Friday, September 30, 2005

The Fridayest of All Possible Fridays

There's a guitar in my office now. I've just been playing a tune I call "A Piece of Pie" while reading my pal Jim "The Most Optimistic Man In America" Williams' non-blog of today.

In the non-blog, Jim (aka "Imj") accuses Al Franken of losing his edge, turning away from his oath of satire and toward rather pedantic and ego-invested demonstrations that Franken=smart and Bush=dumb. I haven't heard the Franken radio schtick, so I can't judge that. But obviously, you can't remain funny very long if your act consists of telling people how dumb George Bush is.

But the main thing I got from reading the non-blog this morning was that Jim (aka "Mij") has found a way to turn his deficit as a speller into a font of gags. Throughout the non-blog, he variously mis-spells the name of Bill O'Reilly, plugugly of Fox News - on purpose, of course, to humorous effect.

Possibly coming soon to this space: Fresh ranting about rude shop clerks. Lauren was trying to order a book at our local Borders yesterday, and received rather snotty attention from the book info chick. I may have been overreacting, since I had been getting an overwhelming hard sell at a guitar shop earlier that day. Perhaps this is the American commercial world's response to declining economic prospects: make consuming actually painful.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Knowing right from wrong

Returning to my office from a class discussing the link between autonomy and understanding, I found a news item about whether Lynndie England, the Army clerk photographed abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, was competent (Jury asks if Lynndie England knows right from wrong). A little sample:

England's lawyers are arguing that because of these traits, she simply complied when abuse ringleader Charles Graner, 37, her boyfriend with whom she has a child, told her to pose with the leash and in other photos that caused worldwide outrage.

Graner, now serving a 10-year sentence for his leading role in the abuses, said on Thursday that he was acting properly to control prisoners by stacking them into a naked pyramid and by putting a leash on one mentally ill Iraqi.

The judge declined initially to ask the question, which stirred up a legal's hornet's nest, because the defense is not arguing that England was criminally insane and thus could not tell right from wrong.

"She had the ability to know right from wrong," military defense attorney Jonathan Crisp told the judge outside of the presence of the jury. But "she did not believe it was wrong because of the trust she placed in Spc. Graner."

England had originally pleaded guilty to seven counts of abuse during a trial in May. But the trial's judge negated the plea deal after hearing evidence suggesting that she thought she was following orders from a superior and thus may not have known she was acting wrongly.

I am especially intrigued at the suggestion, implicit in the ruling of the trial judge in May, that following orders is sufficient reason to doubt that England could distinguish right from wrong. It would seem that not only is "just following orders" a valid and exonerating excuse for misdeeds, but that following orders is an act that cannot be judged by standards of right and wrong. The argument can be restated: If one intends one's action to follow an order, that action is neither right nor wrong. It is simply order-following.

Her defense argument rests on nearly the same principle. She could distinguish right from wrong - and hence could not excuse her actions by claiming to be criminally insane. However, she may not have been able correctly to distinguish right from wrong because she was following orders.

A general rule in the morality of responsibility is that any person with the rational capacity to distinguish right from wrong bears responsibility for right and wrong action. The excuse of "only following orders" has been rejected on the grounds that an order does not cancel out the responsibility to judge independently whether the order is right or wrong. War crimes prosecution following WWII hinged on this, for instance.

Here, the arguments are working in a new direction. It's not her responsibility to act rightly that's in question. Nor is it her rational capacity in general that's in question. Somehow, it seems, the act of following an order cancels out judgment. The reports coming out of this trial suggest a legal/moral move to excuse her, not from her actions, but from making judgments. It's rather mind-boggling.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bob Dylan - Positively 4th Street

Just lyrics today. This song has been coming to mind a lot lately.

Positively 4th Street - Bob Dylan

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that's winning

You say I let you down
You know it's not like that
If you're so hurt
Why then don't you show it

You say you lost your faith
But that's not where it's at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You're in with

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I'd make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don't know to begin with

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, "How are you?" "Good luck"
But you don't mean it

When you know as well as me
You'd rather see me paralyzed
Why don't you just come out once
And scream it

No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I'd rob them

And now I know you're dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don't you understand
It's not my problem

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you

Monday, September 19, 2005

The personal is political

In my Professional Ethics class this morning, I had my students brainstorm proposals for restoring trust in professions. Three groups of students emphasized the need for personal "connections" or "relationships" between professionals and clients. This was interesting, because the question as I raised it was a social, political question - at least, I thought it was.

Their responses reminded me of heated graduate school discussions of the role of intellectuals in public life. I remember Leigh Clasby (as she was at the time) citing Plato's "Seventh Letter" as a convincing argument that political change could only be effected by changing persons' hearts and minds. I've gone back and forth on this. I am pretty sure that I couldn't make an argument in what passes for the public dialogue nowadays that would change anyone's mind. For one thing, that so-called dialogue consists mainly of people shouting at each other (this was part of Leigh's case against public politics, as I recall). Additionally, a public is a half-step away from being a mob, and mobs can't be rationally convinced of anything. But most significantly, only in personal or private dialogue can assent be authentic, since only in those circumstances are peculiar social pressures to conform absent.

