Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Liberal Arts Are More Important Now, Not Less

A famous portrait assumed
to be Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus opens with an illustrative scene. Newly minted in his doctorate, Faustus chooses several books from his shelves, takes a seat in his study, and… picks his academic specialty. He decides on sorcery only after examining, and discarding, his era’s three legitimate academic fields: Law, Medicine, and Divinity. Remember, he does this after already achieving his doctoral degree.

I recalled this scene while reading Nina Handler’s lament, “Facing My Own Extinction,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education online. Handler, coordinator of English at Holy Names University in Oakland, California, looks both forward and backward as she makes peace with her school’s abolition of the English major. Her school, she laments, has become a preprofessional training seminar, where any class without a career payout gets dismissed as unnecessary.

It’s tempting to defend English for transcendental ideals, like that people who read are better able to have empathy, or that it potentially immunizes democracies against tyranny. But these arguments basically persuade the already persuaded. The educational reformers aggressively pushing STEM-focused curricula, subsidized by captains of industry and legislators desperate to not look backward, won’t hear such arguments, because they already disbelieve or dismiss them.

Instead, let’s contemplate the very material rewards that come from a diverse liberal arts curriculum. Two authors I’ve recently reviewed, Christian Madsbjerg and Scott Sonenshein, both write that business success and diverse education go hand in hand. Both authors observe something I’ve observed, though they have better source notes: specialists know how to do one thing well. But they’re incapable of adapting to changing economic, business, or professional conditions.

Christian Madsbjerg
The simple ability to read and understand multiple genres provides one recourse against such inflexibility. By simply stepping outside ourselves, our narrow range of experiences and specialized training, we learn ways of thinking that keep our minds active and developing. If we can wrap our heads around Gilgamesh, Hamlet, Elizabeth Bennett, and Bigger Thomas, we can also handle economic downturns, changes in job-related technology, and evolving moral values.

This isn’t only about English. In History, for instance, certain ideas are objectively correct, and therefore testable on a Scantron sheet. The last successful invasion of England, for instance, was objectively in 1066. But why? What made William the Conqueror able to sack England and take the throne, while Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion, much more thoroughly planned and backed with more advanced technology, got abandoned even after the Luftwaffe?

Don’t mistake this for abstruse woolgathering. America has a president who thinks Andrew Jackson could've posthumously prevented the Civil War, and an administration that thinks “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” These people, with the ability to guide the economy or take America to war, demonstrate a palpable lack of awareness about the weighty economic, social, historical, and military factors that shaped history, and continue shaping the present.

Perceptive readers will notice I haven’t really made a concrete argument for the English major specifically. Despite name-checking literary characters and historical events, I’ve made a more broad-based argument for a diverse liberal arts education. You’re right. Locking youths into an academic program, and resulting career path, at age 18, seems ridiculous to me. Like Faustus, they should choose their specialization only after gaining a diverse general foundation.

A handful of colleges and universities have followed this path. St. John’s College of Annapolis and Santa Fe comes to mind, as do Thomas Aquinas College and Reed College. These schools have softened or abolished undergraduate major departments, focusing on a diverse grounding in humanities and sciences. By contrast, Holy Names and other schools not only lock students into career tracks, they’re narrowing the number of tracks available.

Scott Sonenshein
Business, citizenry, and just plain humanity, require a diverse grounding in the humanities. This includes language arts and social sciences, but also mathematics and physical science. Our society suffers a plague of specialists today. It’s easy to point fingers at lawyers who only know law, or businessmen who only know business. But I’d also include journalists who only attended journalism school, and bureaucrats who have spent decades only in government.

Remember Doctor Faustus. Having chosen his discipline based upon earthly rewards, he gets the knowledge he seeks quickly. But he almost immediately declines into a shadow of himself, conjuring famous shades for kings like a carny barker, and playing horse pranks on foolish yokels. At his death, even God won’t take him back. Because knowledge isn’t supposed garner worldly payouts, it’s supposed to create a full and rounded soul.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

When Did Americans Become Afraid of Due Process?

John Keats
English poet John Keats wrote about a phenomenon he called “negative capability.” Some people are such advanced thinkers, Keats supposed, that they could hold two contradictory ideas in their heads simultaneously, without reaching for a facile resolution. Simple minds need everything to equal out, but according to Keats, complete contradictions don’t faze superior minds. Which makes sense hypothetically, but we’re seeing it makes bad policy in practice.

