My morning commute these days takes me through a shopping center; the train lets me off underneath it. It's been Christmas in the mall since the first day of November. That's no surprise. Christmas has become the crutch our retail economy leans on. Many stores run in the red for eleven months and see Christmas put them in the black for the year. A bad year calls for a big Christmas, and a string of bad years calls for bigger and bigger Christmases. If shoppers don't keep finding more and more money for Christmas presents, the whole economy shrinks. It doesn't sound sustainable, but I don't blame local merchants for wanting to start Christmas early and hoping to extend that sweet jolt of retail steroid. We are out of other ideas.
A few weeks ago, an NFL player named Jonathan Martin, offensive left tackle for the Miami Dolphins, walked off the team and sought counseling for emotional health issues. This has led to the suspension of his teammate, the incongruously-named Richie Incognito, on charges of outlandish workplace harassment; an official NFL investigation into the team, now reaching to behavior by the coaches; and the kind of publicity you just can't buy. Plenty of NFL players, sports pundits, and armchair tough guys have denounced the 6'5", 312-pound Martin as soft and weak and proclaimed that outsiders just can't understand what goes on in an NFL locker room. [Read more]
I've been away at an academic conference for nearly a week, leaving blog posts unfinished, e-mail unanswered, and campus office untenanted. I had a wonderful time with a bunch of scholars and actors at the American Shakespeare Center's reproduction of Shakespeare's Blackfriars playhouse. (If you'd like to see some excellent theater, a trip to see the ASC's company in Staunton, Virginia, is a great idea.) But I also bumped up against a small problem that's began to follow me wherever I go professionally: the problem of my (real) name.
“A plague on both houses!” I've seen that line from Romeo and Juliet quoted repeatedly for the last two weeks, as pundits and bloggers devoted to “balance” argue that the Democrats and Republicans share the blame for the current budget shutdown and the looming threat of default. The line itself is a cliche, but quoting Shakespeare makes you sound learned, and that is too often the major aim of both-sides-do-it journalism: making the journalist seem wise and above the inconvenient facts of the fray. Shakespeare was a poet, not a pundit, more interested in dramatic complexity than sound bites but if we’re going to mine his plays for lessons, we should remember what we’re quoting. [Read more]
Flavia has a post about her writing process, with many thought-provoking comments from her readers, and Dame Eleanor Hull posts a great deal about the academic writing life. I find that I can't give a clear account of my writing process right now, if by "writing process" we mean my composition process. But I have learned, through difficult trial and error, that I need three things to keep my writing going well:
1. Something accepted but not yet in print.
2. Something submitted but not yet accepted.
Twenty years ago, while I was talking politics with my friend Mike, he said that Reagan's great achievement was what he called "the Nietzschification of the Right." I didn't grasp what he meant at first, since I typically encountered Nietzsche quoted by leftist literary critics. Mike's point was that Reagan had transformed American conservatism from a stodgy, rationalist enterprise into an emotional, charismatic movement like the New Left of the 1960s. Main Street conservatism gave way to Movement Conservatism, founded upon passionate emotion and conviction. I've thought of that conversation a lot over the last two decades, through the rise and fall of Newt Gingrich, the second Bush Presidency, and the flood tide of the Tea Party. [Read more]
I'm as pleased as anyone that Larry Summers has withdrawn from consideration as the next Chair of the Fed. I thought he would do a terrible job. But Summers himself was never the real problem. His candidacy was only a symptom. The real problem is that we have a President who wanted to nominate Summers in the first place. Obama does not understand what's wrong with the American economy, and five years into his term, he persists in some basic misunderstandings.
Education reform in America is always an attempt to get something for free. It has been that way for at least twenty-five years. No matter what the scheme of the hour is (charter schools, Teach for America, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top) or whether you're talking about K-12 or college, every reformer makes one of two promises. Either they promise to make education better without spending any more money, or they promise to make education better while spending less money. Education reformers basically say, "Four dollars is too much to pay for a hamburger. Bring me a three dollar steak."
I was back in my old neighborhood a couple of weekends ago, walking toward the farmer's market, when I passed a little knot of people who were looking up and gesturing toward the dignified brick apartment buildings that line one of the boulevards. They were all clearly from somewhere else, and one of them was explaining the handsome buildings, which apparently struck them as odd, to the others:
"I think they're pretty dumpy on the inside, but they look good from out here," he said.
