Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Lies and the faithful?

A recurring question I have is, why does anyone believe lies they are told through media? The latest bizarre series includes the Bush administration lying about social security and Paul Wolfowitz lying about his intentions as head of the World Bank. What I can't get my mind around now is what I've never been able to understand: why, given the more than ample evidence that these are lies, to people act as if they believe them?

For instance, Wolfowitz is going to be affirmed as head of the World Bank, despite the fact that he is known to insist on lying to the public. Now, the handmaidens of capitalism who function in governments in the US and Europe may have good reasons to bring Wolfowitz on as Official Liar, but it doesn't explain how or why he's allowed to get away with it.

But then there's social security. On its face, the Bush plan is clearly stupid. Subjecting public funds to the volatile stock market makes no sense - it's not "security" in any meaningful sense. Besides which, as very recent experience should amply demonstrate to anyone with an attention span longer than a moth's, the stock market also goes down. A $10,000 investment in NYSE blue-chip stocks in 2000 is now worth very nearly $9,000. Suppose we dump a bunch of social security money into the stock market. Will it go up?

Besides, the social security "crisis" is a fraud cooked up during the Reagan administration by nutjobs who didn't believe in any public good whatsoever. Social security is funded fully, with no changes whatsoever, for at least a decade - and "no changes" includes the usual expropriation of funds out of the system to make up for the deficit figures released by the administration (an accounting lie of some years' standing).

Lauren's theory is a simple, straightforward one: repeat something to people enough times, and eventually they'll parrot it back as though it were true. That makes sense, but I think because it annoys me to think of people being so apathetic, abject, gullible, careless, or stupid, I resist it. There must be something else, I imagine, some way in which people think that this will somehow benefit them. The hypothesis that fits here is that people engage in magical thinking: somehow, if they do what the wealthy elites want, they might get rich too. But again, that supposes people to be remarkably stupid, though it does realistically suggest they're motivated by greed.

I don't know. A couple years ago I struck upon the interpretative strategy of considering that people don't in fact believe any of it, but act in a sort of subjunctive mode, specifically, one that affirms a counterfactual. An example of this kind of thinking is: "If I were to sprout wings and gain the ability to fly..." So, perhaps people approach these official lies thus: "If it were true that there was a crisis in social security..." "If the stock market was necessarily always to rise..." "If Paul Wolfowitz weren't genetically incapable of speaking truthfully..."

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Friday, March 25, 2005

New personnel, and a little self-congratulation

I'll begin with the self-congrats. About two and a half years ago, I got involved in a little research project into the policies and procedures for lecturers to get promoted, which is called range elevation in our collective bargaining agreement. The policies and procedures are not specified in the CBA, so they are set locally by academic senates. But on many campuses (our included), lecturers didn't have representatives in academic senates, hence they had no voice in the estabishment of policies by which there own careers would advance or not.

So I began inquiries into establishing lecturer representation on the academic senate at Stanislaus. At first, I got a mixed reception, but I started to win people over, and by this time last year I had managed to convince the senate to approve a resolution amending the faculty constitution to include a lecturer rep on senate. The general faculty ratified it, but then the university president rejected it, saying that this was because it lacked specific procedures for electing a lecturer rep (of course, there are no specific procedures for electing a department rep, either).

I had resisted writing procedures last year on the advice of some who pointed out that it didn't seem fair to require lectureres to have procedures no one else did, and also because I was concerned that negotiating procedures would mean negotiating limits on elgibility that I didn't want to include.

This fall we started over again, and I managed to persuade people involved with working out procedures to keep eligibility as open as possible. It passed the senate again, then the general faculty ratified it again. Today I found out the president approved the resolution.

The new personnel includes one live and one stuffed animal, who isn't really that new to us. The real animal is a betta fish, a salmon-to-red colored guy who sometimes gets magenta streaks in his tail. I thought Harpo might be a decent name (he doesn't talk, he's red, he gets puffed up to act tough), but it doesn't seem quite appropriate somehow. So for now, he's just "Fish Fish."

The stuffed animal is a beanbag rabbit Lauren kept spotting in an open field on Del's Lane on the walk home from school. Eventually, she started mentioning she wanted to bring it home and wash it up, because it looked rather sad and forlorn there. Finally, one cool and gray afternoon, we grabbed it. It was filthy. It probably had critters living in it. But Lauren bleached it and washed it a few times, and now it remains here with us. We call it Homeless Bunny, or HB for short.

While I'm at it, here's a picture of the other living creature, Lancelot. Lauren spent the better part of an afternoon chasing the beast around, trying to get him to look at the camera for a picture. In almost all cases, the resultant photo has him looking the wrong way.

