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Thursday, December 07, 2006


Uh, you remember that really big and exciting and explosive and strange and unprecedented and mysterious and wonderful and adjectival thing that’s supposed to be coming to this blog today?  Well, er, it’s coming tomorrow.  No, really it is.  And it’ll be big.  Did I say that part already?  I just can’t post its strange explosive unprecedented wonderfulness today because I’m completely wiped out from my whirlwind trip to NYC and I have to teach a class in a couple of hours and then get interviewed by Dennis Prager at 2 pm.  So instead, I’m going to ask a favor—aside from voting for me in the all-important “Best Educatical Blog” competition, I mean. 

I really don’t know what to do about this Dennis Prager interview.  I figure that the chances of his listeners tuning in to hear me and then deciding to buy my book are roughly zero point zero or lower, so should I have some fun with this?  Should I be a preternaturally patient, deliberative kind of “liberal” or should I scream that private property is theft and call for the dictatorship of the proletariat?  Should I try to recruit listeners to the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party?  (Now’s my chance, right?) Should I speak in tongues?  Or worse, should I speak in French?  The options before me are overwhelming.  I have no idea what to do.  And you are the only ones I can turn to for advice!  You are the only ones who can help!

Thank you, dear readers.  And stay tuned for tomorrow’s really exciting etc. announcement.  It’ll be way bigger than Arbitrary But Fun.

Update, 2:40 pm:  Well, talk about anticlimactic.  I debated the usual right-wing talking point about Larry Summers for a bit, then insisted that the nature v. nurture debate is alive and well in all corners of the campus, even (or especially) Women’s Studies, then dealt with a few random complaints about Latin American Studies here and pro-life opinions there, and then, twenty minutes in, my phone cut out.  Why?  Because I’m in the middle of a snowstorm and I have the worst phone service imaginable.  I tried to continue the interview via cell phone but could barely hear a thing, and they could barely hear me.  Anyway, Dennis Prager didn’t cut me off.  It’s just my luck, and just my life.  I hate the dang phone.

Oh, well.  At least there’s tomorrow’s event to look forward to.

Posted by Michael on 12/07 at 06:27 AM
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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

2006 Weblog Awards

While we’re waiting for the mysterious and wonderful thing that will appear on this blog tomorrow, I thought it might be appropriate to announce (h/t skippy) that I’ve been nominated as a finalist in the 2006 Weblog Awards, in the category “Best Educational Blog.” My competition is IvyGate, Joanne Jacobs, Eduwonk, The Education Wonks, SpunkyHomeSchool, A Shrewdness of Apes, History is Elementary, Education Policy Blog, and Faith and Theology.  All I can say is that I desperately need to win this one in order to keep alive my fading hopes for the postseason.  Well, no, that’s not all I can say.  I can also fall to my knees and thank Almighty Ba’al that I’m not in Sadly, No!’s category this year, because last year, in the all-important competition for Best of the Two Hundred and Fifty-First through Five Hundredth Blogs, the bad boys at S, N! pwned me but good, and then they celebrated in a most garish fashion, with flying kittens and dancing badgers and drinking Hitchens.  Even now I can’t even bear to think of it.  Though the gay creche is really, really funny.

Anyway, you can vote once a day from December 7 though 15, and therefore you should.

The 2006 Weblog Awards

And why should you vote for me as best educationalisty blog, you ask?  Well, just read the post below this one!  And then let’s just wait and see if those other educationalesque blogs follow suit.  Three-thousand word minimum at this table, people.

Posted by Michael on 12/06 at 02:10 PM
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Visiting Native Speaker

Something strange and unprecedented is coming to this blog tomorrrow!  What can it be?  I have no idea.

In the meantime, let me catch up on some old business and tell a little story.

On November 16-17 Walter Benn Michaels visited Penn State for a lecture and a whole lot more.  What lot more?  This lot more: a week or so before he arrived, I received an email from the person coordinating his visit.  Would I like to have Professor Michaels visit my class?  He would be making a couple of class visits in the course of his brief stay, and since it seemed that I was teaching a course in American literature, perhaps I would like to have him as a guest on the morning of the 16th before his lecture that evening.  The email added that Professor Michaels had suggested, with regard to those class visits, that he would be willing to speak to any class dealing with American literature through 1940.

