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Monday, November 20, 2006

Committee work

Technical note:  sorry about the glitches!  We’re all set up now with the spiffy and very impressive Expression Engine 1.5.1.  It drives so quietly, and gets such good blog mileage!  But it took a while.  Thanks, Kurt!  And now back to your regularly scheduled Monday blogging:

Most of my committee work is (a) confidential and (b) too damn boring to describe anyway.  But this year I did get to serve on a committee I can blog about, because it was our task to bestow some public honors on people.  It’s the Public Language Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English, and last week, we gave out our annual Orwell and Doublespeak Awards

Here’s the text of the award announcement, which was read by committee member Linda Christensen this weekend at the annual NCTE convention (I couldn’t attend because I was at the AAUP national meeting instead):

The charge to the NCTE Public Language Award Committee is to select the recipients of the annual George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language and the Doublespeak Award. The 2006 committee was composed of:

Chair:  Michael Bérubé, Penn State University, University Park


Fred Barton, Michigan State University
Linda Christensen, Lewis & Clark College
Patricia Cordeiro, Rhode Island College
Gregory Jay, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
Robert McRuer, George Washington University
Jacqueline Royster, Ohio State University
Michelle Tremmel, Iowa State University

The NCTE Orwell Award, established in 1975, recognizes writers who have made outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse.

This year’s Orwell Award calls attention to a searing and silence-breaking book that indicts the American medical profession of complicity with the forms of torture now routinely carried out in US detention facilities in Iraq, Guantanamo, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Steven H. Miles’s Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror is well worthy of the Orwell Award.  In Oath Betrayed, Dr. Miles shows not only that American medical personnel have falsified death certificates for detainees killed by coercive interrogations, but also that American psychiatrists and psychologists, working in Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, have actually used detainees’ medical information to devise “physically and psychologically coercive interrogation plans” tailored to individual interrogations.

Such practices, as Dr. Miles argues, violate the American Medical Association’s strictures against the participation by medical personnel in torture; they violate the widespread international consensus, forged in the wake of the Holocaust, that doctors have no business aiding and facilitating gross human rights atrocities; they violate every moral precept associated with the practice of modern medicine.  For calling attention to these atrocities and reaffirming the importance of medical ethics under exceptionally repellent circumstances, the Committee gratefully offers this year’s George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language to Steven H. Miles, M.D.

The NCTE Doublespeak Award, established in 1974, is an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.

This year’s Doublespeak Award recognizes George W. Bush for the extraordinary speech he delivered in Jackson Square, New Orleans, on September 15, 2005.  After two weeks in which the Gulf Coast was devastated, first by Hurricane Katrina and floodwaters and then by an incompetent federal response, President Bush arrived in New Orleans for a series of emergency photo ops orchestrated to give the impression that something was being done, that somebody was in charge.  At one point, a team of firefighters, flown from Atlanta to Biloxi as disaster-relief reinforcements, was actually assigned to follow the President around as he walked through the area with his sleeves rolled up.

President Bush capped off his administration’s response to Katrina in a nationally televised speech in which he said:

“In the work of rebuilding, as many jobs as possible should go to the men and women who live in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama..  When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”

A week earlier, on September 8, the President had issued an executive order suspending the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, thereby allowing federal contractors rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to pay below the prevailing wage.

Perhaps most remarkably, the President’s speech included the words, “I also want to know all the facts about the government response to Hurricane Katrina.” The Doublespeak Award was created to recognize public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, and for his Jackson Square speech, we find George W. Bush a most worthy recipient for 2006.

Posted by Michael on 11/20 at 08:29 AM
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Friday, November 17, 2006

ABF Friday:  Post-election WAAGNFNP edition!

Readers, friends, fellow pet ferret owners, members of the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party.  I know many of you are restive; many of you are querulous; many of you are querustive.  Since we took control of the House and Senate last Tuesday, many of you have been wondering: where is the giant nuclear fireball you promised? You are puzzled and upset, even outraged, by media reports that the victories of the WAAGNFNP were in fact victories for conservatism—reports that ritually repeat a handful of talking points about a small handful of our candidates.  “Look at that one’s hair,” they say, “a man with a crewcut would never launch a first nuclear strike.” Or “remember that this one used to play quarterback,” they say.  “Clearly Bérubé doesn’t understand that when this guy says ‘bomb,’ he means ‘pass deep downfield,’ not ‘thermonuclear armageddon.’”

