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Thursday, November 10, 2005

In the Big House

Today and tomorrow I’m in Ann Arbor, hoping to avenge Penn State’s “loss” to Michigan by historicizing the post-something cultural formation until people’s heads hurt.  It’s an indirect method, yeah, but I think it’ll work.

Actually I’m doing this lecture as part of the Global Ethnic Literatures Seminar (run by the Program in Comparative Literature) as well as a seminar on the introduction to this and then a class in disability studies tomorrow morning.  So I’ll post if I can, but for the foreseeable future I’ll be pretty busy.

The Global Ethnic Literatures Seminar’s list of invited speakers for the semester is here, and when I first saw it, I reverted to my struggling-mediocre-musician mode and said, “Dang!  I have to follow Seyla Benhabib!  I can’t even open for Seyla Benhabib.” Then I checked out all the hyperlinks on that page, and discovered that while everyone else’s names take you to their faculty pages, mine takes you right back here to this humble blog.  Go ahead, try it.  I’ll wait.

See?  Wasn’t that weird?  The funny thing is that I actually do have a Penn State faculty page, complete with actual academic information (degrees, publications, goals, assists, points, penalty minutes) and everything.  But what’s a mere faculty page when you have a widely-read and annoyingly self-referential blog?  What I really like is this:  whereas when you click on the GELS link to “Seyla Benhabib” or “Saskia Sassen,” you get web pages that feature Seyla Benhabib or Saskia Sassen, when you click on my name, you get the Hansons.

That rocks.  Puttin’ on the foil, coach—every game!  Want some?

And now to avenge that loss.

Update at 11 pm:  Whew—a long and very stimulating day.  So long, and so stimulating, that there’s no way I can come up with a new post.  But I’m happy to say this much:  my talk was so successful that the NCAA has agreed that Penn State actually beat Michigan on October 15, and the BCS and the major polls will be adjusted accordingly.  While that recalibration of the apparatus of social justice is going on, I suggest that you do as I did in my half-hour of down time:  read Judith Miller’s farewell letter in today’s New York Times.  One of the most extraordinary rhetorical performances I have witnessed in recent years, and that’s all I’m sayin’ for now.  But would that I had the time and energy for a good old-fashioned close reading.  Good night and good luck, everyone.

Posted by Michael on 11/10 at 09:17 AM
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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Intelligent design

The New York Times reports that the forces of the Enlightenment have come at last to my humble Commonwealth:

All eight members up for re-election to the Pennsylvania school board that had been sued for introducing the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in biology class were swept out of office yesterday by a slate of challengers who campaigned against the intelligent design policy.

Now that’s what I call some of that there natural selection.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  I just couldn’t resist.

Seriously, Enlightenment, I’m sorry we postmodernists said so many mean things about you.  Can you forgive us?  Tell you what.  You get rid of that annoying “universalism as a stalking horse for imperialism” thing, and we’ll stop going around saying silly things like “reason is an instrument of terror.” Deal?

Cool.  Now let’s take this show on the road to Kansas.

Posted by Michael on 11/09 at 09:14 AM
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Tuesday, November 08, 2005


After we saw Chicken Little, Jamie and I undertook two exceptionally tedious tasks while Janet was gone.  One of them, as I mentioned yesterday, involved vacuuming out the cars.  Under ordinary circumstances, this is merely a moderately tedious task; but because we had recently driven to Connecticut with Lucy the Dog in the back seat, it became an exceptionally tedious task.  For, you see, when Lucy the Dog rides in the car, she gets so excited that she bursts her coat.  She’s a small, short-haired pound mutt who looks like a cross between a beagle, a whippet, a dachshund, a deer, and a mouse (we have no idea how many species were involved in her conception), but still, at the end of the five-hour, 300-mile trip, the back seat is covered with enough hair to make a whole nother dog.  We’ve tried putting blankets on the back seat to reduce the hair disperson.  This works well for about twenty miles.