Well, since I’m teaching American fiction since 1945, I thought that let me out right there.  But I confess that I had two other reasons for turning down the opportunity—or I thought I did.  One, I thought that class visits were a kind of strange feature of Walter’s appearance at Penn State.  In my experience, visiting lecturers lecture, and they meet with groups of faculty or graduate students or undergraduates, and maybe they conduct a symposium, and maybe maybe, if their work (or something related to their work) is on a syllabus, they’ll sit in on a seminar or co-teach it or something.  The sitting-in or co-teaching is usually worked out in some detail with the person teaching the course; in eighteen years I’ve never gotten this kind of over-the-transom request.  But Michaels’ visit was part of a Phi Beta Kappa lecture series, and I thought maybe it was a Phi Beta Kappa thing and I wouldn’t understand.

The second reason was somewhat more substantial.  My course is organized around the idea of “culture,” which is (as some of you may know) an idea with which Michaels wants nothing to do, since he sees it basically as “race” in fancy social-constructionist dress.  The thing is, though, that in some ways I’m as impatient as he is with ritual invocations of “culture” as a kind of all-purpose explanatory scheme for human behavior (and if you’d like a bracing critique of that sense of “culture,” a critique that doesn’t just jettison the concept altogether, I recommend my friend and former guest blogger John McGowan’s Democracy’s Children).  After all, I go back to the “culture and society” tradition in cultural studies, and I try to put as much pressure as I can on both concepts: culture and society.  (There’s a brief discussion of this in chapter five of What’s Liberal, for those of you who haven’t bought your copies yet.) In fact, this semester I gave my students a brief essay of mine, in which I say things like this:


The expansive sense of “culture” as “ordinary,” as the sum of quotidian social practices and their interrelationships, is both examined and enhanced by Raymond Williams’ groundbreaking 1958 book, Culture & Society: 1780-1950, which famously declares that “a culture is not only a body of intellectual or imaginative work; it is also and essentially a whole way of life” (325).  Tracking the emergent meanings of the term since the eighteenth century, Williams argues that

before this period, it had meant, primarily, the “tending of natural growth,” and then, by analogy, a process of human training. But this latter use, which had usually been a culture of something, was changed, in the nineteenth century, to culture as such, a thing in itself.  It came to mean, first, “a general state or habit of the mind,” having close relations with the idea of human perfection. Second, it came to mean “the general state of intellectual development, in a society as a whole.” Third, it came to mean “the general body of the arts.” Fourth, later in the century, it came to mean “a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual.” (xvi)

Over the ensuing couple of centuries, the industrialized democracies of the West have elaborated on both the restricted sense of the term (most often when linked to the aesthetic and/or intellectual evaluation involved in phrases such as high culture or legitimate culture) and the broader, anthropological sense (most often invoked in phrases like common culture and distinct culture, and applied to every social formation from the Maori to Silicon Valley).

Williams’s central insight was that “culture” had accrued and generated so many meanings precisely because of the confluence of industrialism and democracy.  This confluence produced divergent lines of thought in which “culture” was either opposed to and construed as compensation for “society,” or conceived as a “whole way of life” underlying any conception or arrangement of “society.” Under the first heading, the working classes were understood as lacking culture, even as culture was cast as a sort of balm for social divisions; under the second heading, “working-class culture” was understood as something in its own right, something Williams associated with the ideal of human solidarity, “the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought and intentions which proceed from this” (327). 

In American literary and cultural studies, I find the restricted sense of “culture” at work whenever one speaks of “Western culture” as a record of achievements of high intellectual order and/or aesthetic merit, achievements which are then held, particularly by intellectual conservatives in the so-called “culture wars,” to promote specific political values associated with the United States and its allies.  Curiously, however, the values allegedly available for propagation in the history of Western philosophy since Plato or Western literature since Homer turn out to have little to do with “American culture” in the broader, anthropological sense—the sense in which most commentators, left, right, and other, describe phenomena such as rhythm and blues, reality TV, cheeseburgers, 150,000-square-foot discount stores, and tailgating at football games.