The recent rash of public excoriations for sexual harassment in high places casts important light on how contemporary society perceives women as subordinate to men’s desires. While the shakeout at the peaks of entertainment, journalism, and politics has garnered the most attention, the popular #MeToo uprising demonstrated it permeates all levels of society. Though powerful people probably harass disproportionately, since as The Atlantic writes, Power Causes Brain Damage, this is a women issue, not a power issue.

As a person who prefers to side with the powerless in social issue debates, I’m glad to see powerful people getting their comeuppance. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have had make-or-break power over aspiring young artists’ careers for so long, they’ve forgotten what it means to be hungry, or what we’ll do to assuage that hunger. The mere fact of a decades-long, well-loved career, like Matt Lauer or Garrison Keillor, shouldn’t shield anyone from criticism.

(I say “men” because the accused have mostly been men. At this writing, singer-songwriter Melanie Martinez has become the highest profile woman thus accused, though less than forty-eight hours in, it’s impossible to say how her story will shake out. And the occasional woman doesn’t counteract the statistical preponderance of men in this meltdown.)

So yes, I’m happy to see powerful abusers brought low. Except…

Matt Lauer
I’m not the only one to notice this meltdown has largely jettisoned due process. People who have dedicated years, sometimes decades, into difficult careers, are seeing them torpedoed by accusations, sometimes only one accusation. Dozens of women came forward criticizing Harvey Weinstein. Between NBC and Variety, we have four corroborated accusations against Matt Lauer. Garrison Keillor has only one accuser—and details have been frustratingly sparse.

Don’t mistake me. Most of these accused carry a palpable whiff of guilt around them. Besides Louis CK’s frank confession, the mumbling non-denials we’ve heard from Spacey and Weinstein indicate they know they did wrong, and cannot honestly deny it. But even American courts will tell you, a confession isn’t binding without corroborating evidence. Even when the accused confesses, due process must happen for a conviction.

The Weinstein Company board fired their namesake after days of deliberation. But if NBC’s official statement is credible, less than thirty-six hours passed between the first corroborated accusation and Matt Lauer’s firing statement being read aloud on-air. (That statement, incidentally, is not credible; Lauer's voracious sexual appetite was known for years.) The pace of firings appears increasingly hasty; Minnesota Public Radio still hasn’t commented, beyond vague generalities, about Garrison Keillor.

It’s difficult to avoid comparisons with McCarthyism. Though popular Hollywood personalities like Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner, Jr., were never convicted of or confessed to Communist sympathies, the studio system successfully spiked their careers for decades. Some never had their reputations restored. The mere fact that Trumbo was, indeed, a Communist, and Lardner showed strong leftist sympathies, doesn’t excuse the way they were railroaded.

The enduring popularity of courtroom dramas like Perry Mason might explain why we’re reluctant to permit harassers due process. These shows create the impression that trials exist to exonerate the falsely accused, since the police consistently arrest the wrong person first. It’s clear these accused aren’t the wrong people, especially as Matt Lauer, like Louis CK, has confessed and sought forgiveness. Even he believes he’s guilty.

Harvey Weinstein
But we have trials to protect the rights of the guilty, too. The slow, deliberative process ensures we don’t respond from panic, rage, or fear. America has a history of using false, or specious, accusations to railroad the accused, often with tragic consequences. That’s why we entrust law enforcement to state agents, not private vigilantes. Especially when accusations appear quickly and vigorously, like right now, we must slow the conviction process.

It’s possible to acknowledge, like Keats, that these accused sure look guilty, but also that they deserve due process. Indeed, arguably, the guilty deserve a full hearing more than the innocent. Both the accused and the accuser deserve to be heard. And that’s not happening right now. This cuts to the heart of our belief in ourselves as a just people.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Growing Up in a Land of Priests and Martyrs

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 85
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, and Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return

Marjane Satrapi was ten years old when the ayatollahs overtook Iran. Formerly educated in a French-language school with classrooms integrated by gender, she found her life uprooted and turned sideways. Teachers who, one year, told students the Shah was chosen by God, the next year told students to rip the Shah’s photos from their textbooks. Who can blame her for developing a drifting, nihilistic view of life?

