Wednesday, April 29, 2009

      A Community of Kitsch

      There's an interesting review of Brithish philosopher Roger Scruton's new book, Beauty, that looks at the value (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of kitsch. In "Finding Kitsch's Inner Beauty," Robert Fulford praises Scruton's text for holding the "now marginalized view" that philosophers should help the rest of us "think about issues that really matter." (Marginalized? Really?) The "issue that really matters" here is the issue of beauty, and the question that concerns both Scruton and Fulford is why the hoi polloi can't seem to direct their/our aethestic and moral sensibilities towards the beautiful. Instead, we love kitsch, which is at best a degraded, narcissistic and utterly mundane imitation of (real) beauty. Scruton argues, following Kant, that this is not simply a matter of "bad taste," but a moral failure on our parts. As summarized by Fulford, Scruton's argument is as follows:

      Kitsch encourages us to dwell on our own satisfactions and anxieties; it tells us to be pleased with what we have always felt and known. It reaches us at the level where we are easiest to please, a level requiring a minimum of mental effort.

      Beauty, on the other hand, demands we consider its meaning. It implies a larger world than the one we deal with every day. Even for those with no religious belief, it suggests the possibility of transcendence...

      Kitsch trivializes human conflict and demotes feeling into bathos. It's a mould that forms, as Scruton says, over a living culture... The moral effect of kitsch may be obscured by sentiment but it's there. Kitsch, Scruton correctly points out, is a heartless world. It directs emotion away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without truly feeling them.

      Reading this reminded me of a discussion about Kant's notion of the sublime that we had on this blog sometime last year, which was itself a reminder of how difficult and brilliant the Critique of Judgment really is. Anyway, here's my question: I wonder whether or not all forms of kitsch have this "narcissistic" effect that Scruton describes? I'm not talking about the ceramic duck pictured above or those obnoxious garden gnomes, but maybe something more like Velvet Elvis renderings or pop music. Isn't part of the pleasurable feeling that we experience with these examples of kitsch attributable to some sense of a community connection that they inspire? That sense is not the same as Kant's sensus communis, of course, because it at best only connects us to a part of the human community (e.g., the part that loves Elvis)-- but isn't it a moral feeling nonetheless? Doesn't it signal some sense of the transcendent, in a way that Scruton denies to kitsch?

      Saturday, April 25, 2009

      10 Things I Love About Memphis

      Here's my contribution to the meme begun over at Smart City Memphis:

      1. Wild Bill's Juke Joint
      I'm sure that it doesn't come as any surprise to readers of this blog that I've got Wild Bill's first on the list. This is the single greatest place in Memphis... or in any city I've ever been in, for that matter. It's about as big as a large living room inside and it packs R&B lovers in every Friday and Saturday night from 11pm til 3am-ish. Bill's only serves cold beer in 40-oz. bottles and it's set up with long tables for "family-style" seating, so everyone is forced to get to know everyone else. And the music is the best you'll ever hear. "Wild Bill" himself died a couple of summers ago, but his place remains open for those who want to stray from the beaten (tourist) path and get a taste of what's really real in Memphis. I love this place.

      2. Rhodes College
      Okay, so this is my employer and I probably do feel a little bit of obligation to put it on the list... but the truth is that it really is one of the things I love about Memphis. Rhodes College is just an absolutely gorgeous place. The collegiate Gothic architecture is striking and serene, the grounds are open and beautiful, the groves and gardens are breathtaking in the spring and fall. I've been here two years now, and I still regularly think to myself how lucky I am to get to go to work at such a beautiful place every day. The other great thing about Rhodes: it's stuck right in the heart of Midtown, the greatest part of Memphis, across the street from our world-famous zoo and Overton Park, just minutes from all of the dowtown fun as well. There aren't too many colleges that look and feel like Rhodes that are also located in a major metropolitan city, so this really is the best of several worlds. Oh yeah, and it's been voted one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States several times.

      3. Joe's Liquor Store Sputnik
      It's really hard to describe the attraction of this oddity to people who haven't see it in person. I know it sounds strange to list a liquor store sign as one of the things I love about Memphis, but it really does represent so much about what is endearingly quirky about our fair city. I had an apartment several years ago that was almost next door to Joe's, so the Sputnik (as it is affectionately known) was right outside of my window all the time. I can't tell you how many times I sat and stared at it's slow-moving light show while trying to solve the existential dilemma du jour. Several years back, the Sputnik was broken for a while and didn't turn... but when Joe (or whoever) decided to fix it and get it moving again, everybody was thrilled. I'd be willing to bet there's a great story behind why it was ever put up there in the first place, but I don't know that story. I kind of like the mystery of it, to be honest.

      4. Pork
      If there were a "10 Commandments of Memphis," I'm sure the first would go something like this: I am the Pork, your Barbeque. Thou shalt have no other barbeques before me. So, please, for your own sake, don't come to Memphis and pretend that barbeque is made out of anything other than swine. (Hear that, Texans??!!) Memphis barbeque is DEEEE-LICIOUS. People will judge you here on the basis of your favorite BBQ joint. In the spring, summer and fall (but especially the summer), the whole city smells like BBQ. We have our fair share of vegetarians and vegans in this town, like everywhere, but I really don't know how they do it. A lot of Southern food amounts to something like a heart-attack-on-a-plate, but nothing better than good ol' Memphis pork barbeque.