The argument that the U.S. has such a national (i.e., anthropological) culture, even if it is not always or not always cheerily acknowledged by intellectuals, has been made forcefully by Michael Lind in The Next American Nation (1995).  But the argument is complicated in turn by advocates of American multiculturalism, who, in the (necessary) course of disputing claims (such as those made by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Disuniting of America [1992]) that a nation’s social foundations require a “common culture” undergirding them, insist that “American culture” is in fact a patchwork quilt or glorious mosaic of hyphenated immigrant cultures, from the feast of San Gennaro in New York’s Little Italy to the so-called “culture of achievement” among Asian-American immigrants. The metaphors of the quilt and the mosaic, however, suggest that advocates of multiculturalism view hyphenated cultures as self-contained wholes kept together by some interstitial bonding agent such as thread or grout; the idea of “culture” here is not merely an anthropological but a particularly reductive one that construes cultures as largely monochromatic and reducible to cuisine and festive dress. (For an argument that the United States consists of hyphenated immigrant cultures only in a vestigial, foods-of-all-nations sense, see Christopher Clausen, Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America [2001].)


You get the idea.  Quite apart from the visiting-classes thing, I didn’t want Walter Benn Michaels messing with this kind of argument by telling my students that all discussion of “culture” distracts us from what really matters, namely, class.  (You know, it’s not as if Raymond Williams needed to be reminded about class.) For those of you who don’t know Michaels’s work (and can you really be reading this far down if you don’t?), his most recent book, The Trouble with Diversity, takes us back to the mid-90s with a vengeance, back to those post-Disuniting of America days when a whole bunch of guys on the left wrote books about how all this multicultural stuff was leading us to forget about economic inequality.  What makes Michael’s version of the argument especially pungent, though, is his insistence that people like me, teaching courses like mine, are actually exacerbating things insofar as our ever-more-complicated-and-nuanced analyses of “culture” work all the more effectively to obscure relations of class.

And then I thought, hey, maybe it would be really fun to have Michaels in my class, and let my students see what this kind of argument is about!  You know, sorta like “teaching the conflicts” or something!  Long before Gerald Graff made the phrase (and the methodology) famous, that old curmudgeon Henry Adams wrote,

His reform of the system would have begun in the lecture-room at his own desk.  He would have seated a rival assistant professor opposite him, whose business should be strictly limited to expressing opposite views.  Nothing short of this would ever interest either the professor or the student; but of all university freaks, no irregularity shocked the intellectual atmosphere so much as contradiction or competition between teachers.

Actually, we have contradiction and competition all the time, at all ranks.  Just not in the same classroom—which is, of course, Adams’ (and Graff’s) point.

But whenever I thought that it would freaky cool to have Michaels come visit the class, I came back to the “literature before 1940” thing.  Because, you see, on November 16 we would be starting Chang-Rae Lee’s 1995 novel Native Speaker, and I didn’t think Michaels would be familiar with it.  So even our argument about whether talking about culture distracts from talking about class would be a distraction from my class.

OK, so I went in on November 16 and talked a little about the 1965 repeal of the nativist Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (this time without the handy charts) and the explosion of Asian and Central/South American immigration since, and a little about the discourse of East Asian immigrants as “model minorities,” and a little about the fact that contemporary Flushing, Queens looks much more like the world of Native Speaker, with its Korean and Vietnamese and Laotian and Indian and Chinese microneighborhoods than like the world of The King of Queens.  I also said a few words about what Lee’s protagonist, Henry Park, does for a living: he works as a kind of ethnic mole for a private espionage agency, infiltrating and undermining various Asian-American activists, ranging from the psychiatrist who’s funneling money back to Marcos supporters in the Philippines to the rising Korean-American politician who may make a run in the Democratic mayoral primary.  Then I promised the class that Native Speaker would take a dramatic turn away from the question of “culture” in the end.

A couple of colleagues and I had dinner with Walter that evening before his lecture.  He was witty and charming, and dinner was fun.  Then we all tramped over to the lecture hall, where Walter got up and said that he was so glad for an opportunity to talk about something other than The Trouble with Diversity for a change, and he explained that he was going to illustrate his argument about culture and class by way of a recent novel he wasn’t sure very many of us had read:  Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker.


Well, I just about tossed my pen in the air—and turned to the person behind me, who just happened to be one of the undergraduates from my morning class, and shrugged my shoulders.

“You’ve read it?” Walter asked from the podium.

“Taught it this morning,” I replied from the fifth row.