My friends, what did you expect?  Did you really think that we would win a bunch of elections—and that the entire apparatus of American media would reform itself the next day?  Did you think that the K Street wing of the WAAGNFNP, which has been in thrall to defense contractors for decades, would just pack its briefcases, tidy up its offices, and go home?

What I told you on election night was the simple unvarnished truth: this is only the beginning.  Remember that it took the Republicans a full generation to transform their party.  Even the election of Reagan didn’t quite do it, in retrospect: sure, it set the tone, and solidified the Southern Strategy, but when Reagan was president there were still unacceptably reasonable Republicans in the Senate, like Howard Baker and Nancy Kassebaum.  Replacing them with hardcore wingnuts like Bill Frist and Sam Brownback took years of hard, hard work.  The kind of work will have to undertake now.

And so I tell you today: of course there are still plenty of apparatchiks in our party who talk and talk about the giant nuclear fireball but who have no intention of actually bringing it to the people.  They’ve played this game all their lives, and they’re not about to stop now.  And of course there will be stories by Adam Nagourney about how the WAAGNFNP is “divided” and “splitting.” We read those stories back in October, we’re reading them now, we’ll be reading them for years:  don’t worry about that.  Just stay on message: the WAAGNFNP is always already splitting, and always already fused.  We know that every minor setback, every little arms-control measure is going to be reported as an epochal defeat.  We know that Joe Lieberman will be on the talk shows every Sunday.  We know that the Kewl Kids at DC High will mock us at every turn.  Get over it before it happens, people, because it assuredly will happen.

Meanwhile, we have important things to do on the ground.  First and foremost, we must work for electoral reform: we call for fission ballots in order to allow citizens to split their votes again and again, creating a “chain reaction” that will transform the political landscape beyond recognition.  This sounds tedious and wonky to many of you, I’m sure: you didn’t come for the fission ballots, you came for the sublime, incendiary spectacle of the GNF itself.  But even in victory, comrades, you can’t put the nuclear cart before the nuclear horse.  The journey to the GNF starts with a single act of splitting, followed by millions of fission ballots from sea to shining, irradiated sea.  It is not for nothing that we join together, split, and sing, “let there be a giant nuclear fireball on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Why, there is much to do right here on this very blog!  Because—as you well know—the WAAGNFNP is committed to the simulacrum of democratic deliberation followed by executive decisions made by me, it’s time to open the floor to the simulacrum people.  Where should the WAAGNFNP go from here?  What should it do?  When should it eat?  Most important, should it order the halibut or the steak? 

Have a great weekend.  Make great suggestions.  And I’ll be back next week to tell you what you think!

Posted by Michael on 11/17 at 09:07 AM
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Thursday, November 16, 2006


Congratulations to dear friend and gentle soul Richard Powers for winning the National Book Award for 2006! His latest novel, The Echo Maker, is currently # 63 at Amazon.  Let’s send it to # 1, shall we?  Don’t make me call my friend Hugo to do the job!

Of course, everyone knows or else should know that Rick should have won the thing in 1993 when he was a finalist for The Gold Bug Variations*.  And I’m also very partial to Prisoner’s Dilemma, having taught it in three or four seminars.  (Remember, What’s Liberal fans, it’s the novel that sent “John” over the edge!) And Rick was so kind as to steal my wife and children as models for three characters in Galatea 2.2, which I’ll be teaching next spring.  Teaching it for revenge, I assure you.

In other (far less important) news, I got myself quoted in a news item of some kind.  Something to do with an “Academic” Bill of “Rights” and a “Committee” or something in “Pennsylvania.” I note that my old friend David Horowitz wrote last week that the committee’s hearings were “an unqualified victory for the academic-freedom campaign,” and claimed here that “we will be posting the Committee Report as soon as it is released and readers will see that it is a massive indictment of higher education in Pennsylvania, the lack of intellectual diversity, the lack of professionalism, and the failure of the system to protect its students.” But apparently David is now very, very upset at the way the report is being, ah, reported in the reality-based community, partly because, as Inside Higher Ed has the gall to point out, “the report goes on to note that there is no evidence of any but ‘rare’ cases in which students are punished for their views, and that no legislation is needed.” So, in response to the Associated Press story on the report, which also has the gall to suggest that the committee found only “rare” cases of bias (as Pittsburgh’s very own Scaife-based community paper, the Tribune-Review, admits in its title for the story, “Political Bias Rare at State Colleges”), David writes, “it is in fact a report of the Democrats’ talking points on these proceedings which itself are based on a willful disregard for the facts.”