      5. Sunset on the Mississippi River
      There's something really special and magnificent and frightening and awe-inspiring about the Mississippi River, especially at sunset. One of the great parts about Memphis being in the westernmost corner of Tennessee is that we get to enjoy great sunsets over the Big Muddy. Dowtown Memphis has a long and winding riverside park, which is a great place to catch this daily natural wonder. If you're ever down there, don't bring a camera. Just find a quiet place to sit and enjoy what's happening. And also remember to walk down to the edge of the banks and spit in the Mississippi River, which is supposed to be good luck. It is a mighty river, indeed. Mighty mighty.

      6. Unexpected Art in Unexpected Places
      I suppose there are a lot of people who think that graffitti is just ugly nonsense done by useless vandals. Those people haven't seen Memphis graffitti. We have a lot of unexpected "real" (i.e., non-graffitti) art in unexpected places as well, but I personally love the guerilla stuff more. This includes bathroom graffitti, which I find to be pretty much the most awesome part of relieving oneself in Memphis. I once thought that I would start a whole other blog documenting the best of Memphis bathroom graffitti, but I'm not much of a photographer, so you'll just have to trust me on this. In the quirky-artsy neighborhoods of Midtown, where a lot of Memphis artists live, you can see tons of quirky-artsy installations in people's yards, which is also fun. A few years ago, the North End of dowtown was turned into a gallery district, so Memphis art and Memphis artists are a much more prominent subculture than they used to be. Better for all of us!

      7. The Poor & Hungry
      The P&H Cafe, the self-appointed "beer joint of your dreams," is like the archetype of great dive bars. You wouldn't walk in there if you didn't know already that it was a great place to be. Which it is. Back in 2002, then-unknown local Memphian and film director Craig Brewer made his first film, which he called "The Poor and Hungry" after this bar. It used to be run by a woman named Wanda, who looked like the Madame of some run-down speakeasy, and who has since (sadly) passed away. There are all kinds of tributes to Wanda on the walls at the P&H, which is great for all of us who used to go there and spill our souls to her when we were poor and hungry. When I moved back to Memphis, I thought I had "outgrown" the P&H and didn't go for a while... but it only took one trip back to remind me that there's just something invaluable about those bars where everybody knows your name.

      8. National Civil Rights Museum
      The Lorraine Motel was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's assasination, and it has since been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. A lot of people resisted this change, but I think that this is one of the best museums in the country. Visitors literally walk though the history of race-relations in the United States as they proceed through the museum, culminating in a trip to the very balcony where MLK was shot. I'm not much for ham-handed sentimentality, but a trip through the Civil Rights Museum is profoundly moving. Visitors who come to Memphis often spend their time trying to see the "sites" like Graceland, Stax, Sun Studios, Beale Street, etc.-- all of which are definitely worth seeing-- but if I had to tell someone one single place they should visit while in this city, I would say the Civil Rights Museum. It's impossible to walk out of there the same person as when you walked in.

      9. Music, Music, Music

      All great American music was born in the Delta. We're the home of Stax, a.k.a. "Soulsville USA." Also Sun Studio. Also Beale Street. Also, the Full Gospel Tabernacle (Al Green's church). And if you're not so much interested in music history as in hearing somre great live music, well, you can go to the FREE outdoor concerts at the newly-renovated Overton Park Shell. You simply can't get away from music in this city. It's everywhere. It's everything. Hell, we practically invented it.

      10. Annual "Elvis Week" Candlelight Vigil
      It just so happens that my birthday falls in the same week as "Elvis Week" (also known as "Death Week") every year, which commemorates the memorial anniversary of Elvis Presley's untimely passing. The main event of Elvis Week is the candlelight vigil, which turns out tens of thousands of people to pay their respects to the King of Rock-n'-Roll. No matter how hokey or corny you think Elvis is, you absolutely must see this event at some point in your life. It is the definition of Americana.

      Ahmadinejad and the U.N.

      Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prompted a ruckus (and a mass walk-out) this week at the Durban II Conference, the followup to the U.N.'s first anti-racism conference, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenohobia and Related Intolerance, which was held in South Africa in 2001. Most of the protestors left before Ahmadinejad got started on his speech (which you can watch in translation and in full here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), so it seems safe to assume that they were protesting Ahmadinejad himself and not the content of his speech. That's too bad, really, because it turns out that he said several things in that speech that were well worth hearing.

      You may remember a couple of years ago when Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University and was unceremoniously introduced by Columbia's President Lee Bollinger as "a petty and cruel dictator." The problem of cutting-the-speaker-off-before-he-begins was similar then to this week's Durban II incident, as Ahmadinejad made several valid and astute observations in his speech at Columbia as well (which I addressed on this blog in my post "Deconstructing Ahmadinejad"). As I said then, my interest in hearing Ahmadinejad out should not be taken as a wholesale endorsement of the man, his ideological commitments, or his Presidency... but, despite the fact that much of what he says can be inflammatory and offensive, here's another example of an eminently sane criticism posed by Ahmadinejad in his Durban speech.

      Among other things, Ahmadinejad's address called for a reform of the United Nations Security Council to reflect more accurately the realities of global power. Currently, the only permanent members (and the only members with veto power) of the Security Council are Great Britain, the United States, France, China and Russia. I imagine it only takes a quick glance around the room at one of the Security Council meetings to see that the faces there might reflect some problem best addressed at a conference on racism. The final declaration of the Durban II conference this week stated that, because of migration and globalization, racism is thriving as much today as it was 50 years ago. And yet, with the (arguable) exception of China, the Security Council is entirely white.