Walter gave us all a “well, whaddya know?” look and proceeded to argue that novels like Native Speaker substitute relations of culture for relations of class—that is, that they take class difference (indicated by Park’s father telling him, “you rich kid now”) and mystify it by presenting it as a matter of race and culture.  It was more or less a version of his argument about The Great Gatsby, which you can consult by checking out the American Prospect excerpt from The Trouble with Diversity:

One way to look at The Great Gatsby is as a story about a poor boy who makes good, which is to say, a poor boy who becomes rich—the so-called American Dream. But Gatsby is not really about someone who makes a lot of money; it is instead about someone who tries and fails to change who he is. Or, more precisely, it’s about someone who pretends to be something he’s not; it’s about Jimmy Gatz pretending to be Jay Gatsby. If, in the end, Daisy Buchanan is very different from Jimmy Gatz, it’s not because she’s rich and he isn’t but because Fitzgerald treats them as if they really do belong to different races, as if poor boys who made a lot of money were only “passing” as rich. “We’re all white here,” someone says, interrupting one of Tom Buchanan’s racist outbursts. Jimmy Gatz isn’t quite white enough

What’s important about The Great Gatsby, then, is that it takes one kind of difference (the difference between the rich and the poor) and redescribes it as another kind of difference (the difference between the white and the not-so-white). To put the point more generally, books like The Great Gatsby (and there have been a great many of them) give us a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes.

The first thing to say about this, surely, is ah, no.  Let’s check Gatsby again:  Jordan does indeed say “we’re all white here” (this is the sole basis for Michaels’s argument about the vision of society the book allegedly bequeaths to us), but here’s the actual content of Tom Buchanan’s racist outburst:

I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea, you can count me out. . . . Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have marriage between black and white.

And as he’s done before, Michaels uses his reading of Jordan’s “we’re all white here”—the argumentum ad Gatsbiam—to buttress a much larger argument.  To return to the American Prospect excerpt:

race has turned out to be a gateway drug for all kinds of identities, cultural, religious, sexual, even medical. To take what may seem like an extreme case, advocates for the disabled now urge us to stop thinking of disability as a condition to be “cured” or “eliminated” and to start thinking of it instead on the model of race: We don’t think black people should want to stop being black; why do we assume the deaf want to hear?

There are two problems with this.  The first is that, pace Michaels, Tom Buchanan is suggesting that it’s the other way around: class mobility is the gateway drug, and if you allow too much of it, well, then, first the family will go, and then you’ll have miscegenation.  The second is that Michaels is as flip about the history of Deaf activism as he is about the history of race: Deaf people were indeed subject to two centuries of punitive “oralism,” and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often barred from using sign language.  Advocates for Deaf “culture,” who (justifiably) insist on the right to use American Sign Language and who (controversially) insist that they are not disabled in the first place, are hardly an “extreme case” of what happens when you start out smoking the race dope.  They may be nothing more extreme than a bunch of people who don’t want cochlear implants.

But leaving aside the disability angle for now, if you wanted to pick on a novel that offers a vision of our society divided into races rather than into economic classes, you wouldn’t pick Gatsby of all things—not unless you wanted to cherry-pick it here and there, and ignore passages like “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.” You know, if Gatsby was aware of this, why isn’t Michaels?  (And did I mention that I have a reading of Gatsby in What’s Liberal?)

Michaels’ argument about Native Speaker is just as weird.  The novel is, after all, pretty savvy about class; its depiction of what I call street-level New York, with its nail shops and dry cleaners and bodegas and cheap restaurants and gray-market electronics stores and tables and vans full of handbags and glasses and watches, is wonderfully vivid.  And, as I pointed out to Michaels in my post-lecture Question That Was Really More of a Comment®, (a) the novel is quite clear about the wages Henry’s father pays to his employees in order to make his own son a rich kid ($200/week for six 12-hour days plus free bruised fruit and vegetables), and (b) more important—and central to my next two classes on the novel—Native Speaker asks about not only the relations between culture and class but also the relations between culture and society (hey, remember society?), because it turns out . . .

spoiler alert!

. . . that the reason Henry Park is assigned to the rising Korean-American politician (John Kwang) is that, unbeknownst to Henry, the INS is running a sting operation designed to root out (and deport) illegal immigrants who are among the contributors to Kwang’s version of the Korean-style ggeh or money club.  In other words, in Native Speaker it’s not just a matter of who eats kim chee and who eats chimichangas.  It’s also a question of the legal apparatus of the state and how it administers bodies and borders.  As Kwang falls from grace, as his house is being picketed by the local Tancredo types even though there’s no evidence that Kwang himself knew who was legal or illegal among his supporters, Henry Park lets drop the curious fact that he is an American citizen because he happened to emerge from his mother’s body on this side of a long plane ride from Seoul.  So my question/comment boiled down to this:  for one thing, you have to distort Native Speaker beyond recognition in order to argue that it helps to mystify class, and for another thing, how come you didn’t say anything about the novel’s take on culture and society?

