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Friday, March 11, 2005

In a just world

How was my “spring” “break”?  Great!  Thanks for asking.  Wednesday morning:  air temp 18, wind chill 5.  Today:  four inches of snow.  And I did the first read-through and edit of the chapters I wrote last week.  Then again, I did go skiing.  Not that I know how to ski!  People say that if you can skate, then you can ski.  People are wrong.

Now, back to business-- namely, catching up on Wingnuts in the News.  It looks like Time magazine has noticed the long march of Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” through state legislatures all over our fair land:

Minnesota lawmakers last week became the latest to rally to the cause of conservative activist David Horowitz, whose Academic Bill of Rights is meant to rescue students from what the legislators perceive as rampant liberal bias.

Over the past two months, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee have also started considering bills that would codify Horowitz’s ideas by, say, not allowing students to be punished with a bad grade for their views. Georgia’s senate passed a similar nonbinding resolution last year, while Colorado’s version was withdrawn after state-university administrators signed a pledge to ensure that “political diversity is explicitly recognized and protected.”

Legislators wield one potent weapon: money. In January, Utah state senators quietly red-lined funding for a $37 million digital-learning center at Utah Valley State College.

The senators were worried about “the drift of the campus,” says UVSC president Bill Sederburg, who fielded complaints from them about an Oct. 20 campus speech by Michael Moore, a student production of The Vagina Monologues and a course on queer theory in literature. “The legislators are saying ‘We don’t want the college to go too far and lose touch with the community.’ But we have an obligation to protect academic freedom.”

That’s the way it goes in Orem, Utah, folks.  You hit the trifecta-- Michael Moore, Eve Ensler, and god knows who else, maybe some queer literary person like Henry James or Walt Whitman-- and you lose your digital-learning center.  But then, maybe “the community” doesn’t need a digital learning center any more than it needs a vagina monologue.  After all, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young didn’t have a digital learning center, either, and they spread the Good News just fine.

“If the system were fair,” says Larry Mumper, sponsor of the Ohio bill, “Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would be tenured professors somewhere.”

I don’t know why some people are so upset by this line.  Are you kidding me?  Talk about a perfect world!  Please, please let Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity be tenured professors somewhere.  Let the system be fair, and let the country look like this:

Utah Valley State College Faculty News:  Professor Hannity of the Department of Kicking Bespectacled Liberals’ Butts will be holding extended office hours on Thursday to meet with students to discuss their upcoming midterms and paper drafts.  Professor Hannity has also been appointed to the College’s Adjunct Faculty Grievance Committee, which will meet Fridays 9-10:30, and to the Curriculum Revision Committee, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays 10-12 from now through the end of the semester.

Professor Limbaugh of the Department of Advanced Psychotropic Research has announced that he will not be able to turn in midterm grades by the end of this week because of unexpected overenrollment in all four of his courses.  Professor Limbaugh also chairs the College’s Strategic Planning Committee, which meets Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3-5, and is conducting a semester-long Faculty Senate review of Utah Valley State’s drug-testing policy.

Meanwhile, here’s tonight’s lineup on the Renard News Channel:

7 pm The Bérubé Factor
8 pm “Informed Comment” with Juan Cole
9 pm “Phun with Pharyngula” with P. Z. Myers
10 pm “Scribbling Woman” with Miriam Jones
11 pm “Preposterous Universe” with Sean Carroll

Looks good to me!  I just need some suggestions for guests on the Factor.  Perhaps I could draw on this handy guide to the right-- but should I invite Tom DeLay, Zod, or the Glove?

Posted by Michael on 03/11 at 07:57 AM
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Monday, March 07, 2005

“Spring” “Break”

In my house we speak of spring break the way we speak of the Holy Roman Empire:  for just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman (nor, for that matter, an empire), so it is with Penn State’s spring break: it usually occurs at a time of year when the high temp is around 35 and there’s a nice comfy blanket of snow on the ground (as there is now), and it certainly doesn’t constitute a “break.”

But this year, we’re actually taking a break chez Bérubé!  All four of us are headed off to– where else would you go for spring break?– New England, and I probably won’t be anywhere near an Internets connection for four days.  Imagine that.  And it really is something of a break for me, because this week I finished reading and evaluating those fellowship applications, I finished a short essay on I can’t remember what, I finished an introduction to that dang “special issue” I’ve been editing for– hmmmm, let me think– about two years or so, and best of all, I finished a complete first draft of Liberal Arts, the book I’ve been talking about and not producing for roughly as long as I’ve had a blog.  (And yes, I’ve backed it up in two undisclosed locations, and I have hard copies too.) So for the next few days, I believe I will begin doing extensive research into some of the fine, fine suggestions all of you have made with regard to the new Ministry of Culture and Beer.