      We ought not underestimate the kind of power that comes with a permanent seat on the Security Council, including the power to thwart many of the other U.N. regulatory bodies and statutes (not to mention direct orders by the U.N. to not invade other countries). The United States still has not signed on to The Rome Statute, the document that formed the International Criminal Court, the body that would be charged with addressing war crimes that we might have committed in the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (including torture, extraordinary renditions, human rights violations, etc.). We also haven't signed the International Landmine Treaty and, given that most of the unexploded land mines that still terrorize communities are buried in South American and Africa, there isn't anyone on the Security Council that might make us do that. Unfortunately, these two important treaties are not the only, but only the most egregious, of United Nations initiatives that have been stymied as a result of our permanent seat on the Security Council.

      Certainly, reducing this problem to "racism" is a bit over-simplified, but racism is not an irrelevant observation, nor is it a wrong one. So, Ahmadinejad said it. Don't shoot the messenger.

      Friday, April 24, 2009

      De jure is de facto's slave...

      I was pleased to discover recently that Ethan Coen, of the famed Coen Brothers (screenwriters for some of the very best in contemporary film, like Fargo, O Brother! Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski and Miller's Crossing) has also published a book of poetry. One of the poems in that collection is entitled "The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way" (also the title of the book). It's a kind of reflection on the old "might makes right" adage, and takes as it's starting point what Coen calls "the realist's rules of order." If you've seen any of his films, you know already that Ethan Coen has a way of turning the simplest of phrases into most shockingly mundane of profundities. This poem is a case in point.

      What is striking about this piece now, I think, is how much it mirrors a side of the current debate over torture. Like out-of-control, drunken drivers, one side of the debate continues to lurch and to careen and to plow grossly forward, asking only the "realist's" question-- does torture "work"?-- all the while ignoring the possibility that there may be another way of determining the "right of way." It's a reckless manner in which to proceed, for sure, but the danger seems only to befall those who try to get in the way.

      The Drunken Driver Has The Right Of Way
      by Ethan Coen

      The loudest have the final say,
      The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
      The realist’s rules of order say
      The drunken driver has the right of way.

      The Kubla Khan can butt in line;
      The biggest brute can take what’s mine;
      When heavyweights break wind, that’s fine;
      No matter what a judge might say,
      The drunken driver has the right of way.

      The guiltiest feel free of guilt;
      Who care not, bloom; who worry, wilt;
      Plans better laid are rarely built
      For forethought seldom wins the day;
      The drunken driver has the right of way.

      The most attentive and unfailing
      Carefulness is unavailing
      Wheresoever fools are flailing;
      Wisdom there is held at bay;
      The drunken driver has the right of way.

      De jure is de facto’s slave;
      The most foolhardy beat the brave;
      Brass routs restraint; low lies high’s grave;
      When conscience leads you, it’s astray;
      The drunken driver has the right of way.

      It’s only the naivest who’ll
      Deny this, that the reckless rule;
      When facing an oncoming fool
      The practiced and sagacious say
      Watch out — one side — look sharp — gang way.

      However much you plan and pray,
      Alas, alack, tant pis, oy vey,
      Now — heretofore — til Judgment Day,
      The drunken driver has the right of way.

      Thursday, April 23, 2009

      Torture Reading

      Just a couple of quick recommendations for those of you keeping up with the current scandal over the so-called "torture memos." I've been doing a lot of reading on this stuff over the course of the past year as a part of my research, and I plan to include both of these texts in my "Justice" course this coming fall.

      First, Darius Rejali's Torture and Democracy. This is a mammoth of a book (almost 900 pages), but it is an invaluable resource for all things having to do with torture-- including the history of the practice, the moral and political arguments about its permissability and utility, the various ways it has been put to use and perfected, and the special problems that torture poses for democracies.

      And, second, Mark Danner's Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror. Danner, who has written numerous articles on the subject for The New Yorker, assembles in this book all of the documentary evidence surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Included along with Danner's own essays are government memos, scores of pages of testimony from torture victims and perpetrators, and the texts of the Taguba, Schlessinger, and Fay/Jones Reports. Also included are all of the Abu Ghraib photographs.

      Neither of these are pleasant reads, but they are necessary reading, to be sure.

      Wednesday, April 22, 2009

      Right Place, Right Time

      File this away under "The Story I Would Want To Tell My Kids, If I Ever Had Any Intention of Reproducing (Which I Don't)."

      Last Saturday night, I was at Wild Bill's (per usual) enjoying myself greatly (per usual) and hanging out with a great group of friends and an even greater stock of delicious libations (per usual). It was a particularly rowdy night that night, as there were a lot of "famous" local musicians in the house celebrating the birthday of one of Beale Street's best singers, Miss Joyce Henderson, who holds down the stage every Saturday and Sunday at the world-famous B.B. King's on Beale with the Carl Drew Blues Band. (That's the 88-years-young Mister Carl pictured here, one of the oldest woking bluesmen today, doing what he does best.) Anyway, sometime during the third set at Bill's on Saturday, the band called me up to sing (per usual) my staple of songs. I was uncharacteristically nervous, what with all the star-power in the house that night, but it was late and I was properly wound up and so I went and did my thing like I always do.

      Much to my surprise (and delight), Miss Joyce came over and talked to me afterwards. She liked the songs I did, and she said she liked my singing, too. Then... wait for it.... waaaait for it... she invited me to come down to B.B. Kings the next day and see her show. "You'll be my personal guest," she said. Of course, I couldn't say "yes ma'am" fast enough.