One reason I decided to take this tack is that (as craftier questioners than I have learned) it is exceptionally difficult to argue with Michaels about Michaels’ conclusions.  When, for example, people complain that his dismissal of race and culture is ahistorical, he says, that’s right!  that’s why I like it! (In The Trouble with Diversity, the line is “history is bunk.” I think that’s an allusion of some kind.) So I thought it might be fun and educational to take issue with his readings instead.  You know, the way literary critics are supposed to do.  Unfortunately, he answered my question by noting that there are plenty of academic conferences on “citizenship” these days because it’s such a hot topic and all, and then veered off for about six or seven minutes on another hot topic altogether, because I had actually (I must confess) been so foolish, in phrasing my question, as to say in passing that Henry’s occupation suggests some measure of ambivalence about his cultural identity, and that allowed Walter the slam-dunk response that ambivalence about cultural identity works only to make the subject of cultural identity more rather than less important.  He’s quite right about that, and I shouldn’t have allowed him the opening.  To the immigration-and-society part of my question I didn’t really get an answer.  And thus Walter Benn Michaels continued relatively unimpeded in his quest to treat novels like The Great Gatsby and Native Speakers as if they were the movie Crash, which really is so reductive as to describe all social relations as relations of race, and which Walter is quite right to despise for that reason.

Well, we talked briefly afterwards, and we agreed that we’d be happy to continue the discussion elsewhere, and Walter said “perhaps on your blog!” and I said, “uh, perhaps,” and then I eventually got around to it, and here I am on my blog.  So hey!  Walter, if you’re still listening, what about that bit about legal and illegal immigration?  It’s a confounding question, is it not, and Native Speaker ends by tossing it in our laps.  And everyone else, if you’re still listening—and especially if you’ve read Native Speaker—here’s a chance to argue about culture and class and society too, all at once.  And if anyone knows Chang-Rae Lee, let’s find out what he thinks about Native Speaker!  Because I once read somewhere that meaning is identical with intention.

Posted by Michael on 12/06 at 01:58 PM
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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

It’s Just Lunch!

Something really big is coming to this blog!  But not today.  Later this week, probably.

Besides, I haven’t got time for the post I was planning today, because I’ve got to haul my sorry butt to New York tonight and I’ve got two or three bizarrely important things to do this afternoon before I hop in the car and drive frantically to Morristown, NJ in the hopes of catching the last train to New York so that I don’t have to drive all the way to Brooklyn.  Remember, my one and only NYC appearance in support of What’s Liberal? is tomorrow night at The Tank, at 7:30 with Bill Scher and Eric Boehlert!  And after the panel is over, I’ll be happy to hang out and have a few I’ll be heading back up to Penn Station to catch a New Jersey Transit train that might get me back out to Morristown by 11:45 so that I can pick up the car and drive another three and a half hours to State College so that I can teach my Thursday morning class.  What I won’t do for publicity these days!  And to meet Bill Scher and Eric Boehlert and everyone, too.

So if you’re in the metro area and have nothing to do tomorrow evening, stop by and say hello.

In the meantime, I suppose I should post something on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s version of My Lunch with Horowitz. Look!  It’s free!  The Chronicle took it out from behind the subscription wall! But that’s not to say that they got everything exactly right.

For one thing, about that caricature:  I was not drinking grape juice with my eyes closed the whole time.  Nor do I have crinkly withered ears.  Otherwise it’s pretty accurate.

For another thing, the transcript makes it look as if I was interrupting poor He. Who. at every turn.  And sometimes, dear readers, I did interrupt him.  It had to be done, I tell you!  There’s only so much nonsense that a man should be allowed to spew at any one time, and when someone tries to blame tuition increases on Cornel West’s speaking fees, that person needs to be interrupted and given a double minor for unsportsmanlike bullshit.  But the funny thing is that if you listen to the Chronicle‘s audio excerpt from the interview [UPDATE:  that’s free too!], you’ll find that Horowitz jumps in every time I pause for breath, without fail.  I can barely finish a clause, let alone a sentence.  And it’s not like I talk slowly or anything.

