Reflections on “Reflections from a Hashtag”

I was sexually harassed by one of my professors in graduate school. He was the director of the graduate program and was known to host parties at his apartment for the graduate students. I assumed, when he invited me to his apartment for “dinner,” that the “dinner” in question was such an event.

I was wrong. I was the only guest for what had clearly been conceived as a romantic dinner. There was filet mignon wrapped in bacon and an excellent cabernet. I was surprised to find myself the object of such attentions, but I wasn’t frightened, not at first, anyway. The professor in question, let’s call him Professor H. (H. for “harasser”), was only a few years older than I was. We were both young and unattached. Unfortunately, though I was flattered by his interest, I didn’t reciprocate it. I tried to communicate this to him in a way that would minimize his hurt and embarrassment. He was a hard man to put off though. The evening ended, I kid you not, with his literally chasing me around the dining table. He kept moving uncomfortably close to me and I kept moving away, around and around the dining table until, finally, he seemed to get the point.

When he realized, or appeared to realize, anyway, that I was not simply playing hard-to-get, he told me that he appreciated my honesty and that what was most important to him was that we continued to have a positive professional relationship. And we did continue to have a positive professional relationship, at least for the next couple of weeks.

“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I thought to myself gratefully.

But then, things changed. He suddenly became openly hostile toward me. He would publicly disparage everything I said, both in class and outside of it. He once spent an entire class arguing to the other students present that a remark I had made in relation to what is known in philosophy as “personal identity theory” demonstrated beyond all doubt that I was an irredeemable idiot.

Professor H.’s behavior toward me became increasingly hostile as the weeks passed. Finally, the lone tenured woman in the department approached me privately and explained that she knew what was going on. She had been a victim of Professor H. herself. It was very important, she explained to me, that I complain to the chair of the department because Professor H. was disparaging me to other faculty to such an extent that I was in danger of losing my funding.

So I dutifully complained to the chair. I will never forget his first words.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said, “Professor H. has been warned about this.”

By that time, I knew Professor H. had a history. I just didn’t know how extensive it was. It seemed he used the graduate program as his personal dating pool. He’d started doing that, actually, even before he’d become the director of the graduate program. His behavior was so conspicuous that a group of graduate students had actually protested his appointment as director.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” the chair said. “You don’t want to make a formal complaint against him, though,” he continued, “because that would hurt his career.”

I’m not a vindictive person. It seemed to me that Professor H. was not really evil, but simply incredibly emotionally immature. I didn’t want to hurt his career (though in retrospect, I doubt very much that a formal complaint against him would have had that effect). I just wanted him to leave me alone. I wanted to have my work evaluated fairly. The chair said he would talk to Professor H., and I’m sure he did, because my funding was not revoked.

I never again enjoyed the favor, in an academic sense, I mean, of any of my professors. When I’d first arrived in the program, I’d been feted as if I were some kind of celebrity. All the professors welcomed me, commented favorably on my work, invited me to their homes, etc. Not after I had gone to the chair about Professor H., though. No one was openly hostile, the way Professor H. had been, but everyone was decidedly cool. I was grudgingly given passing grades (one of my papers from this period was later published, in the same form in which I had submitted it for a grade, and then reprinted both in English and in Chinese and Russian translations, in an anthology and a textbook). The same well-intentioned female professor again approached me privately, however, and explained to me that I should not solicit letters of recommendation from any of the faculty in my own program, that I would have to rely on what she knew was my growing list of professional contacts outside my program when it came time for me to look for a job.

Thanks to the practice of blind reviewing, which involves concealing the identity of the author of a scholarly paper when it is submitted to referees for judgment concerning whether it should be published, I was able to begin publishing scholarly articles while still a student and to build, gradually, a reputation that made it possible for me to obtain a Fulbright fellowship and then, finally, a tenure-track job.

It was a long, hard slog, though. The job market back then was no better than it is now. Philosophy is a notoriously sexist discipline and a job candidate, man or woman, who cannot present letters of recommendation from any of the faculty of their degree-granting institution is automatically thought of as suspect.

I labored mightily for years to become the best possible scholar, and amassed an impressive collection of publications, and yet I still regard it as something of a miracle that I was able to secure a tenure-track position, to get tenure, and finally, to be promoted to full “Professor.” I knew I would have to work as if my life depended on it, so I did. It seemed pointless to reflect on how unfair it was that I did not enjoy the patronage of a powerful professor that is more often than not the decisive factor in opening the door to a tenure-track position for a newly-minted Ph.D. in philosophy. That was my lot, so I tried to make the best of it.

I spent a great deal of time, however, trying to figure out how things could ever go so terribly wrong as they had for me. Why hadn’t Professor H. been read the riot act immediately after his first transgression? Why hadn’t the proverbial fear of God been placed in him by so that he would at least have been discreet, even if he’d been a victim of satyriasis and unable actually to stop himself?[1] Professor H. wasn’t the only professor in that department who abused his authority to initiate sexual liaisons with female graduate students. Not everyone did it, but many did, and those who didn’t, viewed the antics of the others as a spectator sport.

This all came rushing back to me when I read Jian Ghomeshi’s “Reflections from a Hashtag” in the New York Review of Books (October 11, 2018). Ghomeshi was a prominent Canadian broadcaster who lost his job and was publicly vilified after he was accused of sexual harassment and assault.

