Wednesday, March 31, 2010

gala event this summer at Santa Claus!

Late last week, just before a staff furlough day, the university's Foundation Board announced that Sarah Palin would speak at this summer's 50th anniversary celebration, as a fund-raiser. This has provoked the kind of reaction you might expect from faculty -- anger that someone of her ilk was chosen to speak as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of a public university.

The conversation on campus has largely consisted of faculty and some staff saying she's inappropriate because she's demonstrated the intellectual integrity and curiosity of a deranged sociopathic muskox in heat, and other staff and administrative people saying that her detractors are leftists and should shut up because her invitation restores political balance to campus events. I think the balance of truth on these issues is clearly on the side of the muskox, but I also think this debate misses the point.

The other topic of conversation is whether she's going to be a viable fund-raiser, given that the event as described involves her speaking (at an amount the university refuses to disclose, although she commands $100,000 speaking fees), a five-course dinner, and dancing. At $500 a ticket, the university would have to sell 200 tickets to make up her speaking fee -- and never mind the tremendous amount it would cost for the dinner, dancing, rentals, security, etc. The university Foundation Board has responded to this issue by saying that not one red cent of public money would pay for her speaking fee, and that the event is to raise money, not to address the university. I don't think that's the point, either. (Although it's obviously also not an intellectually honest response, since the money in the Foundation Board is meant to be used prudently for the advancement of the public good served by the university. Claiming that the university community and their values aren't important in making this decision suggests that the only business the university believes it's in is business.)

Today it was revealed that Fox News' new Sarah Palin show (which isn't, yet, called "The Sarah Palin Show") had planned to air a segment edited to make it appear Palin had interviewed LL Cool J about his being a real American. LL Cool J discovered this, made a fuss about it, and Fox News pulled his segment, expressing their disappointment that he didn't want to be associated with a program that could inspire Americans. Interesting.

I think the real issue here is how this decision was made, by whom, when, involving what kinds of planning processes, with whose input. A current university employee with GOP political aspirations works on that side of the house, for instance. That person has consistently vilified the faculty and dismissed student concerns about budget priorities, the unilateral change to our academic calendar, and other issues that have plagued the university in the last several years. The decision has been made with absolutely no consideration of the actual community the university serves, the actual community the university is, or the real working and learning lives of the members of the university. This is not my interpretation, it is the Foundation Board's own claim about their choice.

What this illustrates is how universities have evolved as organizations (for it is a widespread tendency, not at all isolated to this campus). One part of the university engages in the day-to-day work of teaching and learning, where students and faculty engage in the challenge of education, in what are almost uniformly uncomfortable, poorly-equipped, poorly-maintained, inadequate and impoverished spaces -- because resources are not spent on improving the teaching and learning environment until absolutely necessary, or funded by a prominent, elite donor. Every month I encounter classrooms without supplies, or without working equipment, and the staff charged with those essential background activities can't keep up. Another part of the university spends large quantities of money on raising money, and does not have any legal requirement to account for its activities. My part of the university claims that the money-raising part of the university should be working in the interest of the university. The money-raising part of the university claims I have no right to ask about their activities, and that their activities aren't relevant to me, aren't addressed to me, and aren't for me.

Nominally, the university is in the business of education - teaching, learning, research, scholarship, creative activity, cultural re-production, the development of citizens. There is another, shadowy university that has no other purpose than fund-raising. And its purposes beyond that are not something they can be called upon to discuss.

Monday, March 22, 2010

face-to-face politics

To the driver who honked his horn, shot me the bird, and proceeded to yell at me about Barack Obama at the corner of Crowell and Monte Vista this evening at 8:58 PM:

Your approach to political discussion is interesting. Obviously, you noticed the Obama/Biden magnet on my trunk, and decided I was an appropriate person to talk to. As an invitation to dialogue, a blaring car horn and a fuck-you gesture significantly inform, as did your initial shouted question, "You actually like what this guy is doing to the country?" I rolled up my window and didn't engage with you because I don't believe the complexity of the issue of health care reform could probably be meaningfully discussed in those circumstances.

Now I'm remembering how I responded to all those "W '04" bumper stickers I saw absolutely everywhere here as the economy tanked and the Iraq fiasco dragged on in 2007 and 2008. I kept driving.