Although there's a good explanation for this, I prefer to think he's looking around him, trying to figure out where that sound is coming from that seems to be the sound of his name being called. While Lancelot is pretty, very affectionate, and has acquired a ridiculous quantity of nickmanes (Lance, Mr. Lance, Him, Lancey, Bunky, Binky, The Boy, Bunky-Boy, Sir Pukesalot, Stinker, Stinky, Minky, Spelunker, Spunky Winnebago, Nummy Muffin Cocoa Butter, Circus Peanut, Lance Without Pants, Lance With No Pants On, Schpunky, Schtinky), he can't be accused of being over-intellectual.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Q: How can you tell if Paul Wolfowitz is lying?

A: If you can tell he's making articulate speech.

In other news, it's nearly Spring Break. I have a large quantity of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the academic calendar for this semester is crushing students and faculty.

I also have a large quantity of anecdotal evidence to suggest that my perspective on the Terri Schiavo case reflects the majority opinion even in the far-right-leaning Central Valley. When most folks living in a Republican Party stronghold say they went too far, then man, they went too far.

Or perhaps everyone is too exhausted to put up any opposition.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

New poems! New poems!

Yep. New poems. Not so new, really, but new to the page. They be accessible here. Enjoy, okay?

Political distraction - Piety Olympics

Pardon: Goddammit!


Congress has been busy this week doing the serious work of the people: investigating steroid use in pro baseball, and the one I want to consider, trying to invent a way to have jurisdiction over whether a woman in a persistent vegetative state should be allowed to die.

The reason I say "Goddammit!" is really twofold.

First, to be brief, let the woman die. She has brain damage due to lack of oxygen following a heart attack fourteen (14) years ago. Meanwhile, her husband and legal guardian has won court case after court case demonstrating her wish not to be kept alive with extraodrinary means under such circumstances, and her nutjob parents have made endless futile appeals, dragging the poor husband (and their daughter) through a meaningless struggle. They appealed to the Supreme Court twice, and both times the Court declined to hear the case. This is simply because there is no merit in the case: the right to be allowed to die was established long ago through the Karen Ann Quinlan case.

When the husband won a previous legal battle that seemed finally to end the 14 year agony and 7 year courtroom absurdity, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida demanded a special session of the Florida legislature to push through a law that would ban removal of the feeding tube. That law was found unconstitutional by Florida's supreme court.

Now the Republican dominated Senate is trying to intervene, under the pressure of Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee - a doctor, who has not examined the woman in question. (That should say something about Frist's commitment to ethical conduct as a physician, as well as his conduct as a legislator. That this is intended and taken as a sign of his holiness disgusts me to a degree I can't express - not without a whole lot of foul language.)

Let her go. She hasn't voted Republican for over a decade, and she won't start now. Anyway, this is Florida we're talking about; surely, if she's registered Republican, she can vote even if she is dead.

Second, the reason Congress is wasting time and money on these idiotic shenanigans is basically to avoid dealing with the people's business. It gives them a bully pulpit to grandstand their alleged moral superiority, to give a show of being Good Christians to the folks back home who vote on those grounds.

The Holier-Than-Thou stance they take is disgusting. They're trolling for votes by competing in Piety Olympics. There may be perfectly good ethical reasons, or even religious doctrines, that would justify letting the woman die. That's not important here. It's a freakshow.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A lasagne named Steve

This morning I read an article in an old Harper's about the virtue of idleness. The author claimed, among other things, that to his way of thinking "sometimes money costs too much." I think he would grant that he's speaking to a particular economic class -- surely folks on welfare or unemployment aren't likely to agree that they work too much for matierial comforts -- but despite that it's at least thought-provoking.

I found myself agreeing with him that frenetically busy people aren't to be trusted. And while the connection he drew between the Italian early-20th century art and literary movement called the Futurists, their fascist cultural progeny, and George W. Bush seemed tenuous, it did put our current cultural situation into a useful perspective. That's about all one can expect from an article in Harper's, after all.

Along the way, he criticized our contemporary drive toward busy-ness. Education, he said, is of value to us only in relation to its serving a purpose beyond itself. It's inconceivable to many of us to think that education could be an end in itself. In classes like those I mainly teach, general education philosophy classes, where students have an opportunity to step outside of their disciplines and the grind toward degree completion, the only value many students can imagine my classes to have is serving either their educational goals or their careers later. No matter how many times I tell them I hope sincerely they learn nothing in my classes that help them in their careers, they assume I'm making a joke, or, if they realize I mean it, they become puzzled. I've yet to hear from a former student, compelled by a deep impulse to tell me that in fact nothing in my class has turned out to be relevant to his or her career or educational goals, and thanking me for it. They're probably too busy.