Whew!  I hope that’s clear.  Though I miss the old days of Republican message discipline.  And good grammar.

Thanks to Free Exchange on Campus for keeping track of it all.


UPDATE:  Score one for the self-correcting blogosphere, and one against my failing memory.  As alert reader m.ho points out (comment 1, right off the bat), Rick was in fact the 1993 finalist for Operating Wandering Soul, and not for Gold Bug Variations, which was published in 1991.  I was so sure of this one that I didn’t even bother to check on the special National Book Award intertube.  But I should have known better, all the same:  I first met Rick in the summer of 1991, just before Jamie was born and just before Gold Bug came out.  He did a wonderful reading which included the passage about the various forms of life that populate the planet, right down to those ubiquitous bacteria, and when I spoke to him afterwards I asked him, “was that your response to the complaint that you postmodern novelists don’t write about life as we know it?” And then we talked a lot about genetics.  Right, well.  Two months later Jamie was born.  Rick, back in the Netherlands by that time, sent me a long and quite beautiful letter apologizing for not understanding that all the time he thought we were talking about his book, I was really talking about Jamie and Down syndrome—and sending along his best wishes and much moral support.  I wrote back insouciantly, “hey, gold bug dude” (I still have the letter on my hard drive), “I myself had no idea, when we were talking genetics at Zohreh’s house, that I was doing anything but reliving my undergraduate days when I would spend hours at a time wondering that DNA does indeed manage to build little homes for itself.  And I’d hate to have you think I was talking about Jamie’s Down syndrome in so oblique and self-indulgent a fashion.” I spent the rest of the letter filling him in on Jamie and trisomy-21.  I read Gold Bug two years later (hence my failing memory) and loved it, even the brief scene with the young mother with the child with Down syndrome, which Rick thought might cause me some pain. 

Anyway, Rick moved back to Champaign-Urbana (as readers of Galatea 2.2 will know) and we continued the exchange in person.  I borrowed a paragraph from Gold Bug when I wrote Life As We Know It, and I got the idea for the title of my book about Jamie from that first conversation in the summer of 1991; he borrowed Jamie himself for the character of Peter.  Nick is “William,” though a few other kids went into that portrait as well.  Janet is “Diana,” though “gap-toothed, hand-signing serenity” is not, in fact, among Janet’s attributes.  And let the permanent blog record show that I did not leave my family (see comment 9).

Posted by Michael on 11/16 at 01:22 PM
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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I got plenty of nothin’

. . . and so I’ll just post a few excerpts from my Midwest MLA keynote address, “Professors at Work,” a good deal of which had to do with blogs.  The theme of the conference was “High and Low,” you see, so I thought this might be a good time to talk about academic blogs as a genre—as a subset of blogs in general, and as a form of scholarly exchange.  So I said a bunch of fairly obvious things, as is my wont.  I’ve since learned that one part of my talk may have been misheard or misremembered, thanks to someone named Stella Artois.  So perhaps academic blogs can help to straighten out these little misunderstandings that arise when academics go to hear other academics talk about academic blogs!  All of society will benefit, I’m sure.

At least I accomplished this much:  the MMLA keynote marked the first time I have gotten a chance to cite, in public, to a ballroom full of people, Fafblog’s famous “State of the Internet Address” for 2005:

The state of the internet is strong an fiesty! It’s bigger an better an quicker than ever an can skeletonize a buffalo in under sixteen seconds! But be careful: the internet can be dangerous. If the internet starts walkin up to you with its ears down makin growlin noises please back away from it slowly an find a grownup or a Communications Decency Act right away.

The internet has done so much in the last year! This year brought us the Blog Revolution, which wasn’t that big but moved so fast it went from Blog Bastille Day to the Blog Reign of Terror to the Blog Buncha Ol Fat Guys Talkin About Blog Bastille Day in like a week!