Of course, I did sometimes express to other passengers in my own car that I thought the economic, social, and global policies of the Bush administration were terrible, sometimes illegal, sometimes unethical. I never flipped anybody off and yelled at them because of a "W '04" sticker, and I frankly believe taxing people in the top 3% or so of income in order to extend health care to people who are susceptible of going bankrupt over an illness is a much better idea than invading a country on the basis of a series of false pretexts.

I'm sure you're really genuinely angry that health care reform has passed, and that you genuinely believe expanding health care coverage for more people is somehow illegal, unethical, and terrible. (It follows that you'll refuse to accept any benefits that may accrue to you as a result of passing the bill.)

But we can't talk, not on your terms.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

the significance of notes

Phenomenology is hard.

I'm working today on a revision of a paper on sensation, re-directing phenomenological attention from the usual -- the transcending perceptual act of a subject consciousness -- to the subjection of our senses to their basic elements. It's tough stuff, for a lot of very complicated reasons that would take too long to explain here.

Anyway, I'm re-reading one of the greats, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, and stumbled across this typically intriguing line:

"Just as, when I look closely at snow, I break its apparent 'whiteness' up into a world of reflections and transparencies, so within a musical note a 'micromelody' can be picked out and the interval heard is merely the final patterning of a certain tension felt throughout the body."

(p 211 in the old Colin Smith translation - with, by the way, a footnote citing Heinz Werner. Some people think Merleau-Ponty stole his phrasings and ideas from others, including Werner. I dunno.)

I tell Lauren this, and she doesn't seem to have this experience. I get certain feelings from particular notes, especially on a guitar - certain affective dimensions and resonances. E feels, in a way, earthen, solid, or even stony. A feels warm but changeable and a little slippery. D feels angular and pointy. And I mean the notes, not the chords or keys - though the keys carry forward a lot of that general atmosphere from their home notes (as it were).

So not only do particular individual notes have proto-meanings for me, but changing the key of a song alters its emotional color to some extent as well. Take a well-known old song that's been stuck in my head all day: Roger Miller's "King of the Road." There's a key change for the last verse, up one-half step, which is a weird thing to do in a guitar song anyway, but also, to me, fundamentally alters the way the song tenses and releases.

Naturally, I assumed I was being goofy, until I read that line. Merleau-Ponty's description is right on for how a given note feels to me, though I'm emphasizing the emotional rather than the bodily feeling of it. Mid-20th century cognitive psychology, in particular by Gestalt psychologists, is strongly suggestive of these kinds of links - Merleau-Ponty spends a lot of time describing their research on the connection of color to mood, for instance. We know, too, that brain anatomy is partly responsible for the connection between smell and memory. So why shouldn't notes have that kind of relation as well? Maybe I'm not that goofy after all.

Friday, March 05, 2010

tax burden

I just filed our taxes for 2009. We're getting our usual sizable refund.

As I was filing, I was thinking about the way people complain bitterly about the burden of taxation that US citizens are prone to feeling they're under. People complain that 1/3 or some absurd amount is taken away from them by the greedy government. Like most people, I do object to some of what the government spends money on, though my list is different from most tax revolutionaries' lists. (I like roads and schools, not so much prisons and wars.) But the notion that the government is paupering us to spend like drunken sailors doesn't really fit the fact pattern in my life.

This year, a typical year for me, my effective rate of taxation, after all the deductions and so forth, was a grand total of 11.34%. Now, if you look just at the very much reduced federal "taxable" income (which is about 1/3 less than my adjusted gross income), I pay about 12.97% of that to the feds. But if you take the tax amount from the adjusted gross, my total federal tax is a quite reasonable and doable 8.95%. My rent per month is more than double what I pay in federal income tax.

The state tax is even more interesting. Californians of a certain political stripe love to harp on the incredibly high tax burden of Californians. This is a lie, there's no other word for it. The actual rate of property tax here is below every other state I'm familiar with. And the income tax is even lower. My income tax rate this year, versus my taxable income, was 2.7%. In relation to my adjusted gross income, it was 2.4%.

You know what? I pay about the same amount per month for satellite TV as for state income taxes. (And again, I'd prefer more schools than prisons...)

There are governments that impose serious taxes on people, and do things like fund universal health care, strong educational systems, programs to eliminate the urge to commit crimes, and to rehabilitate people who do. Given how much of our tax dollars go to the military-industrial complex, and how little goes to helping ordinary people's lives, the social services portion of our tax dollars are stretched incredibly thinly. And most of us should shut the hell up about burdensome taxes.