And the real reason you want to contain the hair dispersion, if you’re the owner of Lucy the Dog, is that the VW Passat comes with these kinda cross-hatched cloth seats, and dog hair actually weaves its way into the very fabric of the cloth.  In other words, it’s not a question of cleaning the car by simply running the vacuum cleaner over the seats with this attachment or that; it’s a question of scrubbing the seats and then picking individual hairs out of the cloth one by one, until tedium or madness sets in.

There’s no way to get every last little hair, of course, and what would be the point?  But in the course of our vacuuming, I found that some hairs were enmeshed so completely in the cross-hatches that lightly tugging on them would not remove them.  Others came free after four or five pulls, but once I’d yanked them loose I realized that fully three-quarters of their length had been embedded in the surface of the cloth.  Fascinated (since I could not fathom how Lucy could have worked her hairs into the car seat so diligently), I began to pull on random hairs here and there to see how many were deeply embedded—and I swear I got a hold of a bunch that pulled back.  They clung fiercely to the cloth; they put up active resistance.  It was almost as if they were the car’s own hairs. . . .

At which point I realized that I had discovered powerful evidence of the phenomenon described by Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman:

The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.

Except that in my case, it’s not about a bicycle.  Nonetheless, it’s clear that Lucy the Dog and Passat the Car have been exchanging atoms every time we make the trip to Connecticut, with the result that the Passat’s back seat is growing dog hair and Lucy the Dog needs to have her oil changed.  Strange but true, kids!

(By the bye, Janet tells me that her prime-time-television-watching friends tell her that The Third Policeman was recently mentioned on the show “Lost,” and that sales of the novel have gone through the roof.  Here’s to more de Selbyism in mass media!)

The second tedious task involved putting Jamie’s baseball cards into looseleaf binders.  Jamie has well over a thousand baseball cards (as well as a few hundred basketball, football, and hockey cards), and for years he’s kept them in shoeboxes stationed at key locations throughout the house.  He takes them out whenever he’s watching television; sometimes he sorts them by team, sometimes he puts them in random piles, and sometimes he just leaves them lying around.  But then, on our last trip to Connecticut, while the car was growing its dog fur, Jamie came across someone whose playing cards were all in binders, and ever since then he’s been all about the binders.  So on Saturday I drove him down to the card-collectors’ shop in nearby Bellefonte, PA and bought him a pair of binders and enough inserts for the first 900 cards.  By rights, of course, he should be putting his own dang cards in the binders, but he had some fine-motor trouble with the plastic sheaths, so I chipped in and sorted through packet after packet of old baseball cards, most of them from the late 1980s and early 1990s, all of which he’d bought for about $2 per hundred at the card shop over the years.

There were a few surprises in the stash—a skinny young Sammy Sosa, a skinny young Roger Clemens, a Paul Splittorff here and a Charlie Hough there.  But most of the cards were pretty nondescript: so a guy named Jimmy Jones once pitched for the Yankees, so what.  To break up the tedium, I showed one of the cards to Jamie, covered the player’s name, and asked him, “hey, do you know this guy?”

“Rick,” he replied.  Yep, Rick Aguilera it was.  Intrigued, I tried a second card.  “Matt,” he said when he saw Matt Williams’ card.  Now I was really curious.  And sure enough, over the next few minutes, as I showed Jamie one card after another of guys running, throwing, batting, lounging around the dugout, spitting, and so forth, he named every single one.  He knew first names only, OK, and he didn’t always know how to pronounce them, but there was no question he’d memorized the names on the cards.  I assure you, dear readers, that this is much harder than it sounds.  I have before me Greg Maddux’s 1990 Donruss card (Cubs, the first time around) and Jose Guzman’s 1991 Fleer card (Rangers), and despite the vastly different trajectories of these men’s careers, their pictures are nearly indistinguishable: two righties pitching in mid-stride, each with the ball just above and behind his right knee.  And indeed, the seemingly endless lineup of batters, runners, throwers, loungers, and spitters on the rest of the 400 cards we filed that day includes any number of lookalikes, quite apart from the fact that Jamie happens to own three Tony Bernazard 1988 Fleer cards and four Willie Wilsons.  (In one shoebox alone.)