      So, my friend William and I drug our semi-hungover selves down to Beale Street on Sunday, walked into B.B.'s and said we were there to see Miss Joyce. She was onstage at the time, so we took a seat in the back and waited for the end of their set. When they took a break, Miss Joyce came right over, gave a big hug, and treated us both like she had known us forever. Then, she grabbed me and took me over to introduce me to a ton of people. Almost all of the intros started like this: This is Rufus Thomas's dummer... This guy played with the O'Jays... This guy sang with Mahalia Jackson... This guy played keys for Al Green and Peabo Bryson. I was absolutely floored to be meeting the people I was meeting. I felt like I had been "made." But wait... waaaaait for it.... it gets even better.

      About halfway through her last set at B.B.'s, Miss Joyce was wiping away the well-earned sweat from her face, and she said: "And now I would like to bring up to the stage an exciting young singer that I heard last night and just knew I had to get down here. Miss Leigh, come on up here and sing these people that song I heard you do last night!"

      Yeah, right then, I pretty much crapped my pants.

      I really can't exaggerate the confusion on the faces of the audience (or the band) when they realized that I was the aforementioned "Miss Leigh" as I made my way up to the stage. But I steeled myself, climbed onstage and took the mic from Miss Joyce's outstretched hand. The bassist looked at me for some indication of what to do, so I said (shakily): "Twelve-bar blues, in E." He said, "Fast or slow?" I said, "Quick, like a shuffle." He nodded to the drummer, and then we were off...

      I couldn't see anything but lights from the stage, so by the time I was done, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of a response. The whole time I was singing, I just kept thinking: I'm onstage at B.B. King's! I'm onstage at B.B. King's! Please, God, don't let me forget the words... But people hooted and clapped when I was done and, as I left the stage, Mister Carl gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, "Anytime, honey, anytime you want to do it again." Miss Joyce got back up, she and the band finished their last set, and after they were done, all the guys came over and said I did good. The bassist (who is Al Green's bassist) leaned over at one point and said that he was a little skeptical when I came up, but that I "sang him out of that nonsense." Miss Joyce asked if I might be willing to sit in for her sometime when she's out of town. It was all utterly, completely, unreal.

      I'm still kind of coming down off the high of having sung at B.B. King's on Beale Street with such an all-star lineup of musicians. But, the truth is, as great as all that was, the best part about it is that I made a lot of new friends while I was there. Really-good-people friends. People who love this city and its music the same way I do... only they've been loving it and making it lovable for a helluva lot longer. I'll probably stick to my routine of getting my fill at Wild Bill's (instead of on Beale Street with all of the tourists), but you can bet that I'm sure going to answer my phone in the future anytime anybody from Miss Joyce's crew call.

      What a weekend that was. Too bad there are no plans to have kids to regale with the story...

      Tuesday, April 21, 2009

      Loving Lolita

      I can't remember the first time I read Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita-- it must have been more than 15 years ago now-- but I can remember with absolute clarity how utterly besotted I was with it. If memory serves, I think the only other books that I've read straight through in one sitting were Les Misérables (which I actually faked sick to stay home from school and read) and King Leopold's Ghost (which I read on a beach vacation after taking my M.A. comprehensive exams). Unlike those books, though, Lolita was a thoroughly guilty pleasure... and for a long time after finishing it, I was self-consciously reluctant to recommend it to friends. For the uninitiated, Lolita is narrated by Humbert Humbert-- a middle-aged, somewhat neurotic, definitely obsessive, European man-- who is in love/lust with the eponymous 12-yr. old American girl, whose stepfather he somewhat slyly becomes. It's been a scandal of a book for many, many years, and it was turned into a scandal of a film in both 1962 and 1997. But like many other (officially and unofficially) blacklisted novels, Lolita has withstood the test of time and found its way into the canon as one of the most-respected pieces of mid-century American literature.

      Or so I thought...

      I was sitting in the cafe near our campus today and overheard a conversation between what I'm guessing were the visiting parents of one of my college's young charges. The mother was positively irate that her son had told her that the best book he read all year was Lolita, and the father was noticably concerned, too. "What sort of message is it sending that our kids read this garbage?", she said. He sighed. She hrumphed. He shrugged. She stirred her coffee, loudly. He poked at his hash browns with his fork. The pregnant pause in conversation was unbearable.

      "Well, I guess that's the way the world is going. Don't really know what to do about it. The boy's gotta read what they tell him to, honey."

      I sat in my booth, stirring my own coffee too loudly, a little amused and a little sad. I wondered if either of them had read the book, or if they had only seen the movies, or if they had only heard about it. I remembered my own, much younger, self taking in Nabokov for the first time. Remembered Humbert Humber's opening passage, absolutely unforgettable:

      Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

      So, to the student who loves Lolita, despite the obvious disappointment of his parents, I say:

      Good for you, kid.

      Monday, April 20, 2009

      Work-Guilt and Time-Management

      It's really surprising how long it takes to acclimate oneself to a full-time position in academia. I'm nearing the end of my second year now, and I still find myself constantly tweaking all of my best-laid-plans for "balancing" the Holy Triumvirate of responsibilities: scholarship, teaching and service. As I've said many times before, one of the more maddening aspects of academic life is that you never feel like you're "off" work. There's no punching-out at the end of the day, and weekends are less "days off" than they are "uninterrupted" work days. And don't get me started on that myth of "summers off"! The dead weight of Work-Guilt (I should be prepping, I should be writing, I should be reading, I should be...) never goes away. For all of the sweet perks that come along with academic life, a quiet mind is not one of them.