Then I made the obvious point that way back in 2002, when I first started reading blogs regularly, most academics did not blog and did not think much of most of the people who did.  Then I said:


These days, I find that the general attitude of academics toward blogging is a bit more diffuse.  Most senior eminences do not blog, though a few well-established theory and/or poetics types, from Jodi Dean to Steven Shaviro to Ron Silliman, have very good blogs.  By and large, though, the senior members of our discipline tend to look upon academic bloggers the way they might look at ham radio enthusiasts—as engaging in a curious and somewhat self-aggrandizing hobby that matters only to other curious and self-aggrandizing hobbyists.  Part of that attitude is generational, no doubt, and speaks to a certain kind of generational cluelessness about the Internet—as evidenced, for example, by the job placement advisor who (in)famously told Ph.D. candidates to use the Google and remove any online information about themselves that might prove damaging in the eyes of prospective employers.  [Feel free to insert your favorite Ivan Tribble memory here.] Clearly, this placement advisor had no idea that the Internet does not accommodate the necessary Winky-Dink Kit that would enable readers to alter websites by writing directly on their computer screens; for in reality, the Internet is a series of tubes, and in order to change what’s in them you have to call Virtual Roto-Rooter or actually crawl into the tubes yourselves.  I’ve also run across a number of colleagues who think of blogs neither as a debased medium nor as a weird hobby but as something more like a pet ferret—you know, maybe it’s edgy and intriguing in some ways, but then again maybe it’ll run around all over the place and eat your shoes.  And then there are those among us who actually consider blogs cool, and wish we had one, if we only had the time to keep it up.  For those few, blogging is a little like becoming fluent in another language—something on the list of remote desires, things we can’t squeeze into our busy lives right now but would love to.

The fact that academics’ attitudes toward blogs have changed is not merely a function of the fact that more academics are bloggers.  (For one thing, more everybody are bloggers.  When I fired up mine in January 2004, and I thought I was doing it late in the game, there were 3 million blogs in the world.  Now there are 55 million.) It’s also a function of the related fact that blogs themselves have become more substantive: many of them feature original essays rather than mere links to news items and brief commentary. 

See?  That was pretty obvious.  Here’s more:

There’s one line of thought—with which many of you are no doubt familiar—in which blogs are understood by way of analogy to the emergence of print culture in the early eighteenth century.  It’s not a bad parallel, insofar as we’re talking about relatively new media being opened to the masses—or, in this case, every member of the masses who has access to a personal computer.  But a more precise analogy, with regard to the phenomenon of blog readership, might be the emergence of popular periodicals in England in the early nineteenth century—the range of journals and reviews and fortnightlies that carried out the Wordsworthian imperative to create the taste by which they were to be enjoyed.  I wish I had come up with that analogy all by myself, but in fact I developed it in the course of a conversation with two of my fellow bloggers, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who also happen to be science fiction writers.  We met at a blogger meetup in the summer of 2005; this was one of those odd social events in which bloggers get together and talk about . . . uh . . . blogging.  Anyway, I had asked the Nielsen Haydens what I thought was an innocent question about whether they’d had any trouble merging their blogs into one; their answer, in brief, was “oh, don’t get us started.” When I asked why I shouldn’t get them started (I am very thick when it comes to certain social cues), they launched into a discussion of blog styles and claimed, plausibly enough, that blogs could be thought of as successors to zines—that low popular genre of the 1980s—and that each blog, like each zine, creates a very specific fan base and mode of discursive exchange. I thought that was a fascinating line of thought, so I brought up Jon Klancher’s 1987 book, The Making of English Reading Audiences, which argues that English literary and political periodicals did pretty much the same thing from 1790 to 1832.  The Nielsen Haydens were familiar with Klancher’s work, and we eventually agreed that even though Klancher made a heroic attempt to yoke together reader-response criticism and reception theory in order to argue that these periodicals actually created reader formations and Bourdieuian habituses in the very fabric of their prose styles, he never pulled off so audacious a formalist-historicist claim as all that.  But he would have had a better argument, the Nielsen Haydens and I agreed, if he had just waited seventeen or eighteen years and tried to make the same argument about blogs.