Jamie had great fun astonishing me with his preternatural mental filing of his cards.  “But how do you remember all these cards?” I asked.  “I mean, my goodness—there are so many of them.”

Jamie shrugged.  “I just do,” he said chirpily.  “More?” And I ran another dozen or so by him.  By the end of our little exercise, we’d gone through about fifty cards.  He’d misidentified two—and immediately corrected himself both times.

I couldn’t wait to show Janet when she got back.  But she wasn’t all that surprised.  “It’s his gift,” she said.  And so it is.

Too bad it doesn’t show up on any of the standardized tests he’s taken.  But listen, if there are any marine biologists out there who need a lab assistant with a literally photographic memory and great cataloging skills, keep Jamie in mind, would you?  Many thanks.

Posted by Michael on 11/08 at 11:54 AM
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Monday, November 07, 2005

The Cheney Archipelago

From today’s front-page Washington Post story by Dana Priest and Robin Wright:

Over the past year, Vice President Cheney has waged an intense and largely unpublicized campaign to stop Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department from imposing more restrictive rules on the handling of terrorist suspects, according to defense, state, intelligence and congressional officials. . . .

Just last week, Cheney showed up at a Republican senatorial luncheon to lobby lawmakers for a CIA exemption to an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The exemption would cover the CIA’s covert “black sites” in several Eastern European democracies and other countries where key al Qaeda captives are being kept.

“Any nation that is party to the Geneva Conventions . . . is obligated under international law to investigate those who are alleged to be involved with the formulation of a policy of torture or with its carrying out.” —William Schulz, executive director, Amnesty International

“Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it.  At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.” --Jean-Paul Sartre, public intellectual

“ .”—Christian conservatives

Posted by Michael on 11/07 at 02:26 PM
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The “sky” is “falling”

While Janet was in Chicago this weekend, Jamie and I had a full slate of things to do: go to hockey games, wash and vacuum the cars, go swimming, get haircuts, and buy looseleaf binders to hold his thousands of baseball cards.  Among other things.

And go to the opening of Chicken Little, which was by far the weekend’s highest-grossing movie.  I wasn’t expecting much.  I was wrong.

Chicken Little turns out to be a remarkable piece of work.  A postmodern update on the children’s classic and a powerful allegory for our times.  Jamie and I were blown away, and here’s why.

Chicken Little opens with yet another take on the father-son dramas that have been making the rounds of Hollywood the past few years, from Finding Nemo to Big Fish.  But this one’s more in the mode of Austin Powers 3, insofar as it deals with the trauma of a son who isn’t adequately recognized or supported by his accomplished, well-respected father.  I wonder where filmmakers get the ideas for these things!  Anyway, Chicken Little claims the sky is falling . . .

Warning: Allegorical Spoiler Alert.  The Entire Movie is Given Away Below!

. . . and thereby embarrasses his father before the entire town.  Chastened, the son decides to try to win his father’s love by competing with his father on his father’s own terrain: he joins the school baseball team on which his father once starred.  Chicken Little, however, has no aptitude whatsoever for the sport—he can barely hold a bat—and contributes nothing to the team for most of the season.  Suddenly, however, in the Big Game, Chicken Little hits a game-winning inside-the-park home run, a complete fluke, further marred by the fact that he initially starts running (after miraculously hitting the ball on an 0-2 count) down the third-base line.

And with that one lucky moment, he has matched his father’s exploits and redeemed himself in his father’s eyes, after having been such a profound disappointment.