      I'm sure we're not alone in thinking that there just aren't enough hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the month, months in the year.... but because our work time is so unstructured, and often so unpredictable, it is especially hard to manage. The first step, I think, in getting some handle on the problem is to figure out how one works best. For me, the optimal conditions include long stretches of uninterrupted focus. I've discovered that I really cannot work for an hour or two, then have a meeting, then come back to my work, then teach a class, then come back, then eat, then come back, then advise a student, then come back, etc., etc.. When I try that, I end up having to repeat the last thing I was doing before I took a break, trying to find my train of thought again, searching desparately for the next sentence that was right there before I got up. Absolutely maddening. The problem, I've come to discover, is that such conditions are really only available in the summer, which means that the amount of reading, writing and researching that I can get done during the semester is less than I would like. Consequently, The Guilt.

      However, I've tried something new this term. I've just conceded the fact that there is a very limited amount of progress that I can make on my manuscript during the course of the semester, but what I CAN do is make sure that, when summer gets here, I have everything in place to hit the ground running. All the research is compiled and organized, all the books are checked out and waiting, all the outlining is complete, and all I have to do is sit down and get started. My hope is that this way I won't lose the last couple of weeks of May trying to shift gears from the teaching schedule to the writing schedule. I can't say that this new insight has done a tremendous amount to assuage The Guilt just yet, but I'm hoping that if things go well this summer, I might be able to look back and re-evaluate how best to manage my time during the semesters.

      At any rate, I'm interested to hear from others what works for you. Misery loves company!

      Friday, April 17, 2009


      Several months ago, there was a story in the New York Times entitled "Two Decades in Solitary" recounting the story of Willie Bosket, who has spent 23 hours a day for the last 20 years in a 9x6 cell... all alone. I had intended to write a post about that story then, because I was doing a lot of research on torture and I was struck by the similarities between the experience of torture victims and the experience of people who spend extended amounts of time in solitary confinement. But, I got sidetracked and never did.

      However, the issue was brought to my attention again recently by Atul Gawande's (author of the must-read Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, which I highly recommend!) excellent piece in the New Yorker entitled "Hellhole." Gawande's article points out that the United States currently holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement, and Gawande wants to know: is this torture? Interestingly, he quotes people (like John McCain) who have endured both torture in the traditional sense and extended isolation. Those people report without exception that solitary is tortuous, and produces the same effects in its victims that torture does: the breakdown, disintegration, and utter dehumanization of both the mind and the body of the prisoner.

      Philosophers have been speculating for some time that the human is an essentially social animal, and social scientists have confirmed this in a number of ways over the past couple of centuries. Gawande begins his article "Hellhole" by calling attention to just this fact. He writes:

      Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.

      You can read the article to familiarize yourself with the battery of experiments and experiences that Gawande cites to justify this claim, but my interest here is what sort of argument one might construct to defend the essentially human rights of prisoners against those who might not be willing to concede that solitary confinement is torture. I hear objections (to the humane treatment of prisoners) like this all the time, in which detractors effectively say something like: "But it's PRISON! It's not supposed to be comfortable. It's punishment!" In my more generous moments, I assume that 9 times out of 10 these people are simply unaware of the true horrors of the American penitentiary system, that they wouldn't in good conscience approve of the conditions therein if they really knew, and that they probably do have an otherise resolute moral conviction against torture in the traditional sense. Their argument, such that it is, usually appeals to some version of the social contract, in which criminals are presumed to have surrendered their rights in the commission of their crime, thereby excusing the rest of society from the responsibility of keeping offenders in its custodial care.
      Here is an ideal case, I think, for my weak humanism thesis (which I've referenced before in a series of posts on this blog). If we assume that rights are accorded to human beings on the basis of their strengths-- for example, in this case, their right to be "free"-- then we can easily excise lawbreakers from the population of people to whom those rights obtain, because those lawbreakers are (according to the conventions of the social contract and the juridical systems it traditionally engenders) no longer free. On the other hand, if we view the fundamental role of human rights to be the protection of human beings when they are the most vulnerable and weak, then we would be forced to admit both the moral and the legal impermissibility of something like solitary confinement, which intentionally (and unnecessarily) exploits an elementary human weakness (the need for social interaction) for the express purpose of coercion, subjugation and control. The truth is, we need other people as much as we need food, water and air. It is a vulnerability that cannot be ignored without sacrificing not only the well-being, but the life, of the person who is isolated.
      Pace the logic of social contractarians, "weak" rights cannot be surrendered. I may be able to freely sacrifice my right to participate as a fully rational and autonomous member of a law-governed society-- either by breaking the rules, or selling myself into slavery, or any other number of things-- but I cannot make myself immune to hunger or thirst, to pain or loneliness. Because these rights (if they are rights) cannot be surrendered, they ought to be protected. And they especially ought to be protected in the cases in which their violation is an unjustified (and unjusitifiable) superadded element to a justified (and justifiable) punishment.

      Wednesday, April 15, 2009

      I See London, I See France...

      I hope you're not one of those people who already felt vulnerable and exposed by having to remove your shoes and belt in the airport security check, because things are about to get a lot worse for you. According to William Saletan over at Slate, the Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA) has revised its position on the use of millimeter wave passenger imaging scanners (also called "naked machines"). Scanners that produce images like the one you see to the left are going to be a regular part of security checks at the airports in San Francisco, Miami, Albuquerque, Tulsa, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas... with other cities to follow soon thereafter. The TSA claims that the millimeter scanners are still "voluntary" for passengers, but they're using a definition of "voluntary" that probably diverges from your everyday use of that term. Passengers who refuse to pass through the naked machines will have to "undergo metal detector screening and a pat-down," which may also include what the TSA calls an "enhanced pat-down" that exceeds in intimacy what most people hope for only after several dates in a romance.