Everyone's talking about Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post. But it's also been a dramatic week for two newspapers close to my heart in different ways: The Boston Globe and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Two days ago, The Globe, like the WaPo, was sold to an individual billionaire with a high profile. Today the Plain Dealer, which has not been sold, stopped delivering the newspaper. It will still be printed every morning, but it will only be delivered three days a week. Nearly one third of its reporters were laid off on Wednesday. It's not the first round of buyouts or layoffs at the PD, and it's not the second either. [Read more]
Fox News's hostile interview with Reza Aslan has lit up the internet. (See Michael Maiello and Historiann for two of the smarter takes.) Obviously, interviewer Lauren Green's insistence that something must be very wrong for a Muslim to write a book about Jesus, and that such a book must be wrong, is a problem. But Green (and her producers) are simply peddling a toxic version of an idea that lots of us entertain in various forms. [Read more]
So, apparently Larry Summers is now the leading candidate for Chairman of the Federal Reserve. This is a bad idea, for lots of reasons, not least of which is that Summers' sudden ascendancy is a sign that The Usual Suspects are talking him up, and it's The Usual Suspects who not only got our economy into this mess but made our government's top priority not getting out of the mess "too quickly." Summers himself was one of Obama's leading economic advisers during the first term, and neither his advice nor Obama's first-term policy were effective in turning the Great Recession around. The result of Summers's advice was always too little, too late. It was Summers who insisted on asking Congress for a smaller stimulus package than the economy needed, on the theory that the smaller package would get passed. Of course, Congress took that smaller package and cut it down even more. [Read more]
I've been buying a lot of books this summer. That's not "a lot of books" by the usual standards, because I've always been a better-than-average bookstore customer. Lately I've been buying a lot of books even for me. But I haven't been buying them to read. I've been buying books to write.
One of the most startling things about the terrible events in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood, the great-granddaddy of all Islamist movements, has blown its shot at governing the country, a chance the Brotherhood spent decades waiting and planning for. That does not excuse the military coup, and the Brotherhood isn't the only party to blame. But there's no point in pretending that Morsi and the Brotherhood have been defenders of constitutional democracy either, and their refusal to share power or respect civil process helped create the mess their country is in tonight. Those protesters in Tahrir Square are real, and their anger is real, and it's the Brotherhood that made them angry. [Read more]
So it turns out that New York University has bought its president a summer home on Fire Island (h/t Tenured Radical). Or rather, a special foundation associated with New York University has loaned the university president, John Sexton, around a million dollars to buy a beach house, and there seems a real possibility that much of that million-dollar mortgage will eventually be forgiven, so that Sexton won't have to pay it back. NYU has also made similar vacation-home loans to other top administrators and VIP faculty, at least some of them on the same forgive-over-time plan. This represents a brave new financial frontier in higher education. No other university buys its executives second houses. This seems like an obvious story of an out-of-control administration. But more importantly, it's the story of a board of trustees failing to do its job. [Read more]
I'm delighted about the Supreme Court's decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor. It's a triumph for human dignity, and also a triumph for federalism. The federal government should not be in the business of restricting the rights that individual states extend to citizens. If thirteen states see fit to recognize same-sex marriage, Washington should not interfere.
Public debates over affirmative action in college admissions, such as all the hubbub about Fisher v. Texas (in which a not-so-qualified white student named Abigail Fisher sued before the Supreme Court to end affirmative action at the University of Texas), usually run into basic confusion about how college admission works in the first place. Opponents of affirmative action often call, loudly, for American colleges to "go back" to an admissions system that has never existed.
If you ask anyone what colleges and universities are for, they'll give you more or less the same answer: to educate people. That's a good answer. It's the one I give myself. But it's only half the truth. Colleges and universities actually fulfill two separate roles. We all know about both of them. We only talk about one of them. And because of that, we misunderstand almost everything about how higher education works and how it might be improved.
I love academic bloggers. Academic bloggers worry me sick. And the bloggers who keep me up at night are the ones who have adjunct or alt-ac jobs but are trying to move to the tenure track. Some of those people are using blogs and social media to advance their careers in ingenious ways which I would never have foreseen. But others seem, at least from my vantage, to expect or hope that their online work will help their career in specific ways that it will not and cannot. Being online can help an academic career. But it's important to be clear about what it can help and what it can't.
Five weeks after a terrorist attack on Boston, President Obama has declared that the War on Terror, "like all wars, must end." If I had told you a year ago that he would make such a speech a month and a half after a high-profile terrorist attack on a major American city, neither you nor I would have believed me. But the lessons of Boston drive home the wisdom of the President's decision. It showed us that a terrorist attack is meant to be lived through and that Americans are ready to live through one. And it showed us an excellent civilian response to a terrorist attack paired with a decidedly mixed paramilitary response.