” this and that, and maybe “deplore” something else.  But structurally, the Democrats aren’t even in Congress at all; in fact, Frist and DeLay are building them a large quonset hut adjacent to the Capitol for them to meet in.  No word yet on whether the hut will be heated.) We have about one-quarter of the judiciary, much of which will be blighted when Bush appoints the triumvirate of Tomas de Torquemada, James Dobson, and Alberto Gonzales to the Supreme Court.  And both these points are moot because, as fresh new interpretations of the Constitution have demonstrated, all power rests in the executive branch anyway.  The press has been bought and paid for-- sometimes in actual cash money.  So we have no recourse but the Barking Blogs!

Just one thing-- I’m supposed to be the VP nominee in 2020.  I’m busy in 2016.  I appreciate the thought, however.

Posted by Michael on 01/10 at 10:46 AM
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Sunday, January 09, 2005

Tucker Carlson disemboweled by CNN

Just days after cancelling “Crossfire” and declining to renew the contract of bow-tied conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, CNN executives took the dramatic and unprecedented step of removing most of Carlson’s intestines with a faulty pool drain.

“It wasn’t in his separation agreement, but it’s something he’s had coming for a long time,” said Jonathan Klein, who was appointed in late November as chief executive of CNN’s U.S. network.

Carlson reportedly resisted the procedure, claiming that “it really hurts” and insisting that he will need his gastrointestinal tract in later life.

Former Democratic Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards, asked by Carlson’s friends and associates to press charges against CNN for wrongful disembowelment, replied that he has more immediate demands on his time and no longer takes “Jacuzzi cases.”

Posted by Michael on 01/09 at 09:02 AM
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Saturday, January 08, 2005

It was twenty years ago today

Can it really be true?  Twenty years since my first posting to this humble blog?  My goodness, it seems like only twelve months ago that I started infesting the Internets with this me.com stuff.  Way back in January 2004, I was still working with a 56K dialup (true!) and a tiny homemade computer made of balsa wood, soup cans, and string (not exactly true!).  But I rechecked the records, and sure enough, the very first entry on this blog is twenty years old today.  Well, well, the tempuses they are a-fugittin’.

But someone should still vote for me in the Koufax “best new blog” category, all the same, whenever it appears.  I’m getting wiped out in the “humor” (I voted for Fafblog) and “best writing” (I voted for James Wolcott) voting, thanks to the sheer profusion of witty, well-crafted lefty blogs out there.  Many of which, shame to say, I had not heard of before now-- which reminds me why these little in-house (as opposed, say, to WaPo) competitions are a Good Thing.  So stop by Wampum and leave ‘em a few bucks in the tip jar, if you can.  Thanks--

Posted by Michael on 01/08 at 02:33 PM
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And we’re back

This parasitic but long-wandering blog has found its new host.  Comments are open again, and I’ll resume posting this weekend.  But first, let us take a moment to mourn the passing of Rosemary Kennedy, who helped change the way Americans understand mental retardation but was subjected to a barbaric frontal lobotomy along the way.

Rosemary Kennedy, the oldest sister of President John F. Kennedy and the inspiration for the Special Olympics, died Friday. She was 86.

. . . Her retardation may have stemmed from brain damage at birth. But in her own diaries before the lobotomy she chronicled a life of tea dances, dress fittings, trips to Europe and a visit to the Roosevelt White House.

Preserved by her mother’s secretary, the diaries came to light in 1995, in a book. And while they revealed no great secrets, the three diaries—written between 1936 and 1938—described people she met and concerts and operas she attended.

As she got older, however, her father worried that his daughter’s mild condition would lead her into situations that could damage the family’s reputation.

“Rosemary was a woman, and there was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace,” author Laurence Leamer wrote in his book “The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family.”

Leamer wrote that Rosemary had taken to sneaking out of the convent where she was staying at the time.

Doctors told Joseph Kennedy that a lobotomy, a medical procedure in which the frontal lobes of a patient’s brain are scraped away, would help his daughter and calm her mood swings that the family found difficult to handle at home.

Psychosurgery was in its infancy at the time, and only a few hundred lobotomies had been performed. The procedure was believed to be a way to relieve serious mental disorders.

Leamer wrote that Rosemary was “probably the first person with mental retardation in America to receive a prefrontal lobotomy.”

But Rosemary was reduced to an infant-like state, mumbling words and sitting for hours staring at walls, Leamer wrote.

So if you know someone with mental retardation who’s not locked away, who’s living a rich, full life among his or her nondisabled peers (and I’m going to go swimming with such a person in a few minutes myself), thank Rosemary and her family. 

Posted by Michael on 01/08 at 11:15 AM
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