      When the TSA began using these virtual strip-search machines, they attempted to head off objections to them by installing a "privacy algorithm" that helped the machine obscure the most revealing and private features of passengers' bodies (like it is obviously still able to do with the woman's face in this picture). The TSA website no longer includes any mention of the words "privacy algorithm"... and I think the pictures speak for themselves. But, still, the machines are voluntary, right? Au contraire! According to a USA Today report, most fliers had no idea how graphic the naked machine's images were before stepping through it. That may technically count as "voluntary," but that's a far cry from "informed consent," which is a standard our legal system usually adheres to when judging the sorts of activities that people enagage in naked.

      What's more, covert tests just two years ago showed that TSA still failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents about 60% of the time at two of the nation's busiest airports (Chicago's O'Hare and LAX). Feel safer?

      Sunday, April 12, 2009

      Dream the Dream

      In the spirit of hope, resurrection and mid-life second chances that the Easter story promises, here's a little glimpse into one great day in the the life of Susan Boyle.

      Can I have a napkin, please?

      Friday, April 10, 2009

      Shooting Fish in a Barrel

      Just go ahead and file this away in the "Amazing Adventures in Double Entendre" File.

      In an attempt to resuscitate the revolutionary patriotism of Bostonians circa 1773, FOXNews and the Republican Party are calling on their constituents to organize their own April 15th "Tea Party" to protest President Obama's tax policies. What's more, they've also asked protesters to mail in tea bags to the White House as symbols of their libertarian disgust. What's the problem here, you ask?

      Complete social retardation.

      Some poor GOP intern obviously dropped the ball (pun intended) when they were vetting this idea, allowing the Party to go ahead with the slogan "Tea Bag Obama." The interns at FOXNews were asleep too, it seems, since the talking heads on that channel have been endlessly and shamelessly promoting the "teabagging" of Obama, the "teabagging" of the White House, the "teabagging" of liberal Democrats. Oh, the hits just keep on coming! (Pun also intended.) Nothing goes together like obliviousness and arrogance (except maybe alcohol and firearms), making the Teabagging Right (a phrase I thought I'd never use) a primo target for Rachel Maddow's rapier-like wit.

      Sometimes it's just TOO easy...

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      A long time ago, as an undergraduate, I took a course on contemporary American literature that included several texts by John Barth, including The End of the Road (1958, revised 1967). I was in the full glory days of my existentialist period at the time, so Barth's The End of the Road and the twin novel with which it is packaged, The Floating Opera (which I've referenced before on this blog) really struck a chord somewhere deep within my 20-something crise d’identité. Barth's central character in The End of the Road is Jacob Horner, a grammar teacher and philanderer, who suffers from an existential condition metaphorically represented by pointillism. The painting to the left here is Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grand Jatte, one of the foremost examples of the pointillist painting technique, which relies on the ability of the human eye and the human mind to mix color spots into a coherent image that transcends (and makes sense of) the disparate "points" of which it is composed. By analogy, Horner speculates that he is only able to make sense of the entirety of his existence by blurring his focus on any one particular point of that existence-- but he worries that this traps him in a paradox of meaning and meaninglessness that is ultimately debilitating. On the one hand, sacrificing the integrity of the individual moments renders them meaningless, plaguing the entire picture of his life with a kind of nonsense that renders his gaze immobile. On the other hand, when he tries to accentuate the particular moments of his life and throw them into a kind of mythical and meaningful relief, he risks rendering the whole meaningless at best, invisible at worst.

      Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M., claimed that The End of the Road was the inspiration for his song "Laughing" off R.E.M.'s first album, Murmur. Though the protagonist in Barth's novel acknowledges the irony of his situation, he doesn't find his condition laughable. In fact, he describes it as a kind of paralysis-- "gazing on eternity, fixed on ultimacy...there is no reason to do anything--even to change the focus of one’s eyes"-- in which the long-view of all of life's options and possible meanings renders the freedom to choose between them impotent. He calls this condition cosmopsis, "the cosmic view" that produces a kind of intellectual and spiritual entropy in its sufferers. What does one look at when standing in front of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grand Jatte? What IS one looking at? And once one concedes to relaxing his or her focus, giving oneself over to the whole, how does one look away? Remember this scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off?

      That's cosmopsis. The closer one focuses in on the individual points, the more decontextualized and meaningless they become. The more one blurs the individual points to find the meaning in the whole, the more one becomes transfixed, paralyzed, unable to think or choose or be anything for fear that to lose sight of the whole, even for a moment, is to lose any sort of meaning at all.

      Now, I'm willing to admit that this is just the kind of hyperbolic, existentialist angst that appeals to people in their twenties (which I was), who like to think of themselves as, to use Barth's phrase, "pronouns sans ante or precedent"(which I did), but for some reason I've found myself thinking a lot about cosmopsis recently. Maybe it's the fact that I'm trying to write a book, which can be its own kind of pointillist painting. Maybe it's the constant news about the economic collapse, which most of the time makes sense as a "whole" story, though the consitutive parts often seem so nonsensical and strange. Maybe it's some kind of (premature) mid-life crisis, which tends (stereotypically, anyway) to repeat the behaviors of our 20-something crises. Maybe it's a reaction to the dramatic and abrupt channel-change that our nation has done politically, in which the discrete events of this change seem completely absurd if one is still looking at and thinking about them in the context of the old channel's narrative. Maybe it's Bernie Madoff's fault.