Meanwhile, I spent an hour or two trying to work out why critical theory is usually so opaque to students. Lauren hypothesized that critical theory asks people to examine their lives in ways they'd rather not. Granted, I said, but they don't respond as though they're resisting its critique, they respond as though it doesn't mean anything to them.

I think the trick to critical theory is pretending you can look objectively at social life. (I say "pretend," even though I'm convinced you really can to a degree. Reading Habermas has made me circumspect about these kinds of claims, because he is, despite his reputation, hip to the problems of totalizing theory and distortions of perspective.) The reactions to social criticism from any perspective rooted in Marxism tend to be (1) rejection on grounds that it's Marxist, (2) despair because of a belief that one can't fight, (3) desperation to find ways that it doesn't apply to oneself, or fatalism about one's plight, or (4) rejection on grounds that although in theory there are problems in capitalism and Marx identifies these well, it still works. None of these is apt against critical theory, as I understand it, but that's often the stance students take. But what I want to say is, the spirit of critical theory is that you have to get over yourself. If subjective perspective is part of the problem (alienation, false consciousness, etc.), then how else can it be overcome than by a stab at objectivity?


We resolved to bake lasagne tonight before I went off to teach Professional Ethics. It consists of layers of ricotta with some egg to make it smooth and sticky, scoops of bechemel sauce with parmigiano reggiano melted into it, a layer of sauteed spinach and mushrooms, and a layer of sliced tomato and black olives. I poured more bechemel over the top, and named it Steve.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Campus president candidates visiting this week

I'm very involved - deeply involved, pathologically involved - in campus politics. I'm the Senator from the philosophy and modern languages department; I'm the union rep for "temporary" faculty; I'm a member of the university Institutional Review Board for human subjects research, and I think I got volunteered to be vice-chair at the last meeting (which is a good gig for me - I can bring the IRB to a whole new level of vice). This week I've been going to meetings between the campus Labor Council and the finalist candidates for new campus president. The last of the three comes to town today.

The CFA chapter sent me to ask the faculty's questions in labor council, and I did my best. I wasn't terribly impressed by the first candidate, and the second scared the beejeezus out of me. One of the other union reps asked the same question to the first two candidates: whether and under what circumstances he would defy a directive from the CSU Chancellor's office. Neither answered very well. The first evaded the question; the second answered clearly, but contradictorily. We'll see what today brings, but I get a spooky feeling it's not going to matter which of the three we get. It's not going to be pretty next year.

Our current president has been around for 10 years. She's alright, certainly better than some other CSU campus presidents I've heard about. My impression is that she's aloof, often disconnected from what's going on around the campus, and doesn't spend a lot of energy or time on getting to know the rank and file of students or faculty. I've been the senator from philosophy for 5 years now, and I'm pretty sure she couldn't identify me as a faculty member. She's made a lot of decisions I thought were wrong, but I never have had the impression she's trying deliberately to antagonize or interfere with faculty doing their work.

I don't know what it's like in Corporate America, but isn't it pathetic and ridiculous that the gold standard for organizational leadership is someone who doesn't try to prevent you doing your job?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Do you have a right to state your opinions?

I used to take for granted my right, as the American Association of University Professors' Statement on Ethics puts it, to seek and state the truth as I see it. I don't consider that to be a right asserted for faculty alone: I've always thought AAUP made these kinds of statements as part of a public discussion about the rights of citizens in a democracy. Meanwhile, in the name of preventing faculty from challenging the beliefs of students, attempts are being made to attenuate the rights of faculty to seek and state the truth as they see it.

Then there's the issue of what rights citizens in a democracy - or in any case, in the United States - have to seek and state the truth as they see it. This AP news item tells the stories of folks fired by corporations allegedly because of what they wrote in their own blogs. Why would it be permissible for a corporation to fire an employee on this basis? Are we required to like our employers? Are we required not to criticize them?

Let's see.

The Chancellor of the CSU, Charles Reed, in my opinion has as much understanding of what goes on in a college classroom as the average squid. In blinkered pursuit of an utterly inappropriate corporate model, Reed is doing everything he can to standardize, homogenize, bowdlerize (look it up, Chuckles), and in general tear the intellectual life out of education. Some critics of the corporatization of education refer to the kind of ideal Reed's conduct implies he has in mind as the McUniversity. I usually prefer the term Info Mall.