Now, in the past I wouldn’t bother to make an announcement about a tiny hiatus of three or four days, but then again, in the past I wasn’t averaging four to five thousand readers a day.  And to thank you all for your patronage of (and infinite patience with) this humble but sometimes technologically precarious and excessively self-referential blog, I have a Brand New Game to offer everyone.

You’re all familiar with “One-Hit Wonder” contests and radio programs, and you know they always involve the usual suspects.  Yes, yes, “Brandy” by Looking Glass; OK, “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians; “Smoke of a Distant Fire” by the Sanford-Townshend Band, but of course; “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward, “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo, “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc., and so on.  The list is as long as it is tedious.  And without fail, someone will propose Mister Mister or Golden Earring or the Human League as one-hit wonders, when in fact these people were two-hit wonders who lived in mortal terror of being one-hit wonders-- though in the case of the Human League, not enough terror, because they decided to follow “Don’t You Want Me” with “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” one of the worst songs written since the retreat of the global ice sheets circa 10,000 B.C.E.

But I’m not going to ask you to name one- or two-hit wonders.  I have another question entirely.  Which musical “artists,” in your learned opinions, should have been one-hit wonders?  To put this another way: what hideous, ubiquitous person-or-group has produced years or decades of dreck except for that one song you can’t entirely dismiss and– gulp– might even like?  You know, such that your opinion of him/ her/ them would be utterly different if he/ she/ they had produced only that one song?

I’ll kick this off with three suggestions.  God and all her competitor dieties know how much I despise Billy Joel, how I utter vile imprecations when “Piano Man” or “Only the Good Die Young” or “Just the Way You Are” or “My Life” suddenly intrudes upon my car radio, never mind his stomach-turning minor compositions like “River of Dreams” or “Big Shot” or “Second Wind” (a song written to persuade depressed teens not to commit suicide, and which would have pushed me right off the precipice had I heard it when I was nineteen), and let’s not even bother with his early period, with its intolerable Captain Jacks and Angry Young Men who’ve “passed the age/ of consciousness and righteous rage.” (Who knew that Mr. Joel had had a socially conscious period, sometime between lunch and dinner on a balmy afternoon in May 1970?) But I can’t manage to hate “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” no matter how I try.  By contrast, I have no trouble consigning the entire Phil Collins songbook to the nethermost reaches of Gehenna, for I break out in the full-body cold sweats every time I hear the whiny, pompous, one-hundred-percent-talent-free old gasbag, no matter what he’s singing.  And Billy’s in the same boat, which is why these guys dominate Lite Rock.  But still– if he’d been a one-hit wonder with “Hollywood,” I wouldn’t despise him at all.  Likewise with the far more innocuous (and more recent) Smashmouth, who in a just world would have shuffled off this mortal coil after “Walking on the Sun,” a reasonably enjoyable middle-of-the-road number with a semblance of something like a groove, as opposed to the garbage they’ve written since, which serves only to betray the fact that these guys couldn’t connect a verse to a chorus or a chorus to a middle eight if they were given EZ-DIY songwriting software.  Lenny Kravitz is another obvious case, having managed not to be boring beyond description just once, on the single, “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”

Further suggestions welcome.  My only request, before I head off into the Northeastern tundra, is that you confine the suggestions to hideous and ubiquitous people who’ve written only one good song, as opposed to the Eric Claptons and Neil Diamonds of the world, who’ve written about three or four.

Posted by Michael on 03/07 at 01:36 AM
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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Three things about other blogs

Thing One

The indispensable Dave Neiwert (he of Orcinus) is having a fundraiser.  He says he’s making his Koufax-Award-winning series, “The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism” (hey, I voted for it, you know), available as a PDF as a bonus for any donations, and he says that Michelle Malkin has already put up $5 for it.  He surely wouldn’t kid us about a thing like that, now, would he?  So let’s help out Dave’s fund drive by driving him some funds.  We can’t let Michelle do all the good works around here.