Satrapi’s memoirs, written in graphic novel form, first appeared in French in four volumes at the height of the 1990s “comix” craze; they were later reprinted in English in two volumes. (A one-volume edition exists.) Like most comix artists, Satrapi embraces an auteur mindset, with a single writer-artist, and minimal editorial influence.This permits an introspective, deeply personal approach to her telling her own story.

Perhaps the most important theme in Satrapi’s memoirs is the contrast between her family’s secular, Westernized upbringing, and the increasingly repressive, theocratic regime. Before the Islamic revolution of 1979, Satrapi’s parents participated in anti-Shah marches, believing the eventual revolution would be primarily Marxist in nature. Imagine their shock when the ayatollahs became the revolution’s driving force, and eventual ideological captains. Like many, their sense of betrayal was palpable.

Not that their Western ideals excludes Islam. As a child, Satrapi believes herself a prophet, in a lineage with Zoroaster, Jesus, and Mohammed. She has intimate conversations with God to understand her confusion. Later, as an adult, she quotes the Koran fluently when religious police attempt to squelch her voice. But the Satrapis’ religion doesn’t yoke them to the past. History, for them is a march toward secular democracy.

This battle between secular and theocratic mostly happens behind closed doors. Satrapi’s parents attend parties where everyone drinks homemade wine, wears neckties, and dances to American rock, emblems of Western excess. On those rare occasions where Iran opens its borders, they smuggle in posters and cassettes of Marjane’s favorite American heavy metal artists. But they also hang blackout curtains and bribe cops, because the state encourages snitching on one’s neighbors.

Marjane Satrapi
Later, as an adult, Satrapi studies art in Iran’s state-run universities. But Iran’s draconian modesty codes mean that, in life drawing class, the models must wear massive, billowing gowns. Satrapi organizes illicit after-dark classes where peers get to draw tasteful human nudity, in the Renaissance style. Her demands evolve consummately: where once she bought bootleg American music, she graduates to bootleg American contraception.

Satrapi’s two-dimensional, black-and-white art, consistent with the comix movement, permits readers to see Iran through her eyes. We can see clashing crowds of protesters and counter-protesters without her having to write long-winded descriptions— and her flat, cartoonish art reveals how screaming ideology strips everyone of individuality. Later, she uses cutaway reveals to expose, say, how women dress beneath the veil, how they express individuality in a state that demands conformity.

It’s possible to read Satrapi’s memoirs as moments in Iranian history; that’s how they’re often marketed. A nation’s struggle to overcome its past requires it to decide what future it wants to embrace. Satrapi’s liberal, educated family embraces the homo economicus model, believing an Islamic version of rational humanism will inevitably overtake the country. They simply don’t anticipate the confidence that religious conservatism promises people who feel dispossessed.

But like the best classic literature, Satrapi’s memoir is fundamentally about its audience. As Marjane first witnesses her parents’ collisions with religious authority, and later embraces such conflicts herself, it’s impossible to avoid noticing that both sides wear ideological blinders. Satrapi uses absolutist thinking to confront absolutist religion. How often, we wonder, do we ignore our own absolutism? What sacred cows do we refuse to sacrifice, and not even notice?

Satrapi sees the world in black-and-white because, essentially, she’s a child. As the story progresses, her art becomes more sophisticated and fully dimensional, because she herself becomes a more sophisticated soul. She loves her people, and when her parents ship her to Europe as a child for safety, she returns as an adult. But eventually, even that collapses under state pressure. To remain human and sane, she has to leave.

In some ways, Satrapi retains her childhood aspirations to prophethood, Like Jesus said, a prophet lacks honor in his homeland. By exposing us to the corrupting influences of absolutism, Satrapi encourages us to understand the complexity of fellow humans. We cannot manage change without loving one another; and we cannot love without knowing one another. But Satrapi’s prophecy rejects dogmatism. Truth is messy, because it’s finally made of human beings.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Al Franken and the Abuse of Insider Power


Show of hands: whose buddy ever drew a dick on your face while you were sleeping?