For a third thing, although the Chronicle very helpfully provided footnotes for some of my more telegraphic allusions, like my hailing the imminent election of President Hillary Clinton as a glorious triumph for The Shadow Party, they failed to note that when Horowitz said, “I spoke at Bowling Green, where professors came with the revolutionary communist party,” and I said, “Who is the revolutionary communist party now?”, I was of course referring to Life of Brian, scene seven:

LORETTA:  The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.

REG: We’re the People’s Front of Judea!

LORETTA:  Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.

REG:  People’s Front!

FRANCIS:  Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?

REG:  He’s over there.

P.F.J.:  Splitter!

For a fourth thing, Chronicle reporter Tom Bartlett writes:

Mr. Bérubé is a bit of a fidgeter. He places his chin on his hands, pinches at his eyebrows, leans back then lurches forward suddenly, crosses and uncrosses his legs, fiddles with the sugar packets.

I think this requires an apology.  First of all, I did not do all these things at the same time—placing my chin on my hands, pinching my eyebrows, and playing with the sugar packets.  That would require three or four hands right there.  Rather, I did all these things over the course of ninety minutes.  Second, the term “fidgeter” is demeaning and dehumanizing to those of us who are often mocked as mere “fidgets.” We prefer “Dexterous-Americans.”

Bartlett also sneaks an editorial aside into a footnote:

Mr. Horowitz is a frequent guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox television show. Mr. Hannity is the author of Deliver Us From Evil, which seems to equate terrorism and liberalism. Mr. Bérubé expressed his desire to appear on the show, but, as is often the case with the Penn State professor, it was not entirely clear that he was serious.

Not entirely clear that I was serious? Good lord, when in my life have I ever been facetious or ironic?  Look, let’s get this much straight right now: I would be happy to appear on Sean Hannity’s show.  Why, this Thursday (after I get back to State College to teach my class) I’m scheduled for an hour-long interview on Dennis Prager’s radio show!  2 to 3 pm, Eastern!  (Don’t worry—I’ll have my right hand on a Koran for divine protection the entire time!) Please.  Does anyone seriously think I would turn down an actual guest spot on National Tele-Vision, where I have never been (very possibly because TV Land is, for reasons that escape me, infinitely more welcoming to David Horowitz than to me)?  Just tell me what I have to do to get myself and my damn book on TV, folks.  As long as it doesn’t involve eating bugs.

Besides, I would so love the chance to sing the auto-da-fé song to Sean Hannity.

Last but not least, one word about an exchange that wound up on the cutting-room floor.  As Horowitz was nattering on about women’s studies and feminism and indoctrination, I got kind of impatient.  So I noted that back in 2000, a year before I came to Penn State, the campus got into all kinds of trouble with the local wingnuts because the students had themselves a “Sex Faire” which included, among other things, a (shudder) Tent of Consent.  Indeed, in some quarters around here, they still haven’t gotten over the damn Tent of Consent.  “You would think,” I said, with some heat, “that people were doin’ it like mammals in there from the way these wingnuts talk.  But what the hell was the issue with the Tent of Consent?  What’s really going on with exhibits like that?  It’s about goddamn date rape, for Chrissake.  It’s a wild ‘n’ wacky way of addressing something that’s really quite serious on practically every damn campus in the country, and every wingnut who goes after things like that ought to be ashamed of himself.  Tell me, David, that you have a problem with programs that try to educate people about date rape.”

“OK, calm down, Michael,” David said. 

“No, really,” I replied.  “I am sick and tired of this shit.”

“Very well,” he said, “I can be your ally on this.  I have nothing against date-rape education programs.”

“Great,” I shot back.  “We can have a Tent of Consent.”

So, then.  To those of you who want to accuse me of getting into bed with Horowitz, all I have to say is, you don’t know the half of it.

Posted by Michael on 12/05 at 12:30 PM
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Monday, December 04, 2006

Feet happy and unhappy

Something big and exciting and explosive is coming to the blog this week!  I’m not sure exactly what, though.  I may know in a few days.