Thing Two

The intrepid Sean Carroll (he of Preposterous Universe) is not having a fundraiser.  But you should stop by and read his blog anyway, because it’s just occurred to me that (a) he’s recently had a blog anniversary and (b) he did not– and this is more mind-boggling than the very idea of a quantum theory of gravity– get a Koufax nomination for Best Expert Blog even though he’s far and away the best cosmology/ physics blogger in this quadrant of the galaxy.  WTF?  This is the very heart of the matter of the universe, people– compared to this stuff, even pharyngula are ephemera.  (Nothing personal, P.Z., just a remark about how God created physics on the first day and didn’t get around to doing biology until the third day.) So wish Sean a happy anniversary, and go learn a thing or two about dark matter and dark energy.

Thing Three

The indefatigable Alex (he of Buck Hill), lately responsible for some of the most inventive and bizarre comments on the Internets, has written two brief one-act plays that are sure to become this year’s smash hits.  Swing on by and check out David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens in a dazzling reinterpretation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The NRO Corner Players in a new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  In the headnote to the latter, Alex describes himself as “a (rapidly failing) theater student.” So go tell him that whatever his mission is, he must not fail.  When the Apocalypse arrives, we are going to need all the inventive-bizarre blog commenters and Neo-Bolshevist reinterpretations of modern drama we can get.

Posted by Michael on 03/06 at 01:46 PM
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Friday, March 04, 2005

Ministry of Culture and Beer

My apologies, Madame President-for-Life Sheelzebub, for not acknowledging your beneficence earlier.  I am truly grateful to have been appointed Minister of Culture and Beer.

My first act as your Minister is this:  I will-- and hereby do-- ask my readers whether the nations of France and Italy should continue producing beer at all.  Their hearts are clearly not in it; the French “soixante” (or “1664,” as the label actually says) tastes more or less what beer brewed with chalk, and that Italian Peroni simply isn’t fooling anyone.  I therefore submit that the French and Italians devote themselves exclusively to consumer goods they really care about, like food and wine and shoes and haute couture and fast cars, and leave the beer to the English and Germans and maybe the Dutch.  Let the People of the Guttural Languages have their hops and the People of the Mellifluous Languages have their grapes.  Readers?

Posted by Michael on 03/04 at 09:37 AM
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Where Barry Commoner is a star


Yes, I know my eyebags are terrible.  When I said I was exhausted, folks, I really meant it:  over the past nine weeks I’ve written four book chapters as well as one essay on the 2004 election and a paper on “Shame by Association,” and during my recent travels I also read twenty-something applications for fellowships and six essays for a special issue I’m supposed to be editing.  Oh yeah, and I took a day and a half to go over the copyedited version of an essay that’s forthcoming in PMLA.  And, of course, I’ve had all this computer and blog trouble in the past two weeks.  So I’m sorry I look so haggard and dissipated, really I am.

But this is not about me, so get off my case.  This is about Barry Commoner, who has a sidewalk star in University City at the outskirts of St. Louis, and it’s about St. Louis itself.  And the story goes like this.

I met Nick for dinner last Sunday night.  He told me about an Ethiopian restaurant he’d been to a few times (this is a good sign, I thought– my kid the college student is recommending local Ethiopian restaurants to me), so I picked him up at his dorm at 6, conducted the traditional father-son knife-fight, and took him to the Red Sea.  After dinner we walked around a bit, and he said something about not realizing how many amazing people had been associated with St. Louis over the years– not just Scott Joplin, Miles Davis or Chuck Berry, whose bar (Blueberry Hill) was across the street, but even people like T. S. Eliot.  “Oh, jeez, don’t get me started,” I said, thinking (at the time) that I knew a thing or two about famous people from St. Louis.  “I love to tweak the Eliot fans by referring to their guy as the best poet ever to come out of Missouri, when of course he spent his whole life pretending he’d been born and raised in the Norcesterwich district of Cheltenhamfordshire.” We walked up and down the avenue, with Nick providing glosses on the local establishments– the Thai pizza place and the nightclub where Modest Mouse played before they became alt.darlings– and me providing glosses on the people enshrined in St. Louis’s “Walk of Fame.” “T. S. Eliot is the least of it,” I said. “I want to see if they have a star for William S. Burroughs, who– this is something you should know, son– was the heir of the Burroughs fortune, a fortune made in the ‘calculators’ of the early twentieth century, back when the amazing mechanical ‘adding machine’ was the iPod of the day.  Now, that would rock.” But before I could go on about William S. Burroughs, I was brought up short by Dick Gregory’s star. Dick Gregory!  Mother of Moloch, I wasn’t surprised by Redd Foxx’s star– on the contrary, I told Nick about Foxx’s brief appearance in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and mentioned casually that most people don’t know how black a city St. Louis is and how important it is to African-American history, whereupon Nick said, “oh, tell me about it” and proceeded to narrate the story of the days last fall he spent canvassing for Kerry up and down St. Louis in precincts where, as he put it, “the only white guy I saw all day was me”– but I was strangely struck by Dick Gregory’s star.  “Nick, my son,” I said (no, I didn’t really say “Nick, my son,” any more than I said “this is something you should know, son”), “let me tell you who Dick Gregory is, apart from the bio on this plaque.  He’s somewhere on the long black comedy train between Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, and he ran for President in 1968– ” at which point I realized that the plaque actually mentioned his Presidential bid– “and my parents, your grandparents, voted for him.”