But you blog readers knew all that already.  OK, so let’s skip over a lot of stuff and get to the big finale:

Finally, blogs serve as networks.  In some ways, I’ve left the most obvious point for last.  But at some point last year I tentatively suggested that there was a difference between “cooked” blogs and “raw” blogs, that is, between blogs that publish more or less complete, polished essays and invite commentary and debate, and blogs that are more like diaries or journals in which people discuss not only their work but also their private lives, their hopes and fears, their families and children and quotidian adventures.  I was of course evoking Robert Lowell’s distinction between raw and cooked poetry, elaborated in his National Book Award acceptance speech of 1960, and to more or less the same purpose: as Lowell said, cooked poetry was “marvelously expert and remote . . . constructed as a sort of mechanical or cat-nip mouse for graduate seminars,” whereas the “raw” was “jerry-built and forensically deadly . . . often like an unscored libretto by some bearded but vegetarian Castro.” Most blogs are somewhere between raw and cooked, perhaps half-cooked or medium rare.  And I intend no pernicious hierarchical evaluation of the raw and the cooked, either, though it’s probably worth noting that rawer bloggers tend to be anonymous, they tend to be junior, and they tend to be women.  (One semi-raw anonymous blogger, commonly known as Dr. Crazy, responded to my citation of her blog as a raw blog with a post titled, “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Raw Like Me?” and followed this with a fascinating series of posts on the purpose of blogging for anonymous junior female faculty, to which a number of mostly anonymous apparently junior mostly female faculty bloggers responded.) I don’t think that raw blogs are any less substantial or important than cooked blogs when it comes to demonstrating what professors do all day.  On the contrary.  They combine serious reflections on teaching and writing with questions about how to cope with academe, with being single (male or female) in a small town, with having a stack of papers at one’s elbow, with juggling conference presentations and committee assignments and complicated families and vaguely unsettling department chairs.  The early blog by the professor known only as the Invisible Adjunct was a pioneer in this genre, and inspired literally hundreds if not thousands of tenured professors and adjuncts and graduate students to follow in her bloggy footsteps.  As a result, many young scholars have established online networks and clusters of virtual friends with whom they exchange career advice, teaching suggestions, and sympathetic commentary on how to balance one’s life and work in a profession that usually keeps one well off balance.

About those blogs all I can say is boy, am I jealous.  We never had anything like that when we were the new kids on the hallway.  And I’ll end by emphasizing the blogs that are not all criticism and political commentary and theory all the time—the blogs that combine, say, questions about how to compose a new syllabus in one’s rhetoric and theory course with sharing suggestions on where to look for good clothes in a conference city.  Because to the objection that those blogs are little more than academic diaries or online coffeehouses, I would say, well, yes—that’s precisely the point.  For all academic blogs, the big ones that get twenty thousand readers a day and the ones that get twenty friends stopping by, serve as representations of what professors do, in our variously high and low registers: we write introductions to “Signature Event Context” for our students, we ask each other about our courses and our students, we curl up with a good DVD now and then, and then we get online and we toss out a few thoughts, almost as if we’re at a dinner party or something.  Some of us blog, as I do, about an hour or two a day; others, an hour or two a week.  Some of us don’t take time away from our real work to do meaningless blogging, and some of us don’t take time away from important blogging to do other meaningless drivel.  Because we think that in the end, academic blogs just might serve the useful function of representing to any interested Internet passerby just what it is we do with our time and our skills.  For in all their high and low manifestations, our blogs depict professors at work.

Posted by Michael on 11/15 at 09:46 AM
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Monday, November 13, 2006

Spreadin’ the danger

Whew.  I’m back home, having wrapped up the fabulous and glamorous Dangeral Studies Tour 2006.  Thanks to everyone who made it such a fabulous and glamorous success!

The Chicago trip was especially spectacular, even scrumtrulescent.  It marked the first time that Janet and I traveled together during the school year—that is, without Jamie, who took care of a babysitter from Thursday through Saturday when he wasn’t in school himself.  And we celebrated in fine style!  Janet spent Thursday night and Friday day throwing up once every fifteen minutes for just over ten hours, after developing a severely allergic reaction to the down pillows and bedspread in our fabulous and glamorous room in the Palmer House (which really was quite fabulous and glamorous).  I left her retching at a quarter to one on Friday afternoon so that I could go have lunch with David Horowitz and reporter Tom Bartlett of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I had the steak; David had the halibut.  He will no doubt try to claim that he had the steak, but trust me on this one.  Tom Bartlett barely touched his food, and I just think that’s wrong.