“When a well-known fellow broadcaster saw me with a twenty-something date at a film festival event in Toronto,” writes Jian Ghomeshi, who was then thirty-nine, “he left a voice mail saying, ‘Dude, you are the king!’ I basked in his praise,” Ghomeshi continues, “He’d never called me before and never mentioned my work; the real message was the women I was with were the true gauge of success” (p. 29).

That was the way Professor H. was viewed. He was “the king!” He eventually left the university in question and moved to another university where he continued to harass female students until one of them finally sued.

I haven’t mentioned Professor H.’s name because singling him out for blame is now pointless. You could figure out who he was, of course, if you wanted to do a little research. The purpose of my recounting these events, however, is to make clear that harassment and abuse of women is a systemic problem. It goes on for one very simple and straightforward reason: It is allowed to go on. This is partly because of what Ghomeshi correctly identifies as a “systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity” (p. 30) that leads many men not merely to derive pleasure from harassing and abusing women, but to derive pleasure from the spectacle of it.

There is more to the problem than that, though. There is what I call “the first-stone problem.” Ghomeshi writes that many male acquaintances furtively commiserated with him. “What happened to you,” they wrote, “could have been me.” People are naturally reluctant to point fingers at one another for fear of having fingers pointed back at them. Most people are not sexual predators, but there aren’t many people who don’t have something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, something they don’t want paraded before the general public. This makes people naturally reluctant to call out the bad behavior of others.

“Professor H. didn’t mean to harass you,” the chair explained to me. “He didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable or threatened, or to coerce you into a sexual relationship.” (I’m paraphrasing now, of course, because the conversation took place many years ago and only his first words remain indelibly marked on my memory.) “He’s just emotionally immature. He reacts badly when things don’t go the way he wants them to.”

I think that was a pretty accurate depiction of Professor H.’s character. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just had an unfortunate habit of behaving badly, very badly under certain circumstances. Philosophers distinguish, however, between explanation and justification. Professor H.’s emotional immaturity explained his bad behavior, but it didn’t justify it. Bad behavior should never be tolerated just because the person engaging it isn’t normally a bad person. People need to be called on their behavior, and judgment about their character, reserved for a higher power. Unless, of course, they are being considered for a position of such authority that the question of their character, however ultimately undecidable, becomes crucially relevant.

People are so social that they tend to respond more or less appropriately to censure, even private censure, to say nothing of public censure, by someone in a position of authority. If people are called on their inappropriate behavior, unless they are serious sociopaths, they will usually, at least eventually, stop engaging in it.

Aristotle figured this out long ago (if Plato hadn’t actually figured it out before him). If you want people to behave in certain ways, he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics (Books I and II), then the culture needs to reinforce that kind of behavior. And if there are ways you don’t want them to behave, then the culture needs to send a clear message to that effect as well.

We need, without exception, to hold individuals responsible for behaviors that violate norms of what we, as a culture, collectively feel is right. We are deluding ourselves, however, if we think that by targeting individuals in this way we are dealing effectively with what is clearly a systemic problem. It may give the impression we are doing something about the problem, but all the while, the problem waxes and thrives.

 

[1] Discretion is actually very important. One of the problems of the conspicuous abuse of authority to initiate sexual relationships with students is that it makes other students feel vulnerable. Not only does it create anxiety. It can lead students to think that they would be well advised to initiate such relationships themselves simply to make sure that they have a protector.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 1 October 2018 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.

On Speaking Small Truths to Power

Scan 4I inherited my father’s papers after his death. I’ve been going through them, slowly, in an attempt to put them into some kind of order. My father was a journalist for most of his professional life, so his papers consist mainly of old newspaper pieces, news articles, examples from a column he had for a while called Humble Pie, and then masses of editorials from late in his career when he had become an editorial writer.

I think my father always wanted to be an editorial writer. He had to work his way up to that, though. He actually began his journalistic career as a sports writer. I haven’t found any of those articles, but I did come across a mysterious letter from 1962 that referred to one of them. The letter was from the city clerk of the city of Madison, IL. “Your column in the March 19th issue of the Evening Journal,” it reads

left a profound effect upon the officials of the City of Madison, Illinois and all loyal Madison High Basketball fans. Newspapers are generally inclined, like so many of us, to soft pedal certain controversial issues. Such was not, however, the way in which your article was written. Its frankness, while it did not give Madison a victory against Belleville, certainly brought to light the handicap to which our team was subjected.

It is therefore with the utmost sincerity and humility that I, as City Clerk, extend to you on behalf of the City Officials and citizens of the City of Madison, Illinois a thank you for a fine job of honest reporting and impartial journalism.

Very truly yours,

Percy Lux

City Clerk

Madison, Illinois

What, I wondered could have prompted such a letter? What was the “controversial issue”? Articles on the sports page don’t generally have a “profound effect” on readers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the article among my father’s papers. Fortunately, I had the date and the name of the newspaper in which it appeared, so, with the help of Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett, of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, I was able to get a copy.

“The Illinois High School Association has been accused of high-handed and autocratic conduct many times,” my father’s article begins. “But its incredible blunder in assigning Fred Gibson of Centralia as one of the officials in the Granite City Sectional Tournament last week will long rank in the minds of many area basketball fans as the rankest kind of injustice to Madison High School.”