I doubt any of my students had all that in mind when they were talking about this this morning, because they didn't seem to have a rationale in mind for connecting the personal relationship to building trust in the profession (I pressed them for reasons to think a personal connection would instill trust, and I think that threw them for a loop. Sometimes playing the Devil's Advocate hits a dead end. Ah well). I'm not sure I get it, either. I'm not sure whether we have to buy the personal political angle to believe that the personal connection of a client to a professional will enhance trust.

Perhaps we should be suspicious of this as a move toward subjectivizing political questions. Perhaps this personal connection notion improperly narrows our attention to individual experiences, even preferences, as though what makes a trustworthy profession (as a whole) is beyond our capacity to understand or to promote. I mean, my having a good working relationship with my lawyer doesn't in any obvious way improve the status of the profession of law. I might spread his good reputation, but that pertains only to him.

It's largely on the basis of those personal experiences that we judge professions and professionals. That strikes me as wrong. When I think of how different, even diametrically opposed, two students' stated experiences of my classes can be, I hate to think that their opinions form the public perception of higher education.

(A footnote to this: The second section of Professional Ethics, in the afternoon, the students focused very differently, on the need for public education. Some interestingly diverse discussions today.)

Friday, September 16, 2005

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Learning from the fine folks at Safeway

This is a bit of a shaggy dog story, but it's bugging me, so here 'tis.

We just went out to buy flowers and some other items, and brought with us an accumulation of plastic grocery bags to drop off at one of those convenient recycling bins stores have out front these days. But we ended up at Safeway, which has apparently taken there grocery bag recycling bin away. We brought the bags in, and at the checkout stand asked if they still recycled. The clerk (one of the Safeway regulars, who recognizes us even though we have gotten out of the habit of going there) said they'll take them, and had me set them on the bagging spot. The bagger then took them, got sort of vague directions where to take them, and ended up bringing them to a cart and setting them in there before finding more explicit directions. As we walked out, we overheard another clerk asking where they came from, and when the bagger said we had, the clerk said, in sarcastic tones, "oh, thanks. This isn't our garbage!"

One reaction: bitch!

But another: Why was this such a problem for these Safeway employees? It seemed that they couldn't deal with our wanting to recycle. It really struck me as though they couldn't be bothered with it, and couldn't imagine why anyone would bring bags to a place that claims to recycle them.

So, I need to find a way to achieve a more charitable outlook on my fellow human beings, my fellow Californians, and especially my fellow Central Valleyites before classes tomorrow. It won't do for me to walk in with this kind of attitude.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

We know the semester has begun

We know the semester has begun because we have already been exhausted by our paces. What I can't figure is who these people think they are to interrupt our relatively calm and sedate existences with these "requirements" and "work" and "meetings."

Dan Bratten and I held a CFA chapter lecturer meeting today, and I would call the results encouraging. The lecturers who came were upset about being overlooked in the new campus president's raise, and had their own concerns to add. We easily filled our two hours with useful discussion. I think we did a decent job of explaining where things were, and how we're dealing with the issues. I hope this is the beginning of more involvement from the rank-and-file.

Towards the end I made the difficult request that those present bring two more lecturers each to the next meeting. This is hard for me, because I'm actually a shy person (appearances to the contrary notwithstanding). But I realize, especially tonight, that I can't help lecturers on my campus unless they're willing to commit themselves to the idea that as a group we can change things. They may be shy, too, but we have to set that aside, because there's something more important than our moment-to-moment comfort.

Lauren is making beef stock for beef-veggie soup tonight. I want to sit in the appropriate chair and play my guitars. But duty calls, I suppose. Who are these people?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

To blog and blog not

I'm contemplating another go at this form, while I wait for my savory gorgonzola-fennel-olive tart to bake. I quit writing this way a couple months ago, partly out of boredom, but mainly tiring of the blog being used behind my back in ridiculous ad hominem assaults.

I never felt good about that decision. Why should I let anybody else spoil my fun, when fun it is? Screw them.

Lauren and I had a good evening and day in Sacramento, at the CFA meeting for lecturers. I had to run a session with my co-chair about the work of the Faculty Governance and Lecturer Recognition Subcommittee, which was a stressful prospect, but went well. Lauren is getting more informed, enthused - though maybe righteously indignant is a better word for it - , and is contemplating getting more involved.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I'm raising a little hell with the chapter concerning a proposal by our new campus president to raise tenure-track faculty salaries. My co-rep Dan Bratten put it well in an email message to the chapter folks, saying that leaving us out effectively puts lecturers in a secondary pay schedule, something CFA has steadfastly opposed because it would undermine the contractual provisions for salary for everybody.

Sic transit hoi polloi, to mix metaphors as well as dead languages.

Notice anything? I'll give you a hint: I haven't said anything about it being September freaking 11th.