When I was nineteen, I traveled to South Dakota with a church group. Sharing a motel room with several of rowdy teenagers, I fell asleep around ten PM, my usual time. I awoke fifteen minutes later to raucous laughter: I’d slapped myself in the face when my roommates drew a dick on my cheeks with shaving cream, and I tried to shoo the irritant away. The only adult in the room suggested and encouraged this behavior.

I’ve always known that you’re totally powerless when you sleep. That’s probably why children hate being ordered to bed, and certainly why, when they’re old enough to understand some of the world’s dangers, they frequently refuse to fall asleep without a trusted adult around. But that incident really solidified for me what an act of trust falling asleep in public really is. You have to believe others don’t have malicious intent.

That’s why, the longer the Al Franken controversy continues, the more it bothers me. The ongoing revelation of sexual predation in American politics, journalism, and entertainment continues growing, but it’s usually something pretty straightforward: Roy Moore targeted minors, forced himself physically upon them, and used his public authority to demand their complicity. Even his supporters understand why that’s completely awful, though they justify it.

Franken, by contrast, in his pre-senatorial days, did something more insidious. He didn’t out-and-out sexually assault journalist Leeann Tweeden; judging by the photograph that’s surfaced, he possibly never even touched her. (The alleged forced kiss happened off-camera.) But Tweeden trusted her fellow travelers on the USO plane enough to fall asleep in their presence. And Franken drew a metaphorical dick on her face.

Whether drawing literal vulgar images on somebody’s face, or doing hover-hands over her boobs, as Franken got photographed doing, the point remains the same: to pause a person humiliation for being powerless. Somebody who is awake has remarkable power over somebody who is asleep. The waker could draw vulgarities, take embarrassing photos, take sexual advantage, even stab the sleeper. And the sleeper can’t stop it.

And be honest, Franken wouldn’t have photographed the prank if he didn’t intend to show anybody else. His purpose was to demonstrate his power over another human being, because she made the mistake of considering him trustworthy. Physical pain or psychological distress probably mattered little. This is the ultimate insider humor, the sharing of jokes at a powerless outsider’s expense. Not unlike jocks bullying nerds.
Yeah, this crap never gets old. Unless you need to sleep. So yeah, unless you're human.

All this happened after Franken postulated, in his book The Truth (With Jokes), that he could run for Senate. He’d at least contemplated a life in public service, a role that, depending on the attitude you bring, either involves subjugating yourself to the greater common good, or ruling over others. Since eschewing comedy writing, Franken has used common-good rhetoric in public. But this photo demonstrates a self-superior, ruling-class mentality.

I know, from experience, how such humiliations undermine one’s ability to trust others. Since I was nineteen, I can count on my fingers the number of people I’ve shared sleeping quarters with, who weren’t related to me by blood. It’s very difficult for me to relinquish control that way. I can’t possibly be alone: chronic sleep deprivation, and its related behavior, carb-loading, are among America’s leading causes of obesity, heart disease, Type-II diabetes, and other ailments.

By definition, America’s representative government requires citizens to relinquish control, voluntarily, to others. They’re nominally people we choose, but in today’s party-driven system, where we often choose between elephants and jackasses rather than actual human beings, the selection is often a lesser-of-two-evils choice. By seeking public power, Senator Franken asks Minnesota’s voters to entrust public control into his hands.

That photograph, sadly, demonstrates that we cannot him with such authority. In two different public statements, Franken disclaimed that photograph as a joke gone awry. Even if that’s true, remember what he considers funny: this person’s body needs rest, so she trusted me enough to fall asleep, haw-haw. That isn’t a funny group laugh, it’s pointed mockery at another’s expense. It’s taunting the powerless for lacking power.

That’s why I must cut Senator Franken loose. Sure, he’s not my senator; I’ve never had any influence in Franken’s career. But as a voter, I have input. And Franken cannot effectively represent anybody, constituent or citizen, when he arrogates power that way. He’s demonstrated rot at his philosophical core. When given power over others, he uses it for his own aggrandizement. That’s why Senator Franken has to go.