Let me set the scene. Madison High School’s basketball team was scheduled to face off against Belleville High School’s team in the Granite City Sectional, part of the first round of the Illinois State High School Basketball Championships. Centralia, which had long had one of the best high school basketball teams in Illinois, was favored win its sectional game and hence to face off against the winner of the Granite City Sectional. Centralia thus had an obvious interest in the outcome of the latter game. Madison was unbeaten, but Belleville was not. So they would naturally rather face Belleville than Madison, which means they must have hoped the long-shot Belleville would win.

Fred Gibson, the man referred to in my father’s article, was, again, from Centralia. Moreover, Gibson was known to be hard on the type of “aggressive, pressing defense” employed by Madison.

“Coaches of teams involved in tournament play,” my father wrote “each list a number of officials who might be assigned to work that tournament. As nearly as possible the IHSA tries to assign to a particular tournament the two officials who received the highest ranking.” Madison’s coach had understandably rated Gibson “as low as possible” on his list of officials for the Granite City Sectional. According to the article, the assistant to the executive secretary of the IHSA had assured the coach, Madison’s principal, and a Madison High School board member, that Gibson “would not work on any game involving Madison.”

Despite these assurances, however, Gibson was selected to officiate at the Granite City Sectional, the game that would determine who his own home team would face in the next round of the state high school basketball championship.

The game did not go well for Madison. Gibson, true to form, was hard on them, with the result that their all-stater Don Freeman was “out nearly half of the game.” Madison couldn’t overcome this handicap and eventually lost.

The reaction of Centralia’s players, when they received the news of Madison’s defeat, was reportedly euphoric. According to one observer “[t]hose kids cheered like they had won the state championship.” And, indeed, they did go on to beat Belleville in the next round of the tournament.

There is no accusation in the article of foul play on the part of Referee Gibson. The charge is rather that because of Gibson’s obvious conflict of interest, the IHSA had behaved badly in picking him to officiate that game.

“Officials,” my father wrote, “like Caesar’s wife, must avoid the appearance of evil, and Gibson, a Centralia official, is not the proper man to assign to a tournament where Centralia has a consuming interest in the outcome of the tournament.”

High School basketball is to Illinois almost what high school football is to Texas. And nowhere, it appears, is it more important than at Centralia. “For nearly 70 years,” observes Robert Bittner in an article from 2004, “the Centralia Orphans have been the ‘winningest’ high school boys basketball team in the United States.” Predominantly-white Centralia had been on a more than 30-year-long winning streak by 1962 when it feared facing off against the more racially-mixed Madison. Fortunately for Centralia, the IHSA helped to ensure that those fears were not realized.

So what was the controversial issue? Was it simply that the IHSA may have been biased in favor of Centralia and may have allowed that bias to influence its selection of Gibson to officiate at the Granite City Sectional? Or could it have been even more sinister? Could the bias have stemmed from racial prejudice? I doubt there is anyone around anymore who could answer that question.

What is clear is that Madison felt cheated, and its city officials were moved that someone had the courage to make their case in print. They weren’t just moved. They were “profound[ly]” affected.

It is a small thing, a basketball game. It isn’t a small thing, though, to feel one has been cheated. Such feelings can fester for years, souring a person’s view of human nature and society. Enough such injustices, or perceived injustices, small though they may be, can eventually make it impossible for a person to be truly happy. People are profoundly social and cannot realize their full potential for happiness except as individual elements in a web of relationships that form a harmonious and mutually supportive community. A persistent lack of faith and trust in others makes for an unhappy life.

I think my father understood that, and that’s why he kept the letter from Madison’s City Officials. He went on to speak larger truths to larger powers and was often in trouble with his editors, first because of his involvement in the civil rights movement, and later because of his views on the conflict in the Middle East. I think he understood, however, that no injustice is so small that it doesn’t rankle, doesn’t pollute the psyche of its victim.

Who would have thought that an article about a high school basketball game could be so important?

 

(I would like to thank Debbie Ross and Teri Barnett of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, both for helping me to locate my father’s article and for sending me a copy it. An earlier version of this article appeared in the 20 June 2018 issue of Counterpunch.)

Some Reflections on Mother’s Day

AlicePietyAndOneOfHerBabiesMy father said he had no memory of his mother, none that is, except for one very vague, shadowy memory of being held by a woman who was standing at a stove, cooking something. He was the third of what would eventually be five children. His mother was seventeen when he was born.

Alice Eugenia Farrar liked to write poetry. She never finished school, though, because she was forced to marry her teacher when she became pregnant by him. Her husband, Austin LeGrand Piety, protested in a letter to one of his children that he had not seduced her. He was twenty-seven when they married. She was fifteen.

Fifteen is too young, of course, to begin having children. Five children in rapid succession ruined her health. She contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium when my father was still a toddler. Her husband was unable both to earn a living and take care of five children all by himself, so he deposited them in the Working Woman’s Home and Day Nursery in Little Rock. That was sometime in 1934 when my father was three years old.

As far as I can make out, he never saw his mother again. She had brief periods when her health improved, but she never fully recovered. She died of tuberculosis when my father was twelve. He told me several times that I looked like her, but that judgment must have been based on photographs rather than memory. We had a few photographs of her when I was a child. I didn’t know they were photos of her, though. I didn’t know who the subject was. They were just old photos of someone I didn’t know.