      At any rate, the problem of having to decide whether to look at the points to see the picture, or look at the picture to see the points, is seeming more and more to me a hazard of the philosophical life. But it's probably much more mundane than that...

      Tuesday, April 07, 2009

      The Problem With Packin'

      Ahhhh, Texas. Turns out their legislature is considering allowing students over 21 to carry concealed guns on campus. Supporters say that there's good reason for this manifestly ridiculous idea, of course, citing the tragedy at Virginia Tech almost two years ago and, I suppose, the fact that there weren't enough armed students to make that massacre a fair gunfight. According to State Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), the proposed bill would make everybody safer, since faculty and students are just "sitting ducks" if someone enters the classroom and starts shooting. I don't know how large the classrooms you teach in are, but in the roughly 25' x 25' classrooms where I teach, it's hard for me to imagine that more guns in that limited space makes me safer.

      Over at Edge of the American West, Dana has written a very fine letter to the Texas Legislature explaining the many and varied things that are wrong with this idea. She points out that, first, it's unlikely that allowing concealed weapons on campus by registered gun-owners would actually serve as the "deterrent" that the Texas Legislature thinks it would be. It's safe to assume that the kinds of young people who have decided to shoot up their classrooms did not stop to rationally consider whether or not there would be other gun-wielding students in the class first and, even if they did, statistics on gun-violence in this country already show that "knowing there might be other people with guns out there" does very little to deter people intent on using theirs from doing so. But secondly, and more importantly, there's the larger public safety issue. School massacres are very rare events-- even more rare in colleges and universities-- so the question ought to be whether the threat to saftey posed by these sorts of events is greater or lesser than the threat to safety posed by more gun-wielding students in the general population. Dana writes:

      Okay. So suppose anyone could have a gun! Given enough guns to ensure adequate mass-murder-coverage, we are surely going to have secondary problems, even if we suppose all of the gun owners are perfectly responsible. (That’s a huge spot.) College dorms and apartments are not the most secure locations; are all of their friends and roommates responsible? Never drunk and stupid? Never depressed over a girlfriend or boyfriend leaving? Never angry over a grade or a rejection or a slight? Never dealing drugs? The likely scenario is not a handsome senior bravely facing down the mass murderer (who threatens his delicate girlfriend with a leer…), but a drunken frat boy shooting himself in the leg, or a student murdering his ex-girlfriend and then himself, or an accidental death due to too much alcohol and too little common sense.

      And, of course, you don’t get to assume that you’re the hero in the drama. You might be Jack Bauer. You might be the Plucky Extra Who Failed To Get the Safety Off.

      I think it's obvious that these potential threats are greater and more real than the possibility of a Virginia-Tech-repeat. It saddens me greatly that we have to worry about horrific events like that happening, but given the levels of gun-violence in this country, I'm not sure that I have to worry about that happening any more while I'm at work than I do when I'm at the grocery store, or the bank, or the post office, or just standing on the corner. We don't need MORE guns on campus, we need NO guns on campus.

      Monday, April 06, 2009

      Justifying Prejudice

      The image to the left is a postcard that someone sent to PostSecret, an online website that asks people to write their "secrets" on one side of a postcard and mail them in anonymously. (I've written about PostSecret before on this blog.) It is the brainchild of Frank Warren, who now travels all over the country talking about the phenomenon of secret-sharing that is PostSecret.

      I found this postcard particularly striking, because it seems to clearly illustrate so many things about the subtleties of racism. As someone who has waited more than my fair share of tables, I'm very familiar with the stereotype of "ghetto people" (read: African-Americans) being bad tippers. I imagine if I showed this picture to one of my classes, many of them would silently nod in tacit agreement, even if they wouldn't come right out and say as much. Of course, there are all kinds of explanations for why people don't tip (or don't tip well) that have absolutely nothing to do with the racial identity of the patrons. Maybe they got bad service. Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe they actually couldn't afford a tip. (With the recent dowturn in the economy, this last explanation seems the most reasonable assumption.) But what is clear from the waiter's scrawling on this receipt is that he or she is quite sure that the customer's misanthropy was an emandation of some kind of racial "essence." Ghetto/black people are "cheap," the waiter presumes, and THAT is what both creates and justifies the waiter's racism.

      On the contrary, what makes the waiter a racist is his or her belief in racial "essences" in the first place. Or, more accurately, his or her belief that some racial essences are comprised of inferior moral or characterological traits. The fact that he or she is able to allegedly "confirm" these beliefs by appeal to his or her experience as a server is, of course, a post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. This reminds me of one of the themes in an excellent book by Lewis Gordon that I read some time ago, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, in which Gordon uses Jean-Paul Sartre's structure of "bad faith" (from Being and Nothingness) to show how racism often involves a kind of lying-to-oneself in order to avoid both freedom and responsibility. For the nameless waiter in our case, the lie of "racial essences" allows him or her to avoid taking responsibility for the prejudice he or she is adopting. "It's waiting tables that makes you racist!" the waiter would no doubt protest, in an attempt to show that the facts of the world leave him or her no choice in the matter. But the "facts" of the world don't show anything at all by themselves. They must be filtered through some paradigm of meaning and interpretation-- in this case, the paradigm of antiblack racism. Unfortunately, in a culture like ours where this paradigm is institutionalized and thus concealed, bad faith racism is easy to practice and very difficult to own.