Monday, November 20, 2017

North America's Other Bloody Border War

Hispaniola, in a map from the Encyclopedia Britannica

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 84
Michele Wucker, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola


Though it’s impossible to say with precision, many historians believe the spot where Christopher Columbus first landed in the Americas is in Haiti. Archeologists have found remains of a rudimentary wooded village with European structures near modern Cap-HatiĆ«n. This means that, though Native Americans had a rich, complex pre-Columbian civilization, modern written history in North America begins on the island of Hispaniola.

So it’s particularly puzzling why Haiti and the only country with which it shares a land border, the Dominican Republic, remain essentially terra incognita for English-speaking Americans. Ivy League-educated journalist Michele Wucker, who specializes in crisis points and why nobody prevents preventable explosions, turns to this issue in her first book. The answers she uncovers aren’t pretty, because they indict us first-worlders in the ongoing cataclysm that is Latin America.

Inspired by the American Revolution, Haitians became the second Western Hemisphere colony to overthrow its European masters. Though that war dragged for thirteen years, and cost far more lives, it produced North America’s second independent nation, and the first dominated by an entirely black, formerly enslaved population. Sadly, Haiti didn’t establish freedom right away; strings of coups, royalist pretenders, and overseas occupations meant Haiti’s first free election didn’t happen until 1989.

Haiti controls approximately one-third of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic controls two-thirds. Though the French controlled Haiti, the former colony of Santo Domingo bowed to Spain, who didn’t treat its colony so cruelly, but also didn’t extract as much wealth. Santo Domingo didn’t rebel against Spain for decades, and when it did, it petitioned the United States for statehood, and was declined. So naturally, Haiti invaded.

Michele Wucker
The Dominican Republic celebrates its Independence Day, not from the Spanish colonial overthrow, but from the ouster of Haiti in 1844. From this moment, we get an ongoing struggle of economics, power, and race that makes American civil rights struggles look placid and well-behaved. Violence between nations, particularly by relatively wealthier Dominicans against chronically impoverished, and black, Haitians, marks the identity of Hispaniola to this day.

Wucker uses cockfighting as a metaphor to understand this battle. White Americans perceive cockfighting as a barbaric activity, one which we prosecute as inhumane and backward. The nations of Hispaniola, however, see cockfighting much like we see horseracing, as a perfect union of human trainer and animal capability. The Dominican capital, also called Santo Domingo, has a glamorous, state of the art cockfighting arena like Americans have football stadiums.

Haiti’s border with the Dominican republic wasn’t codified and made enforceable until the United States occupation of both nations, during and after World War I. This became important later. Haitians sneak into Dominica much like Mexicans sneak into Texas, crossing a border into a country where they’re not wanted in pursuit of work. An ironclad border made sneaking in a more definite activity, which introduced new risks and rewards on both sides.

During Dominica’s Trujillo dictatorship, from 1930 to 1961, the government cracked down on illegal Haitians. This crackdown started as an ordinary law-enforcement issue, but as unelected government leaders whipped up nationalist sentiment, the crackdown escalated to violence, some of it extreme. Dominica’s massacre of Haitian immigrants, which partly overlapped the German Holocaust, competed for one of the Twentieth Century’s bloodiest genocides. Consequences echo down Hispaniola’s history to the present.

And it’s impossible to deny the racial implications of this genocide. Upper-class Dominicans consider themselves “white,” and have nine gradations of racial identity, down to “black,” which is Haitian. (Most Haitians have unmixed African ancestry.) It’s a shock to many “white” Dominicans when they emigrate to the United States seeking work, and discover that, in America, they’re considered Black. The implications for the United States are glaring, and painful.

Throughout, Wucker keeps her emphasis mainly on the Dominican Republic, the larger, wealthier, paler-skinned neighbor in this arrangement. She strenuously avoids commenting upon larger world affairs, except where the global context contributes to Hispaniola’s conditions. (For instance, the way Haitians and Dominicans both travel to America for economic opportunity.) However, it’s tough to avoid noticing parallels with Mexicans in America, Muslims in the EU, and other perilous border crossings.

However, like the best classic literature, Wucker’s journalism isn’t really about its subject. Ultimately, it’s about the audience, challenging us to understand our position in the world arrangement. We’ll maybe never personally visit Hispaniola; we’ll never engage in bloody race-baiting or cockfighting. But we, individually and collectively, are part of the system that makes this possible. Where, Wucker asks, do we stand? And what will we finally do?