In the meantime:  Jamie and I saw Happy Feet over the weekend.  The movie is just fine, as these things go.  He might even see it again.  That’s my sheep-from-goats criterion for movies with Jamie: the Babe movies and Galaxy Quest stand up to dozens of viewings; Harry Potter, largely because of Jamie’s interest in the plot intricacies, more than ten; Star Wars, well, I never understood the attraction of Star Wars; The Emperor’s New Groove, definitely. Milo and Otis, of course, when he was younger.  At the bottom of the barrel, over the past ten years, you find unbearable swill like Cats and Dogs and See Spot Run and Homeward Bound and any films involving a Winnie the Pooh character.  Janet calls these “knuckle-biting movies,” and when we come back from the movies with Jamie we report to each other in this way: three stars!  Or: three knuckles!

Happy Feet gets two stars out of a possible four, and no knuckles.  But that’s not what I’m blogging about today.

I’m blogging about the fact that the right-wing pundits and bloggers who complained about the film are completely and fully batshit insane, including this Medved guy, who also manages to be kind of, ah, stupid insofar as he gets a lot of plot details wrong.  (And when you’re a professional film critic, you know, that’s usually considered bad.) Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here.  The film is a liberal film.  It was rushed into production by Hollywood expressly to counteract the evil effects of the smash conservative penguin hit of 2005, March of the Resolutely Heterosexual Penguins. Happy Feet, by contrast, suggests that children with weird species abnormalities might turn out to have some value even though their peers ostracize them; it suggests that ignorant tribal elders who attribute supernatural causes to natural phenomena are best ignored; and it strongly suggests that humans are interfering with penguins’ fish supply.  Though I note that the humans who actually arrive in Antarctica are kind of nice, smiling and joining in the dancing and even falling down.

Interestingly, Medved comes to a queer conclusion about that species abnormality:

As in so many other recent films, there’s a subtext that appears to plead for endorsement of gay identity. Mumbles (the voice of Elijah Wood) displeases his parents and the leaders of his community because he’s born different, and makes an impassioned plea that he can’t possibly change—and they should accept him as he is.

Remember, kids:  different = teh gay! OK, it’s not as if Medved is obsessed or anything, but for the record, Mumbles’ dancing (and inability to sing) is quite clearly a disability.  But for you, Mr. Medved, gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay.  There.  Happy now?

Anyway, the right-wing punditocracy, being completely batshit insane and all, misses the whole point.  The movie is not about pollution and global warming and bad humans.  The movie is about the insidious correlation between immigrants and polyrhythms, a subject about which I once delivered a learned and distinguished lecture back when I was the Visiting and Distinguished Lecturer at General J. C. Christian Academy.  You see, when Mumbles is driven from his own kind, he finds five penguins of a different species—smaller, more fun-loving, with Latin accents—who become his companions for a good deal of the film, even accompanying him on his perilous voyage to open contact with the humans.  The film thereby suggests that small, fun-loving, Latin-accented penguins are good penguins.  And if you’re a right-wing pundit concerned (and who among you isn’t?) about Hollywood’s endorsement of the Mexidisabilitofascist agenda, then that’s what you should be complaining about: the preponderance of small, fun-loving, Latin-accented animals in America’s animated films.  It started with Tito (Cheech Marin) in Oliver’s Company.  It has reached the level of Mexidisabilitofascist propaganda in Happy Feet.  It can only end with you, Michael Medved.

Oh, one more thing.  In the course of his “review,” Mr. Medved also complains about the brief snippet toward the end in which Mumbles is discovered on a beach and brought to an aquarium.  Waking up and finding himself in the penguin exhibit, Mumbles does not understand that the humans do not understand his cries for help, and after a few months, he begins to hallucinate, thinking that his family and girlfriend are with him.  Here’s Medved’s characterization of this sequence:

There’s also scenes of a penguin captured for a zoo and tormented to the point of mental incapacity by unfeeling people.

Hmmmm, that’s not what happens in Happy Feet at all.  The people are not unfeeling, and Mumbles is not tormented by them; they’re just families going to the aquarium.  Indeed, the one little girl who taps on the glass turns out to be the person who snaps Mumbles out of it, by inducing him to tap dance.  So what could Medved possibly be thinking about?

Oh, yes. Things like this.

Now lawyers for Mr. Padilla, 36, suggest that he is unfit to stand trial. They argue that he has been so damaged by his interrogations and prolonged isolation that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to assist in his own defense. His interrogations, they say, included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of “truth serums.”