Now, here’s where things take a turn for the weird, and we leave the world of Walt Disney for the world of David Lynch.  Once the son has matched the father’s success, however haphazardly, he experiences a complete psychotic break, and begins to believe he has obtained material evidence that the sky is, in fact, falling.  The delusion builds until he is fantasizing a full-scale attack on his homeland, involving fearsome weapons of mass destruction; crucially, the only other characters who can “see” these weapons are a small cabal of misfits—the ugly duckling, the “runt of the litter” (an enormous pig), and a “fish out of water.” As the film gives itself over fully to Chicken Little’s hallucinations—marking its final narrative break with reality by depicting the sky breaking apart and being replaced with thousands of alien spacecraft—Chicken Little believes that he has been exonerated, that his reports of WMD have been “verified” by the “attack” going on all around him.  His father, witnessing the “destruction,” embraces him, asks him for his forgiveness, and vows always to support him from now on.  Chicken Little proceeds to save the world and become a hero to everyone.  As in the conclusion of Total Recall, the frame is unbroken: Chicken Little does not “wake up” or “come back” to the reality-based world, and we are thereby invited to join in his hallucinations if we so desire.

In a cannily post-postmodern postscript, the film ends with Chicken Little and his little cabal watching the Hollywood film of their exploits, in which Chicken Little is portrayed as a strong, square-jawed leader.

If there’s a more searching, more chilling portrayal of the twisted psychic landscape of our era, I haven’t seen it.  Kudos to Disney for bringing the full scope of the horror to the American public, and for reviving the long-dormant art of computer-animated political allegory.  While I enjoyed The March of the Penguins for its searing critique of Bush Administration fiscal policies, I have to say that Chicken Little is a considerably more inventive and accomplished film.

Posted by Michael on 11/07 at 08:10 AM
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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Football Saturday

It’s not like I have a vested interest in this or anything, but for the life of me I can’t see what in the world is wrong with these remarks about “the black athlete.” For that matter, I don’t see anything wrong with Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry remarking on the fact that a lot of fast football players are black.  He said it inelegantly, to be sure:

Afro-American kids can run very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me that they run extremely well.

“Other descents” is, I believe, a freshly coined term, not heretofore employed by sociologists or anthropologists.  It makes DeBerry sound like he’s sayin’ his team needs to git some of them fleet-o-foot Afro-Americans, is what it does.  And DeBerry has courted controversy before, most notoriously when he put up a banner in the Air Force locker room that read, “I am a Christian first and last. . . .  I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” (Just when the Air Force was facing charges that it was actively discriminating against non-Christians in the service, too!  What a maroon.  A Christian maroon, at that.) Still, the fact remains that black players tend to occupy the speed positions, and have done so for quite some time.  Oh, sure, there have been some dominant white running backs—John Riggins comes to mind, and before him, the great Bronco Nagurski.  Let’s not forget the Galloping Ghost, Red Grange!  And there have been some great white players in the defensive secondary, even after the development of the forward pass.  Last but not least, it’s clearly not the case that all black athletes are fast.  But to say that black athletes have “changed the whole tempo of the game” and “have just done a great job as athletes and as people in turning the game around,” as JoePa did, is not merely to say the obvious; it’s to say the obvious in the form of a compliment.  It’s a little like saying that professional basketball is a different sport now than when George Mikan dominated the court, and that it’s a good thing too.

Contrast this nonce controversy with that of two years ago, when Rush Limbaugh resigned from ESPN after saying

I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.  There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.