My father never talked about his mother when I was a child because he had no memories of her to share. I didn’t even know her name until I was in my thirties. It just never came up. She must have been a very good mother, though (an impressive accomplishment for someone who was herself still a child) because all her children turned out well. And by “well” I don’t mean they became successful professionals, though they did. I mean they were kind and caring people, sympathetic and empathetic with developed social consciences. Research has shown that the first two to three years in a child’s life are crucial to its development, more crucial, perhaps, than any subsequent years. A child who isn’t held enough, during this period, who isn’t nurtured and coddled enough, cooed over and talked to enough, will not develop normally in an emotional sense (see, for example, Hildyard and Wolfe, “Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes”). I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible for children who received insufficient attention in those crucial early years to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults. I don’t know that that is something anyone could ever know. What we do know, however, is that achievement is more difficult for them.

Alice Eugenia Farrar Piety must have been an extraordinary person. It is almost impossible now, however, to learn anything about her. There is no one alive anymore, so far as I know, who knew her when she was alive. Among my father’s papers, there is one heart-rending letter from her to her sister-in-law begging that her children not be put up for adoption.

There are also a couple of her poems. They’re unimpressive, though, compared to those of her more intellectually accomplished husband. But then, she was not allowed to become intellectually accomplished. An early pregnancy and subsequent poverty killed whatever dreams she may have had of that sort.

She doesn’t look poor in the photo at the beginning of this piece. She looks, in fact, very middle class, sitting in the backyard of a nice middle-class house, coddling a baby that her apparent age suggests she is looking after for someone else. She isn’t the child’s baby-sitter, though, she’s its mother. No one even knows anymore who the child in the photo is. The writing on the back reads simply “Alice with one of her babies.” The photo was likely taken early in her marriage, before her husband’s pay was cut in half, before he began to lose one job after another.

Scan 4The photo here, of my father and his two older brothers Philip (far left) and Louis (middle), gives a better idea of Alice’s material circumstances after her marriage and repeated pregnancies. One can just glimpse a portion of their house in the background.

James Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that the inability of the share croppers he studied to control how many children they had was one of the main reasons they were unable to work themselves up out of poverty. How many people, men as well as women, have been forced into marriages simply as a result of the fact that they could not control whether they would have children if they had sex? How much alcoholism, drug addiction, and child abuse can be traced back to unwanted pregnancies? How much violence more generally can be traced to anger at feeling trapped in a life over which one has no control?

My father was a life-long contributor to Planned Parenthood. He was a kind-hearted person with a soft spot for children. He didn’t like the idea of abortion, but he liked even less the idea of children being forced to become mothers, or worse, driven to acts that might end their own lives as well as those of their unborn children. Many people associate Planned Parenthood with abortion. Most Planned Parenthood clinics don’t provide abortion services, though, but only contraceptive services (see their website where they state that only “some” Planned Parenthood clinics provide abortion services), as well as more general healthcare services. (I received treatment for a bladder infection at a Planned Parenthood clinic when I was in graduate school.) Such services, my father thought, were essential to a humane and properly functioning society.

How many women’s lives have vanished, like Alice’s, because they became mothers too young?

My father was adamant about continuing his monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood, even when, late in retirement, he could ill afford them. I never asked him if this was in part because of his mother. It seems to me now, though, that she has to have been there, in the back of his mind, the shadowy figure, balancing his tiny form on her hip as she stood at the stove.

 

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 11 May issue of Counterpunch. I had erroneously indicated that Alice’s age when she married was thirteen. That was what my father had told me. My cousin Timothy, one of Louis’ children corrected me, however. He calculated Alice’s age when she married based on her birthday on her gravestone and the year his father, the oldest child, was born.)

New Vampire Novel!

_9788763832489October 31, 2017 will be the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg. Perhaps it was the date that gave Danish author and public intellectual Peter Tudvad the idea for his latest book, Manteuffel. “Manteuffel” is an actual German surname that literally means “man-devil.” There could not be a more appropriate name for the protagonist of Tudvad’s novel about a fictional, villainous contemporary and friend of Martin Luther, Friedrich von Manteuffel.

If it wasn’t the date of the anniversary of the birth of Protestantism that inspired Tudvad to write Manteuffel, then it was probably what he learned about Luther while doing the research for his earlier book Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of anti-Semitism). Denmark, which still has a state church, The Danish Lutheran Church, tends to downplay Luther’s moral failings such as his anti-Semitism. Virulent anti-Semitism wasn’t Luther’s only moral failing, however. Tudvad goes into detail in Manteuffel concerning Luther’s approval of a horrifically brutal and bloody suppression of a peasant revolt led by his own fellow protestant reformer, the unfortunate Thomas Müntzer, who was tortured and executed because of his role in the revolt.

Tudvad, who has spent a great deal of time in archives while working on his earlier non-fiction works, begins the novel with a description of how the narrator purportedly discovered Manteuffel’s long-lost correspondence while working in a German archive.

Anyone who has ever researched the history of his family, country, or hero is familiar with the exalted stillness and hushed piety of an archive. It’s not like a library where students hold noisy study-group meetings, or a church, where parents allow their children to yell and scream. Despite all our democratic pretensions, archives have escaped the profanation that has transformed other cultural institutions into transit halls with flat video screens, loudspeakers and lines of people waiting for their number to be called. Here there is no librarian who paternalistically doles out the discipline of fines to those who return books late, and no priest who with maternal solicitude explains when you should rise from the pew and then sit down again.