Now, I should explain that Nick and I have had a good number of conversations over the past five years about the many and varied foolishnesses of the Naderites, but (despite what some preening, Pseudo-Neo-Bolshevist affective leftists have said about me over the past few years) I’ve never once pretended that the left wing of the Democratic Party represents the left wing of the possible.  How could I?  In November 1968 there seemed no way for a conscientious progressive to vote for Humphrey, so my parents, being conscientious progressives, cast their ultimately meaningless but deeply affective votes for Dick Gregory.  Who, of course, has since become a wingnut with a special nutritional/ weight-loss program, and when Nick asked about his transformation (as opposed to that of David Horowitz, say), I had to admit that I had no idea what in the world had happened to poor Mr. Gregory in the intervening years, but that one of my college friends once proposed that the CIA had approached Gregory in the mid-1970s and offered him a choice between (a) becoming a bizarre right-wing hawker of health and diet foods and (b) being mysteriously shot outside a motel.

We turned and walked east along Delmar Boulevard, passing the stars of Josephine Baker, Dred and Harriet Scott, Agnes Moorehead, and Lou Brock, among many others.  Gradually, step by step, we were Discovering the St. Louis Network.

And as we talked, I remembered all the reasons I’m so fond of St. Louis, and why I’m glad Nick is going to college there, and even more glad that he’s not staying on the carefully manicured lawns of Wash. U., but actually getting out and canvassing the city– not just for John Kerry (or Chuck Berry), but as part of his architecture program, one course of which required him to propose and design an urban-renewal project for a section of the urb that needs serious renewing.  These days, though, my fondness for St. Louis is tinged by pity, and pity is among the cheapest and most insulting of emotions.  May’s Department Stores, the third largest public company in town, is folding its tent; American Airlines, having ingested the sorry remains of TWA, has cut its St. Louis flights by fifty percent, leaving behind a giant sucking sound at Lambert International Airport; and the historic downtown area– which has, alas, fallen prey to the kind of fools who think you can revive a downtown area by building more stadiums and parking lots, and who don’t realize that after the Blues and Rams games let out, everyone heads straight to their cars because there isn’t a single index of ordinary life (like grocery stores) within ten miles– is a study in depression, economic and affective.

And yet St. Louis is so rich, historically richer than many larger American cities and certainly most midwestern cities of any size.  It’s vastly older than Chicago or parvenus like Minneapolis or Denver; its blues history links it to New Orleans, Memphis, and Kansas City, while its frontier history– the justification for that ethereal arch– links it all the way back to the frigging Louisiana Purchase.  St. Louis is one of the most extraordinary urban palimpsests I’ve ever seen: it’s a sleepy, depressed-or-devastated Midwestern town covering a formerly hopping rhythm-and-blues town (Tina Turner gets a star, too, not far from Chuck Berry’s) covering an old, segregated Southern town (the Blues must be the only hockey team to be named after a W. C. Handy song) covering an early-nineteenth-century river town and inland installation of what Paul Gilroy famously called the “Black Atlantic.” And, of course, it’s still the best baseball town in the country, dating all the way back to the days when it represented the westernmost reach of the major leagues.  There’s old money in St. Louis that was already old and decrepit when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started that fire in Chicago in 1871– and I say this fully aware that upstart Chicago has since become vastly more dense and more interesting:  I lived for twelve years in Champaign, Illinois, and while I knew hundreds of faculty and students who routinely made the two-and-a-half hour trip to Chicago, I knew almost no one who made the two-and-three-quarters-hour trip to poor old St. Louis.  In fact, I knew almost no one who was aware that St. Louis has an entire district-- “the Hill"-- dotted with great (and, yeah, a couple less-than-great) Italian restaurants in the middle of a modest residential neighborhood.  But think back a hundred years, when St. Louis was still a world city– the kind of city that could host the 1904 Olympics (though some Chicagoans prefer to say “steal” rather than “host"), the kind of city about which you could exhort your friend Louis to meet you at the World’s Fair.  And then think about the reasons that some cities become “world cities” while others sink slowly into the swamp. 