The problem with that remark isn’t that Limbaugh pointed out that McNabb is black; McNabb is black.  Rather, the problem is that Limbaugh claimed McNabb was overrated because he was black.  Quite apart from what that says about Limbaugh’s bizarre beliefs about the NFL and the media—and I believe King Kaufman nailed this at the time—there’s the fact that the remark doesn’t even make sense in football terms.  Think about it this way: in 2003, when Limbaugh shot his mouth off about that “little social concern in the NFL,” there were ten black starting quarterbacks.  They ran the gamut of the talent spectrum from star players like McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, and Steve McNair, who really do carry their teams and are basically a new kind of player, the mobile 240-pound QB who can run for 100 yards a game, to mediocre guys like Aaron Brooks and Jeff Blake, to marginal players like Quincy Carter and Shaun King.  The idea that the NFL would pick just one of these guys, and have “a little social concern” to hype him and promote him because of his color, was really rather strange in 2003—the kind of remark you’d expect from a rank amateur who has no business being a sports commentator on ESPN.  Now, if Rush had made his remark fifteen years earlier, that would have been another story: in Super Bowl XXII, the Washington Redskins, with unheralded Doug Williams at the helm, beat the heavily favored Broncos after a stupefying 35-point second quarter in which Williams made the Redskins’ Broncos’ secondary look like the local high school JV, throwing for a record-setting four touchdowns.  Was there, in 1988, some excitement about that performance specifically because Williams was black?  Damn right there was—Williams was the first black QB in the Super Bowl, still the last black QB to win a Super Bowl, and he wound up as the MVP of the game, no less.  I had black friends—and white friends (some of my best friends are white!)—who were indeed thrilled that “a brother” had done all that.  To make things even sweeter, Williams had toiled in obscurity with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for years, and some people were glad for him just because he’d done time with a team where you could expect to lose twelve games and get sacked hard fifty times every year.  So yes, back in 1988 there really was “a little social concern,” a desire that “a black quarterback do well.”

And let’s put that “social concern” in social context.  Before that Super Bowl, if you go back to the mid-1970s—as I do—you find only one black starting QB, James Harris of the Rams (who had become pro football’s first black quarterback in 1969 with the Buffalo Bills).  There was also Joe Gilliam, a Steelers backup who saw little action behind Terry Bradshaw; only much later, in 1984, did Warren Moon arrive on the scene, and even he, for all his talent, spent six years in the wilderness of Canadian football before being signed in the NFL.  Back then, you really could hear whispers that black players didn’t have the intelligence or the leadership skills to be quarterbacks, and sometimes the remarks were louder than whispers.  In fact, when Fran Tarkenton hosted Saturday Night Live in 1977, he did a skit with Garrett Morris in which Morris asked him why there was only one black QB in the league, and Tarkenton replied (I’m paraphrasing) that black players weren’t smart enough to play the position (to which Morris said, with astonishment, that he’d never realized that before) and that no sane player would play center and turn his back on a black guy on every play (to which Morris replied, hey, me neither, man—I’ve got a wife and kids).  That was almost thirty years ago, back when SNL had some cojones and was willing to address race-and-sports slurs head-on.  But I haven’t heard that kind of slur in years, not from anyone who knows anything about the game.  Nor have I heard any whispers—let alone comments on ESPN, with the exception of Limbaugh’s—that certain black quarterbacks are overrated because of their race.  That’s not because the league put out new guidelines one day for how to discuss race in the NFL; it’s simply because there are now a significant number of black quarterbacks, some of whom are among the league’s elite and some of whom aren’t, and they’ve made the case for their skills on the field.  And that’s why Rush’s remarks merited all the criticism they got.

I make this point—using some of these words—in my forthcoming book, Liberal Arts:  Classroom Politics and “Bias” in American Higher Education. (Yep, it has a brand new title!  This is the one we’re going with.) Why do I talk about Rush Limbaugh and football in Liberal Arts?  You’ll just have to find out.  But the important thing, for now, is this: matters of race in sports should not be utterly off limits for discussion.  More important, we should distinguish innocuous remarks about race, such as observations that black players dominate the speed positions, from weird and uninformed remarks about race, such as suggestions that one black quarterback out of ten is being deliberately overrated by his league and the sports media because he is black.  Otherwise, if we demonize people who note that black players dominate the speed positions and have changed the tempo of the game, we let real ignoramuses like Limbaugh off the hook, and they can go on pretending that they’re bravely challenging political correctness rather than merely talking out their nether orifices.

There!  I’m glad that’s all cleared up now.  If there are any other long-festering questions about sports you’d like me to clear up this weekend, just let me know.

Posted by Michael on 11/05 at 01:26 PM
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