Instead, there is an archivist who, like a sibyl is initiated into the mysteries, both large and small, of the archive. You explain your project to the archivist as well as you can, because you don’t know yourself in which of the archives the answer to your question is found. You try, though, and the archivist succeeds miraculously in finding, behind the armored door that protects the hidden treasure of the archive, precisely the document that satisfies your thirst. You sit there at the little table, where the soft light from the single small lamp falls generously on the document whose secret shall now be revealed, like a monk in his cell. It occasionally happens that your expectations are immediately disappointed, not over the content, but over your own limited abilities as you struggle to read ancient handwriting or decipher a stenographer’s shorthand. You return to the archivist, who is able not only to locate documents, but also to decipher them, and hence in the best sense reminds one more of a priest than a librarian.

When, after some time, you’ve persevered through the trials of the novice and learned to use an archive properly, entering it is like crossing the threshold to another world. You become one with the archive and all its other users who are like so many limbs on a single body. What these others are searching for is a mystery. You know only that their research is part of the eternal tidal movement of the archive itself. Documents begin to pile up on the table until you have disappeared behind a mountain of the past, while outside the present waits to become ripe enough for archiving. You learn to balance like a stylite on the precise geometrical point where the future slices into the past for the future is the family history, dissertation, or biography on which you are working, and the past is everything that is worth writing about.

Hours pass. You lose all sense of what time it is, fail to notice your own hunger, or how long you’ve sat there without eating or drinking. You remain faithful to your work, despite time wasted on unhelpful documents, like a Catholic praying the Rosary. The work brings with it its own rewards, for while the visible world was dissected and analyzed long ago, measured and counted in its depth and breadth so that it is now no longer possible to learn anything new about it, it is otherwise with the hidden world of an archive. Here you place again your requisition form in the basket on the counter, thank the archivist deferentially when he reappears at the counter with your fulfilled wish, don the white cotton gloves required of those who desire to dig down into the virginal past. And then it happens that you find what you had sought –– or find something entirely different from what you’d sought.

Count Manteuffel had a consuming interest in theological questions and hence conducted an extended correspondence with Luther, as well as with other actual historical figures such as the notorious serial killer Elizabeth Báthory. What, you may wonder, does the famous protestant reformer have in common with a serial killer? All becomes clear in this meticulously researched historical novel.

Manteuffel, it turns out, is a vampire, so there is lots of blood and gore in the book. What distinguishes it, however, from the standard vampire thriller is the richness of meticulously researched historical detail, the depth of analysis of philosophical, theological, and social-political issues, and some genuinely beautiful writing, such as in the passage above.

Luther emerges as, to put it euphemistically, somewhat unsympathetic, not simply because of his association with Manteuffel, who happens to be a particularly gruesome and bloodthirsty vampire, but because of what Tudvad reveals he actually said (or wrote) and did.

Manteuffel is, among other things, a serious indictment of the father of the Protestant Reformation and hence promises to do for Protestantism (or at least Lutheranism) what The DaVinci Code did for, or perhaps it would be better to say “to” Catholicism. Tudvad’s writing is so compelling and convincing that one Danish reviewer actually thought that he had found Manteuffel’s papers in an archive in Germany! The book is an erudite page-turner that would be a blockbuster were it dramatized for the BBC.

Unfortunately, Manteuffel has yet to be translated into English. Fortunately, there is no more opportune time for an English-language publisher to seize upon it. Increasing attention is going to be deservedly focused on Luther this fall and some of the revelations to which that attention will give rise, including the social-political ramifications of Luther’s alliance with feudal authority against peasants, will guarantee continued interest in Luther for a long time to come.

Plus, it’s a book about a vampire. What’s not to like?

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Martin Luther and the Man-Devil in the 4 September 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

“Fake News” and the Responsibility of Philosophers

”Fake news” is not actually a new phenomenon. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber document in their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, that it is an invention of the public relations industry that is as old as the industry itself. The First Amendment makes it pretty hard to prevent such efforts to manipulate public opinion. That’s the price it appears we have to pay to live in a free society. It wouldn’t be so serious a problem as it is if people in the field of higher education didn’t fall down on their responsibility to alert alert the public to it.

A recent case in point is an article entitled Study: For-Profits Match Similar Nonprofits in Learning Results,” that ran in the January 11th issue of Inside Higher Education. The third paragraph cites the study as claiming that “[i]n all six comparisons, students at proprietary institutions actually outperformed the students at the nonproprietary comparison institutions.”

Who would have thought that? I mean, really, aren’t the for-profits infamous for having poor learning outcomes? One doesn’t actually even have to look at the original study, however, to realize that something is fishy with it. The first red flag is the fact that the study uses the euphemism “proprietary” institutions rather than the straightforwardly descriptive “for-profits.”

The study is described as measuring “learning outcomes in six areas for 624 students from four for-profit higher education systems, which the study does not name, and then compar[ing] the scores with those of a matched group of students from 20 unnamed public and private institutions that were selected because they were similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance” (emphasis added).

The second red flag is the “matched group of students.” Matched in what sense? That isn’t explained.