      In my classes, I tend to focus on much larger issues of institutionalized racism in an attempt to debunk the elision of facts and values that we practice in ignorance. I think it's much easier to demonstrate, for example, that the stereotype of young black males as essentially "violent" or "criminal" is not "proven" by that population's higher rates of incarceration, but rather that the structural inequalities (social, political, economic, juridical) between races in our country in fact produces both the "fact" of higher incarceration rates and the stereotypical evaluation of the racial essence of black men that is meant to explain that fact. There are always some detractors to this argument, who will still insist that their attaching the value of "violent" or "criminal" to black males is really just a fact-- I hear this a lot in Memphis, where people say (like our waiter) "Living in Memphis makes you racist"-- but I still find that most of my students will eventually come around to recognizing that it's not that simple. After all, there is a wealth of social science data readily available to aid in one's shifting of interpretive paradigms. Unfortunately, the kind of justificatory argument that our waiter employs -- perhaps because it's more mundane and, hence, more insidious-- still goes largely unchecked and uncontested...

      ... which makes me wonder whether or not this is a better "teaching" example to use in the future. Thoughts, anyone?

      Saturday, April 04, 2009

      Jeremiah Wright, in his own words

      I attended Rev. Jeremiah Wright's lecture "Some Through the Fire! Some Through the Flood!" last night at the University of Memphis as part of the conference "The Obama Phenomenon: Race and Political Discourse in the United States Today." I have to admit that I wasn't really sure what to expect. Like most Americans, the only exposure I had to Rev. Wright was the media onslaught during the April 2008 Presidential election primaries, which almost universally villified the Reverend and endlessly looped a series of provocative clips from sermons he delivered some years ago at his (former) home church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. In the past week, our local television and print news tried to resurrect that controversy in advance of Rev. Wright's visit... despite the fact that this weekend (today, in fact) marks the 41st memorial anniversary of the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in this very city.

      I arrived about 45 minutes early to the lecture, which was a good thing since I had not anticipated being required to go through a security check before entering the lecture hall. This part was quite shocking to me. Not only had I never gone through security before attending an academic lecture-- and that includes lectures by former Presidents-- but the security check at Rev. Wright's lecture was more thorough than what you experience at the airport. I walked through a metal detector, then was "wanded" by a security guard, and then still had my bag searched. Once in the lecture hall, you couldn't leave (even to go to the bathroom) without having to stand in line and go through the security check again. As it turns out, Rev. Wright spoke to an almost-capacity crowd, so I suppose the security measures weren't much of a discouragement.

      Perhaps not surprisingly, Rev. Wright's actual lecture included very few direct references to President Obama. It was a reflection on the tightly interwoven histories of black politics and black theology, a phenomenon itself reflected in the motto of Wright's former church home: "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." Much of Wright's address walked his audience through these histories, inlcuding a history of Trinity United both before and during his tenure there, which served as a kind of primer on Black Liberation Theology. Wright's erudition and rhetorical flair were truly astounding. He speaks quickly and precisely, and encourages the call-and-response participation of his audience. His basic thesis-- that race and political discourse are intregal parts of the history of black theology, and that including a social and political message in one's sermon is (in his words) "not a gift, it's a given"-- was situated squarely within the long and storied tradition of black civil rights and black Christianity. It was a truly inspirational and thought-provoking address. I am better off for having heard it. Rev. Wright was and is obviously concerned to keep the historical consciousness of his audience and congregants sharp, and he worries that younger generations are defaulting on their responsibility to keep their histories alive. A short clip from last night's speech:

      During the Q&A afterwards, Rev. Wright (of course) did have to answer questions directed at his present and past relationship with now-President Obama. He stuck to the message of his address, though, and repeatedly pointed out that he was preaching the same message "back when y'all couldn't even pronounce [Barack Obama's] name." In response to the "scandal" last April, Rev. Wright said: ""What I do has nothing to do with Obama. I was preaching like I preach before Obama was born. I was ordained as pastor when Obama was 5. I preached the same way out of the same context ... and then Fox News discovered me." (Incidentally, he also pointed out that the particularly incendiary videos that were run over and over in the news last year actually included Rev. Wright quoting other people and were taken out of context as his own thoughts and words.) He concluded his time last night with a reminder that we should not view Obama's election as some final victory in the struggle to find an intelligent and progressive way to integrate "race" into "political discourse." Obama's victory was only the beginning of that struggle, according to Rev. Wright. He closed with this:

      "It's not just black. Black Christians, white Christians, Hispanic Christians, Asian Christians, all Christians must do something to wake up, in terms of, these problems are not all going to go away just because you got Barack in the White House...

      All right, you cheered and had a great time and partied after his victory; now those people who worked hard to get him elected are going to have to work hard to help him bring about the change."

      Friday, April 03, 2009


      I'm attending the much-anticipated conference at the University of Memphis this weekend, "The Obama Phenomenon: Race and Political Discourse in the United States Today." The keynote address is this evening and is being delivered by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Our local news broadcasts have done all they could in the past week to stir up controversy about Rev. Wright's visit to Memphis, so we'll see how successful they've been. The title of his address, "Some Through the Fire! Some Through the Flood!", is provocative enough...

      My guess is that Rev. Wright will pretty much have to say something akin to Kanye West's "Bush doesn't care about black people" in order to raise the ire of Memphians as much as Calipari's departure to Kentucky has.