St. Louis is also, for those of you keeping score at home, the city in which modernism finally died in 1972.  Don’t take my word for it– it was Robert Venturi’s call thirty years ago, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was demolished, we all began Learning from Las Vegas instead, and postmodernism was born.  But even still, you can experience late modernism by going to the Arch and being shuttled to the apex of the structure in little white spherical pods that (in this inevitably neo- era) will surely make you think of Austin Powers, which in turn will make you think of that Eero Saarinen mid-sixties era in which people apparently believed that the 1960s would look just like the 1950s, only Even More Modern (think Jetsons, early James Bond, JFK International– also designed by Saarinen– or the first hour of Catch Me if You Can).  And you can still experience the failures of postmodernism, too, by visiting the site of Pruitt-Igoe and realizing to your horror that the city has left the area to fall into decay and desuetude for over thirty years.

So Nick and I were thinking about all these things and more when we suddenly came across Barry Commoner’s star.  “Holy,” I said, far too loudly, “shit.” Barry Effing Commoner!  As if we hadn’t just conducted a postprandial discussion of futile fifth-party voting twenty minutes earlier à propos of Dick Gregory!  “Blessed Brother of Ba’al,” I said to my firstborn, “this Delmar Boulevard is like a goddamn Cavalcade of Alterity.  First we run across my parents’ eff-you, rock-throwing vote in ‘68, then we run across my eff-you, rock-throwing vote in ‘80, the very first vote I ever cast.  Bless St. Louis for enshrining Barry Commoner this way.  And bless St. Louis also for giving a star to William S. Burroughs, even if his plaque did call Naked Lunch ‘The Naked Lunch’ and give an erroneous publication date for it.  This is among the coolest minor things I have seen in all my travels across this dessicated and doomed planet, and I humbly request that you take a digital picture of me kneeling before Barry Commoner’s star, which I am not worthy to approach, what with my sallow complexion and my sorry eyebags and all.”

Thus, on Monday night, Nick snapped the picture you now see heading this post.  He’s a good kid, that Nick, and a regular tazmanian devil in a father-son knife fight.  Then after he took this pic outside the Tivoli, we went to see Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Bad Education, so that we could have the experience of watching lots of consensual and non-consensual gay sex in multiple, overlapping narrative frames that ultimately call into question the very parameters of what we normally understand as “acting” and “directing.” We think American fathers and sons ought to have more of these formative bonding experiences, so that they can discuss Almodóvar’s oeuvre and his sympathetic representations of women (who are almost completely absent from this film, oddly enough) and the implications of violating traditional narrative frameworks of representation while (don’t read this if you don’t like spoilers) depicting priests who assault young boys and thereby lead them to become transvestites and heroin addicts, then strike up an affair with the boy’s younger brother and eventually plot with him to kill the older brother.  And we think American fathers and sons should do all this in the dense historical palimpsest that is St. Louis, in the Tivoli, just a few yards north of Barry Commoner’s star in the Walk of Fame.

Posted by Michael on 03/04 at 07:47 AM
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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Glitch in the matrix

Hi again, everyone.  Well, that was weird!  (For those of you who didn’t stop by between 7 am and 4 pm today, I should explain that this blog lost every single one of its posts since November 3 and had to have blog CPR administered by the geniuses at pMachine.  Coincidence-- or the work of my nefarious political enemies?  Hmmm, probably coincidence.) Clearly 2005 is shaping up to be the Year of Spectacular Data Loss and Retrieval.  Anyway, my American Street post on moon-bats and wing-nuts is here, and as soon as we can get Expression Engine’s “file upload” function to realize that the images I’m uploading do indeed have data in them, regular posting-- now with images!-- will resume.

Posted by Michael on 03/03 at 04:59 PM
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