The third red flag is that neither the traditional nonprofit institutions nor the for-profit ones are named.

The fourth red flag is that the nonprofit institutions were selected because they were “similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance.” Really? Since for-profits are reputed to have abysmal results in terms of academic performance, they must have searched long and hard to find nonprofits that had similarly abysmal results, if indeed they really did find such institutions, which cannot be verified since they are “unnamed.”

The whole thing reminds me of an old television commercial for Rolaids. Someone dumps a white powder into a beaker of what appears to be water with red food coloring in it, then stirs the powder, which gradually becomes clear again, while a voiceover announces “In this test with Rolaids’ active ingredient, laboratory acid changes color to PROVE Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”

There was no way, however, to prove that the beaker had actually contained acid, or that what had been dumped into it was really Rolaids’ “active ingredient,” or indeed even that the change in color represented Rolaids’ “absorbing” anything let alone acid, not to mention how much acid. I credit that commercial with starting me on the road to becoming a philosophy professor because even as a child I found it outrageous that someone should expect I would take it as proving anything.

One of the chief duties of philosophers, I believe, is to expose errors in reasoning and man were there errors of reasoning in that commercial. I learned very early that commercials were not to be trusted. Most people know that, I think. Most people know to be skeptical when, for example, a commercial claims that some detergent removes stains better than any other detergent ever invented and presents what it purports is proof.

Most people know to be skeptical about claims made in commercials. Unfortunately, most people do not know to be skeptical about claims made in what is presented to them as “news.” That’s why I use Rampton and Stauber’s book when I teach critical reasoning. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a philosopher to alert my students to the pervasiveness of the practice of dressing up propaganda as news.

Back to the education “study.” Even if the study were genuine, the results are pretty much useless because the whole study is circular. That is, the study admittedly sought out “matched” students at “similar” institutions. It thus isn’t surprising that the for-profits come out looking better than one would expect if the selection of students and institutions had been random.

The study was conducted by a group called the Council for Aid to Education, or CAE. The “Executive Summary” (p. 2) of the study makes it very clear where the CAE stand on the for-profits. “The proprietary education sector stands at a crossroads,” it begins.

Proprietary colleges and universities are key providers of postsecondary education in the United States, enrolling over 1.7 million students. However, the sector has seen its enrollment decline since its peak in 2010 due to the growing employment opportunities following the Great Recession, the heavy regulatory burdens imposed during the last six years, and the perception that education at proprietary institutions is not on par with that offered by their non-proprietary peers.

The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) believes this junction presents a critical time to explore the efficacy of proprietary institutions and to document the student learning they support.

If there were doubt in anyone’s mind concerning the study’s objectivity, the opening of the “Executive Summary” should remove it. The CAE set out to show that the for-profits were doing as good a job of educating students as are traditional nonprofit institutions of higher education.

Of course the CAE is within its rights to do this. The problem is not so much the the CAE’s clear bias in favor of the “proprietary education sector,” but Inside Higher Education’s failure to expose that bias. Inside Higher Education purports to be “an independent journalism organization.” This “journalistic independence is critical,” IHE asserts in its “Ownership Statement,” “in ensuring fairness and thoroughness” of its “higher education coverage.”

The thing is, Quad Partners, “a private equity firm that invests in the education space,” purchased a controlling share of IHE in 2014. That is, Inside Higher Education is now an arm of the “proprietary education sector.” So the purported “independence,” “fairness,” and “thoroughness” of its reporting on issues in higher education appears now to be only so much more propaganda in the service of the for-profits.

Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Education protested to me in an email, after he saw an earlier version of this article that appeared in Counterpunch, that he and the people over at IHE had had their own suspicions about that piece and that that was why they had given is only a “barebones Quick Take.”

“What confuses me,” he said,

is why you viewed our minimalist and questioning treatment of the CAE research as evidence that we are in the tank for the for-profits because our lead investor has also invested in for-profit higher education––rather than as proof that our ownership situation has changed us not at all.

I fear Lederman may be right in protesting that IHE had not been willingly shilling for the for-profits. It apparently didn’t even occur to him that the suspicions he and others had had about the study should have led them to do a full-scale investigation of it (an investigation that would have involved actually reading at least the “Executive Summary” of the study to which they included a link in their article) and to publish an exposé on the study as a piece of propaganda for the for-profits rather than a “barebones” article that presented it as “news.”

What concerns me is not so much that the for-profits are trying to manipulate public opinion to make it more favorable toward them. What concerns me is that the editors of a leading publication that reports on issues in higher education don’t have the critical acumen to identify what ought to have been readily identifiable as a piece of “fake news,” or the journalistic experience and expertise to know what to do with it once they have identified it as such.

That’s disturbing.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

 

The Land of Smiling Children

scan

“Komm ins Land der lachelnden Kinder,” “Come to the land of smiling children,” intones a voiceover to the tune of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” at the beginning of a popular German YouTube video. The video is a montage of some of the most grotesque elements of American culture: a smiling JonBenét Ramsey in full beauty-queen regalia, children using firearms, police beatings and shootings of unarmed citizens, celebrations of conspicuous consumption and contempt for the environment juxtaposed with videos of street people combing trash cans, an execution chamber, a row of Klansmen, and, finally, a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

“Alles Spitze in Amerika!” “Everything’s great in America,” the refrain announces over and over again as one horrific scene after another assaults the viewer. The video, “Ein Lied für die USA,” or “A Song for the USA” begins and ends with someone accidentally shooting himself. One could argue that it’s heavy handed, but it makes a devastating point: We are destroying ourselves.