Janet rallied in time to come to dinner Friday evening and have some nice soothing soup (not with Horowitz—with MMLA President Kevin Dettmar).  But all in all she had a Very Bad Day, spent Friday night on the down-free couch, then flew back on Saturday morning.

On Saturday I saw her off, did some work in the morning and early afternoon, then went with Danny Postel to the Chicago Cultural Center to hear Samantha Power and Azar Nafisi.  That was great.  And you know what? we talked about you the whole time.  That little get-together, by the way, was the only social arrangement I did not screw up this weekend.  Everything else I screwed up.  I apologize to everyone.

But to gauge by comment 25 in the previous thread (thanks, Anne!), at least my talk on Friday night went OK.  The film clip from Toy Story caused me no end of anxiety, though, because (a) I was pretty sure it would be the highlight of the first half of the talk (the facetious half, before I got around to the serious subject of academic blogs) and (b) I was absolutely sure that Jamie owned the film on VHS and so did not worry about getting a hold of one, and Jamie himself assured me that his copy was in the upstairs bedroom, and Jamie is never, ever wrong about such things, but this time he was, because the Toy Story box was upstairs but not the movie, which meant that I left for Chicago without the crucial film clip queued up, which meant that I had to hope that I came across a DVD of the film someplace, and I did, buying the tenth-anniversary edition at a store in the Philly airport for the low low price of $32, but of course that meant I would have to fiddle with the DVD and all its front matter while giving the talk, and because it was the tenth anniversary edition it had, as I learned ten minutes before the talk was to start, about eighteen or nineteen different features and promotions to wade through before you hit “play,” so that was a pain in the ass, but I think it all worked all right in the end and it turned out that I was right about (a).  And then a cranky old man got up at the end of my talk about academic blogging, announced that he didn’t hear very well, and asked me if he had heard correctly that I was among David Horowitz’s Most Dangeral Professors.  When I said yes, he replied that I had made his day, which led the ballroom of people to break into applause, and at that point they—and I—thought they knew where this “I have a question that’s more of a comment” was going.  We were wrong!  It was going someplace else.  The cranky man then segued into a disquisition about his red cap, which, he said, he wore only when he was on the attack, and he claimed that no one was further right than he, except for perhaps Lynne Cheney, “who,” he said, “sleeps with the Vice President.” “So I hear,” I replied.  “Well, then,” the cranky man said, “I have a question for you.  How do you feel about Israel?”

“Well,” I said, thinking of the Toy Story clip, “I think it was implicit in my talk,” thereby attempting to remind him that he had, in fact, attended a talk.  It didn’t work.  He followed up with questions about “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and about the various calls for the boycotting of Israeli academics and also about fragging.  It was fun.  “You must get that all the time,” a friend said later.  “No, not really,” I answered.  “This was a first.” As it turned out, I got off light, because the cranky man was eventually persuaded to sit down and allow people with questions about the talk to ask them; he had also haunted Janet’s panel the night before, and when I met Jerry Graff later on Saturday night he told me that the cranky man had simply made a speech at his session, a speech he (Graff) timed at just over eight minutes.

I learned a couple of things about the Palmer House, by the way.  First, that although I have long lamented the $25 breakfast common to conference hotels—two eggs, $11.95, coffee, $3.95, convenience fee, room delivery fee, gratuity added (insufficient, thereby requiring supplementary tip in cash)—it appears that the Palmer House is breaking new ground with the $35 breakfast by setting the price of two eggs at $24 and working up from there.  I did not sample the $35 breakfast.  I went around the corner to Dunkin’ Donuts for a fine $4 breakfast.  Gotta keep these taxpayer-funded junkets within reason, you know, regardless of whether they’re actually taxpayer-funded.  Janet, by contrast, ordered a room-service salad on Thursday night while I was speaking at Northwestern, and reported that it was the finest $44 salad she had ever consumed.