The people running this country are completely and fully batshit insane.  Scarily, world-threateningly batshit insane.  And you know what else? Other people are catching on, too.

Posted by Michael on 12/04 at 09:06 AM
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Friday, December 01, 2006

ABF Friday:  Colors and Numbers Edition!

During our 23-person Thanksgiving bacchanal, one of the Guest Kids fired up the DVD and started a game of “Riff,” a music-trivia game available at your local box store for about $14.  We were immediately hooked, because the very first question required the two teams (we divided the room of ten people into two teams, you see) to trade answers as quickly as possible, and the question was simply, name a rap act.  It was hilarious.  For one thing, it quickly broke the room into pre- and post-Tupac quadrants, with the over-40s like me yelling out “Treacherous Three,” “LL Cool J,” “Too Short,” “Kool Moe Dee,” and “EPMD” (as well as the classic Grandmaster Five, Sugarhill Gang, and—who could forget—Kurtis Blow) and the under-25s yelling back . . . well, to be honest, I’m not sure what they were saying.  It sounded like a series of numbers and letters, 50 this and M N or J Z that and a mess of other ludicrousness.

Anyway, it went on for a good eight or ten minutes, with each team giving the other only a few seconds to respond.  Because if you couldn’t think of someone in ten seconds, you were obviously scraping too hard at the bottom of the mental barrel.  Seriously, by that time we’d even exhausted Vanilla Ice and Kris Kross.  But come to think of it, I’m not sure anyone said the Geto Boyz.

In a later game, Riff asked us to do rapid-fire Beatles songs.  Of all things!  In this house!  Nick and I batted titles back and forth for about five minutes, with help from Janet and her sister Todd, but when we started naming “Old Brown Shoe” and “Ask Me Why”—no, not “Tell Me Why”—and “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” well before anyone had said “Yesterday” or “Help,” we were effectively saying to each other that we could go on all night and were willing to reach deep into the L/M songbook for things like “A World Without Love,” and start a fight about whether it was properly a Beatles song, not to mention songs written and recorded but not released, like “If You’ve Got Trouble” or Harrison’s “You Know What to Do” and “Not Guilty.” So we declared it a tie.

But the challenges that drove us crazy were these—which is why I’m passing them along, at a $14 savings, to you.  One: bands with colors in their names.  Two: bands with numbers in their names.

Both questions elicited dozens of answers, but when we woke up the next morning we were racked with remorse for not having said (for example) Cream or Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  “Shit!” I remarked, wittily.  “Ladysmith Black Mambazo?  We didn’t even say Black Uhuru.” We did manage to dredge up most of the obvious suspects, including Green Day and Pink Floyd and Black Flag and the White Stripes, and we credit ourselves with remembering to throw in the Indigo Girls and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, as well as the deservedly obscure Blue Cheer.  But we were apparently too addled with wine and tryptophan to call to mind Shocking Blue, Tangerine Dream, and the immortal Frank Marino and Magohany Rush.

Bands with numbers were even worse.  We decided that jazz combos didn’t count, from Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five right through to Thirty-Seven Guys Playing with Wynton Marsalis.  Again, we disposed of the obvious pretty quickly, from Blink-182 and 98° and Matchbox 20 all the way down to the Bobby Fuller Four and the Fives Associated with Dave Clark and Ben Folds.  The Treacherous Three and Fab Five Freddy reappeared from the rap thread; 10,000 Maniacs and André 3000 (yeah, he’s a band) represented some of the higher numbers.  I was duly proud of myself for remembering the seventeens, Heaven 17 and 17 Pygmies (I still own a vinyl copy of Jedda by the Sea, which stunned the Charlottesville postpunk scene twenty-two years ago and is quite beautiful), and of course I did not fail to name Haircut 100, but somebody deserves a handshake for thinking of Nine Inch Nails and Sixpence None the Richer and even Three Jacks and a Jill.  When we ran out of bands we began to try to pass off things like “Butterfield 8” and “Twelve Angry Men,” which fooled no one, not even the under-25s.

So we’re bequeathing these to you, dear readers.  Bands with colors and numbers in their names.  Go ahead!  Make us feel even more remorse for all the things we forgot!  (I’m sure a certain Insufferable Music Snob® would have pwned us all.) Have a fun color-by-numbers weekend, and don’t forget to check out this fascinating look into the work of the Iraq Study Group!

Posted by Michael on 12/01 at 12:21 PM
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