We have arguably always lacked the veneer of civility that typically characterizes older cultures, and yet it seems that public discourse has recently taken a particularly savage turn. The left is as responsible for that as the right. Trump didn’t become “evil” until he ran for office. Before that, he was merely a buffoon. Now, suddenly, he’s “Hitler” and his supporters are uniformly denounced as “racists” and “fascists.” Don’t get me wrong, Trump was not my candidate. He’s not who I want to see in the White House, but he’s not Hitler. Obama said himself that Trump’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Democrats dismissed well-reasoned arguments against Clinton’s candidacy, or her positions on various issues, not with similarly well-reasoned counter arguments, but with charges of “mansplaining.” Nothing shuts down dialogue so quickly as hurling invectives at your opponents. British comedian Tom Walker makes this point brilliantly in the viral video of his alter ego U.K. newsman Jonathan Pie’s commentary on the election.

A recent case in point is the infamous Christmas-Eve tweet of academic George Ciccariello-Maher: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” The tweet was characterized by Mike King in “George Ciccariello-Maher vs. the White Power Alt-Right” as “inflammatory.” The point, Ciccariello-Maher explained in The Huffington Post, was to “mock” people who believe in the concept of “white genocide.”

King writes that “the anti-racist message and satirical intent [of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet] is clear to anyone familiar with the term [white genocide] and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the U.S.” Fair enough, but was it reasonable of Ciccariello-Maher to assume that all of his 10,000 plus Twitter followers would understand the term in this way? Was it reasonable of him to assume that everyone to whom his tweet would be retweeted would have a similarly sophisticated understanding of the term and hence grasp the satire?

King calls Ciccariello-Maher a “vibrant anti-racist voice.” Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet was apparently not his only inflammatory one, at least not according to the conservative websites that have expressed outrage over it. Unfortunately, I can’t check that because only confirmed followers now have access to Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed.

Inflammatory rhetoric goes over well with many college students. It gets them excited about “scholarship” because it makes it seem “sexy” in this culture where sex and violence are inexorably intertwined. It goes over well with young people who are already sympathetic to the cause it purportedly serves. Unfortunately, it tends not to go over well with anyone else.

Demonizing people who disagree with you isn’t very effective at persuading them that you’re correct. It can, in fact, even push people who are on the fence over to the other side because it is ugly. It evinces the same lack of respect for the basic humanity of one’s opponent no matter which side in an argument does it. It’s a kind of bullying and engaging in it further erodes what semblance of civility we have left in this country.

King refers to the “outrage” of “white victim politics” as “contrived.” No doubt some of it is. But, sadly, there are legions of white people in this country for whom the outrage, even if misguided, is genuine. The situation of working-class white people is not so different from the situation of working-class men described so well in Susan Faludi’s books Backlash and Stiffed. Nearly everyone is losing ground economically. There is no rising tide now to float all boats. Nearly everyone is sinking, but instead of banding together to effect positive economic change, we have begun drowning one another in savage efforts to stay afloat.

The line at the beginning of “Ein Lied für die USA,” “Come to the land of smiling children” is an allusion to “Das Land der Lächelns,” or “The Land of Smiles,” a romantic operetta by Franz Lehár. The title is an ironical reference to the purported Chinese custom of smiling even when one is unhappy. One doesn’t need to know that, however, in order to recognize the irony in the video.

We are a nation of desperately unhappy people. Though racism still exists, most working white people have little direct experience of it. They look around even as they are sinking and see affirmative action for everyone but themselves. Compounding their sense of injustice is what sometimes appears to be contempt on the part of the liberal elite for their plight.

Enter George Ciccariello-Maher. I don’t mean to suggest that Ciccariello-Maher is really indifferent to the plight of white working class people. It is not so hard to see, however, why many might think he was. Ciccariello-Maher is righteously angry about racism, so he lashes out at those he views as racist. But is that going to reduce racism? He purports to be a socialist, but his is not the rhetoric of Tolstoy or Gandhi. Rather than serving to make clear to all working people that their interests are in fact allied, messages such as the one delivered by Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet drive deep divisions among them––which ultimately serves the interests of the wealthy few who control this country.

I agree with Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters who argue that that a commitment to free speech is more important now than ever. There is another commitment, however, that is also important: the commitment to decency and civility. Without that, free speech will simply fan flames of anger and outrage that will end up consuming us all.

The problem is, you can’t legislate a commitment to decency and civility. Drexel is right to stand by Ciccariello-Maher’s right to express his views in whatever way he sees fit. There’s no formula for determining what’s offensive and what isn’t. That’s why we need vigorous defenses of free speech. I’m offended, for example, when Richard Dawkins makes public pronouncements that effectively associate religious belief with feeblemindedness. The prospect of censorship based on taste is even more frightening to me, however, than is the specter of inflammatory rhetoric and the damage it can do.