Second, whenever I’m in a conference hotel I have a funny habit of checking out whatever conference I’m not part of.  You know, just to see.  And I have a minor obsession with miniature TV screens installed in elevators, taxicabs, minivan seats, and the backs of people’s heads, because they give me the impression that the Lidless Eye of CNN is watching me wherever I go—or, perhaps, that I should never walk for more than 30 or 45 seconds in a major US city without consulting a video screen for the latest news on missing white women or the adventures of the irresistable Ryan Philippe.  The Palmer House managed to combine my habit and my minor obsession in one neat little move.  The hotel was hosting not only the Midwest Modern Language Association but also the American Heart Association, which meant that the lobby and the ballrooms were full of the usual literature-professor suspects as well as people with some real money to spend: cardiologists, and even more important, representatives from pharmaceutical companies.  Indeed, the latter group was such a large part of the Palmer House Imaginary that for Friday and Saturday, the hotel suspended its broadcasts of CNN in the elevators and replaced it with advertising for the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor.  What was especially strange about this was that Lipitor (or Pfizer, or, more accurately, whoever has Pfizer as an ad client) had apparently designed the video advertising specifically for this conference: it consisted entirely of still photos of various Chicago landmarks and those three-ringed Lipitor logos arranged so as to suggest that “Lipitor” was a verb synonymous with “heart,” as in “I Lipitor the Windy City” and “I Lipitor the Buckingham Fountain.”

Well, folks, I did not Lipitor my time in Chicago, though I think Janet might have done well to Zyrtec hers.  And how was your weekend?

Posted by Michael on 11/13 at 02:24 PM
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Friday, November 10, 2006

Arbitrary and sad Friday

At some point last night this blog received its five millionth visitor.  Thanks, whoever you were!  And the 4,999,999 who preceded you (though of course I know that some people have visited more than once).  I credit Howard Dean and his “fifty-state strategy” for my blogging success.  Rahm Emanuel had nothing to do with it.  And I’m sorry I wasn’t around to welcome my five millionth visitor personally, but I was having dinner with some friendly folks at Northwestern University.  Thanks also for all the great suggestions for lunch conversation with U. No.!  I’m going to print them out and read every one to him.  We should be there all afternoon.

And no, we won’t be ordering any pie.

But I am not a happy blogger today, because late last night I learned that Ellen Willis died earlier in the day of lung cancer.  Ellen Willis was one of my Prose-‘n’-Politics Heroes when I was growing up: I would read her stuff in the Village Voice when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and say, “goddamn! I want to write like that someday.” (I would sometimes say this aloud while riding the rush-hour 7 train to and from high school.  It made an impression.) From her support for abortion rights and socialist feminism in the late 1960s as a founding member of Redstockings to her critiques of Women Against Pornography in the very late 1970s (which anticipated the work of most “sex-positive” feminists by about ten or fifteen years, though of course Carole Vance and the “pleasure and danger” theorists were working the same beat in the 1980s), Ellen Willis was fierce and crisp and always laser-smart.  And she was a fine, fine writer—the kind of writer any kid with a taste for cultural criticism should study and admire.  That means you kids on the Internets, too!  Stop reading this blog and go read Ellen Willis’s stuff.  Start with Don’t Think, Smile!  Notes on a Decade of Denial.  Your assignment is to write a 5000-word review by the end of the year.  Go.

Which reminds me.  There should be a school of feminism named just after her:  the Ellen Willis Radical Critique with Democratic Socialist Politics and Also Some Really Savvy Rock Criticism, All in Piquant Prose school of feminism.  I nominate this young woman for membership.

I finally got the chance to meet Ellen Willis almost ten years ago, in the very city I’m in now (the windy one), at a conference at the University of Chicago.  I was seated right across from her at lunch, and I went into complete fanboy mode, saying, “Ms. Willis, hi, we haven’t met, but my name is Michael Bérubé and I’ve been a fan of yours for twenty years, and it’s just such a thrill to meet you in person at last.” And she said, smiling ruefully, “oh, now that makes me feel old.”

She was not old: she was only in her mid-fifties at the time.  And she was not old yesterday, either: she was only 64.  Though I knew her only through her writing, I will miss her.

Saturday:  Her New York Times obit is here, and I managed to find an earlier photo of her on the Google, too:


Also check out Alice Echols’s terrific book, Daring to Be Bad:  Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75 for an account of Ellen Willis’s early work and the brief history of the Redstockings and much, much more.

SundayDissent says goodbye and makes five of Willis’s more recent essays available here.  And four nice tributes from the Nation here.

Posted by Michael on 11/10 at 12:18 PM
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