Most students are not aware of why this should make a difference to them. Perhaps for most of them, who treat their own educations as the purchase of degrees, it won't. It matters to me because it strikes at the heart of what education can do in a democratic context. Yes, educated citizens are the backbone of a truly democratic society, but I mean something more than that. Education can serve as the institutional context for public deliberation and discussion of controversial issues and ideas - it can be a place of debate about what citizenship entails and means. In our current media environment, there doesn't appear to be any other forum for such debate. And if contemporary trends continue, and if people like Chuckles the Chancellor have their way, the last best place for this kind of debate will be torn down.

If being a citizen of the United States really means being a consumer and member of the masses, then I'm wrong, we don't need education in the sense I've described, and an Info Mall is all we can afford. I hope being a citizen can still mean more than that.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Scotty's Donuts thesis

Several years ago I was discussing current trends toward conglomeration with someone who is no longer a friend, while driving past a shop called Scotty's Donuts. He declared that to be name of the eventual, inevitable arch-corporation, the one that will buy out every business and buy up every available piece of real estate, take over every bank and take out every competitor. When this ultimate corporation of all corporations is formed, all of us will work for it, all of us will owe it money, all of us will follow its instructions. (Actually it's far more likely to be Wal-Mart. By the way, Wal-Mart employees, because they lack benefits and because they are not well paid, extract $2.5 billion in public assistance payments from states.)

We see evidence of the formation of Scotty's Donuts all over. In the 1980s, AT&T (aka Ma Bell) was declared an illegal monopoly and broken up into so-called Baby Bells with regional local telephone service areas, and competition was opened for long-distance and local telephone service. In addition, the phone companies were now free to get into other kinds of business - selling computer equipment, cable or satellite TV service, home loans, you name it. 20 years later, there are two mega-telecom corporations left: SBC and Verizon. Retracing the long family history of these two companies would reveal them both to be Baby Bells (and SBC has just made an offer to buy AT&T, the original parent company).

This is just one case in point, in one industry. Consolidation is attractive to big biz because it is imagined to yield efficiency, by which they mean to say that they can lay people off after merging. But this is a consumer economy, not a producer economy, and our roles in the system are to make enough money to keep us in DVD players and fridges, to keep the factories in China going, to keep the credit system floating, etc. etc.

The details of all this aren't very important, and I probably have them wrong anyway. The significant thing isn't how or whether the system works. The significant thing is to get to the point that Scotty's Donuts runs the show. There's a ton of money to be made in the process.

I mention it today because I've just read this story about two firms buying the entire National Hockey League to operate it under one ownership. It strikes me as surreal. Imagine the Stanley Cup Finals between the Scotty's Donuts Flyers and the Scotty's Donuts Canucks.

Just cuz it's freaking funny

This recent Tom Tomorrow strip

Friday, March 04, 2005

Manicotti night

After a long week of having a long week, it was decided, tonight would be manicotti night.

I was introduced to it by my brother, who returned to Ohio from stints in the Navy and California with his wife Maria and cooking skills. I next encountered it at Italian Isles, a restaurant near UNC-Charlotte owned by an old probably Greek guy with hair growing out of his ears. Itie Isles' was served as two pasta tubes, stuffed to overflowing with herby ricotta, in an oval stainless steel dish, smothered in their spicy marinara. Along with their home-baked bread and house rosé, it was perfect.

Tonight I made the tomato sauce a little less spicy in deference to Lauren's iffy tum, but I don't think this detracted. As we ate, it occurred to me how much pleasure I take in the fact that I can basically cook most things reasonably well. If I feel like roasted pork tenderloin with sauce Robert, I can cook it. If I want filet mignon with perigeux sauce, I can cook it. If I want oatmeal, I can cook it.

It's sort of like constantly being on the wacky Japanese cooking show Iron Chef. Iron Chef is the source of a fantasy of mine - nothing too outrageous, don't worry - of playing their game, having someone bring me some ingredient and having to make a meal out of it. Being flexible, being able, feels awfully good.

It's strange and sad to me that so few people can or do cook for themselves. I started cooking when I was around 10, and committed to cooking for myself as a lifetime endeavor in my first or second year of grad school, when I heard a talk at the American Philosophical Association meeting offering a neo-Marxist account of household consumption and production. That talk critiqued the fairly typical American home-life pattern of bringing prepared food into the house, making the house a place of consumption and not production. It's alienating us from some of the most significant and simple pleasures, I thought. Making my own tomato sauce was suddenly important to me.

I'm much busier now, but the time I take to cook is if anything even more important. Nothing compares to the joy I get cooking for Lauren. And if my students get annoyed that I'm always bringing up cooking (I sometimes think it's the one thing they're going to retain from my classes), it's still a handy illustration from time to time.

In sum, cooking good. Cook more. Good.