I’m not comfortable giving anyone the right to curtail speech based on his or her subjective conception of what is offensive. Neither am I comfortable, however, with granting the unrestricted right of free speech to people who are not only indifferent to whether their speech gives offense, but whose rhetoric is deliberately designed to inflame. Rights, philosophers tell us, bring obligations. The right to free speech brings with it the obligation not to abuse it. The right to free speech is believed to rest on the foundation of the inherent rationality and dignity of all human beings. It is necessary to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. But when it is abused, it creates a din that drowns out many of the voices it was designed to protect.

Plato thought the freedoms associated with democracy would ultimately destroy it. I explain to my students, however, that that is because there are no other values in Plato’s democracy than freedom. Democracy, I argue, combined with a commitment to humanistic values, with respect for the dignity of individuals, of all individuals, can work.

No progress will be made by spewing venom at one another in the name of free speech. On the contrary. When we use speech as a weapon rather rather than as an appeal to reason it is all too easy to injure ourselves with it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch. The illustration is by Marie Schubert. It comes from a book by S. Weir Newmayer and Edwin C. Broome entitled Health Habits (American Book Company, 1928) from The Health and Happiness Series .  I am indebted to Gui Rochat for the reference to Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles,” and to Catherine Goetze for correcting the errors in the German.)

Something to be Thankful For

I didn’t know that Trump had won the election until I woke up on the following Wednesday morning. I had neither the heart nor the stomach to watch the election returns Tuesday night. This was the worst election in my memory, in my lifetime, possibly in this country’s history. I knew watching the returns would be depressing. I wanted to watch something uplifting, something edifying, so I watched the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson. 42 may not achieve the same level of cinematic greatness as To Kill a Mockingbird, or In the Heat of the Night, but the story of Robinson’s integration of baseball is a great story and it makes the film deeply moving despite its shortcomings. Watching it reaffirmed my faith in the average American, the average human being.

There have been a lot of apocalyptic predictions about what would happen if Donald Trump were elected president. There’s no question that he will be able to do a lot of damage, but he will not, as so many people seem to think, be able to turn back the clock to the bad old days of a virulently racist, sexist, and generally intolerant past. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t racist, sexist, or intolerant anymore. We are. We are not so bad as we used to be, though, not by a long shot, and nobody is going to be able to turn the clock back on that, not even Donald Trump.

An election-night guest on Democracy Now said that if Trump were elected, all bets would be off. “These young black people,” she said, “who have been lying down in the streets as part of the many Black Lives Matter protests have been able to count on motorists not running them over. Well, if Trump gets elected, she asserted, they won’t be able to count on that anymore.” I’m paraphrasing her, of course, because my memory is not so good that I am able to repeat verbatim what she said. That’s pretty close, though.

The thing is, I believe she’s wrong. Motorists are not going to start running over protestors. It’s not like they’ve had to be forcibly restrained from doing this by liberal law-enforcement officers. As I explain to the students in my applied ethics classes, fear of arrest is not the reason most people obey the law. You couldn’t have enough law-enforcement officials on the street if fear of arrest were the only thing ensuring order in society. Respect for law, for social order, is the reason most people obey the law. People understand its importance for ensuring social order. They want to live in an orderly society and most people, in my experience, feel their fellow citizens, their fellow human beings, similarly deserve to live in an orderly society.

Motorists are not going to start running over protestors because human beings generally abhor homicide. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, wouldn’t run over their worst enemy, even if they felt confident that they could do this without any negative repercussions to themselves. People are not the monsters that those who try to shape public opinion would often have us believe.

One of the things I love about teaching is that it keeps me in touch with basic truths about human nature. The overwhelming majority of my students are conspicuously good, decent people. Even the ones who occasionally cheat, clearly do so out of fear. Inter-cultural, and even inter-racial couples are a common sight on campus. No one seems disturbed by their presence. I’ll never forget an experience I had a few years ago when somehow the conversation in one of my classes had turned to the subject of romantic relationships and one of my male students, when discussing his current relationship casually referred to his love interest as “he.” I hadn’t realized that this student was gay. Everyone else seemed to know this, however. At least they exhibited no surprise whatever at what was to me the revelation of this student’s sexual orientation. There was not the slightest pause in the conversation, no raised eyebrow, no suppressed giggles –– nothing!

Racism, sexism, and homophobia among college students consistently make headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. I don’t mean to suggest that these things don’t exist among college students. They make headlines, however, because it is increasingly clear that they are the exception among college students rather than the rule.

Something analogous explains the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Police have always been killing young black men. Black Lives Matter is not a response to a recent spate of such killings. It is an expression of a growing intolerance of this perennial problem, especially in the face of video proof.

Televisions shows such as The Cosby Show and Will and Grace, not to mention decades of civil-rights activism, have humanized groups that were earlier demonized. Trump’s presidency wasn’t the only significant political change to come out of the recent election, more states legalized marijuana. The growth of the internet and the increasing ease of global communication more generally means many, if not most, Americans now know that a living minimum wage, universal healthcare, and free higher education are not impossible dreams but tangible realities in countries far less wealthy than the U.S. If some Americans think Obamacare went too far, polls suggest many, if not most, Americans think it didn’t go far enough.

We’re not perfect yet and likely never will be. Americans are getting progressively better, though, and we are going to continue to get better even if Trump’s election means the next few years will be ones of fits and starts.

This country has changed. It has changed irrevocably since the days of Bull Connor and death threats to those who would integrate baseball. We are a different country now than we were in our more ignorant and intolerant past. That’s something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Waking Up to Change” in the 10 November 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)