Thursday, July 31, 2014

Musings on College and University Quality...

Most college and university ranking systems aren't worth the paper they are printed on or the space they take up on the almost spaceless internet. First of all, if one wants to compare and contrast colleges and universities one has to compare not only apples and oranges but apples with apples. Apples and oranges first. Harvard, Brown, Yale, Berkeley, Indiana, Northwestern, Texas at Austin..., are research universities. Amherst, Vasser, and Bard are research colleges. The College of Saint Rose, Knox College, and Dixie College are not research universities or colleges. They are more teaching colleges. They are in other words different. Both forms, research colleges and teaching oriented colleges, are worthy if different "professions".

Second, one can compare and contrast colleges and universities within categories. Indiana, for instance, is a major research university. It is a member of the elite Association of American Universities and has been so since 1909. Ball State is not a major research university--it is a second level research university at best--and it is not a member of the Association of American universities. Ball State, in other words, is a research university but it is not of the same ilk as most of those universities in the Association of American universities. It must also be remembered that Ball State was once a normal college, a college to train teachers. This legacy lives on. The same holds, by the way, for other old normal colleges turned universities. SUNY Albany, for instance, is a second level research university at best and it is not a member of the Association of American Universities,

I have long found that the best way to get a handle of the quality of a college or university is to look at their faculty, where their faculty took their degrees (in major research universities most faculty have degrees from major research universities), to look at the size and quality of their libraries, and look, in particular, at the quality and size of their bookstores beyond the textbooks they carry (and I don't mean school shirts here). By and large, the more supplementary texts a bookstore has the better the university. Now I realise bookstores are in decline for a number of reasons amongst them the fact that students don't read as much as they did when I was a student or indeed don't seem to read much beyond text messages on smart phones. Still it is no accident or coincidence that the Coop Bookstore at the University of Chicago is one of the finest bookstores in the world and that the University of Chicago is one of the finest research universities in the world. Ball State's "bookstore", on the other hand, seems to have more "Ball U" t-shirts than supplementary reading material. Feel free to choose which bookstore you prefer. I suspect most students these days will chose the latter. And that is why American education and American liberal arts education in particular are dying a slow painful death. American higher education, it has been bittersweet knowing you.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When the Prophets of What Constitutes Genocide Have Spoken All We Can Do Is Say Amen...

Thus saith Prophet Michael Ratner, ..."I'm a lawyer. I've looked at genocide. Genocide has two elements. One element is the mental element, the intent to destroy the whole or in part a national or ethnical or racial or religious group. Palestinians are clearly a national and ethnic group. And you don't need to kill them all. You just need to have the mental intent to kill part of them. For example, it would be enough to have the mental intent to kill the leadership of the Palestinians or to kill people in one region. No doubt about that. [Second g]enocide requires that there be acts of genocide--killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, or inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction, in whole or part, of the people you're trying to destroy. There's no doubt again here this is "incremental genocide", as Ilan Pappé says. It's been going on for a long time, the killings, the incredibly awful conditions of life, the expulsions that have gone on for from Lydda in 1947 and '48, when 700 or more villages in Palestine were destroyed [an accurate statement up to a point that raises the question of where Ratner and Pappe are/were when the aborigines of North America, the Caribbean, South America, Australia, and New Zealand need/needed them], and in the expulsions that continued from that time until today. It's correct and important to label it for what it is."

What is good for the goose is good for the gander? I guess this means that the Arab promise to push Israel into the sea and the mental anguish such intent and the intent to destroy (i.e, kill) the whole or part of the racial, ethnic, or religious group (Jews in this instance) constitutes genocide. I guess this also means that the Yom Kippur War, a secret attack on Israel in 1973 during one of the holiest of Jewish days, a secret attack with the intent to eliminate (i.e., kill, destroy) Israel is genocide too. Holy crap, Batman!

The problem here, of course, is that Ratner and Ratner's guru, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, have a far too broad and elastic conception of genocide. Let's take the second part of Ratner's definition of genocide first. Generally speaking scholars of genocides have maintained that population declines are central to genocides. 60% of Europe's Jews were genocided by the Nazis and their fellow European travellers via mobile killing machines and death camps primarilly in Poland. 25% of "westernised" Cambodians were eliminated via execution, forced labour, and starvation. The population of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, however, have increased yearly since 1970 (a fact that also raises questions about the concentration camp metaphor many critics of Israel use to describe Gaza and the West Bank). What is happening in Gaza and the West Bank, in other words, does not meet the criteria for genocide as it has traditionally been defined.

The fact that population has increased in Gaza even during Israeli attacks over the years is, of course, why Ratner and his fellow travellers have to rely on the mental anguish part, the first part, of their definition of genocide. It is here, of course, that Ratner's definition of "genocide" wanders into the really big muddy. The notion that a genocide is occurring "incrementally" despite the fact that significant numbers of the group supposedly being genocided have not been genocided and are still alive is a surreal one. Yes, what is happening to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank is horrible. Yes what is happening is sad, at least for some of us. Yes what is happening is humans acting, as they so often do, inhumanely. Yes what is happening produces mental anguish. But is this genocide? How do we quantify or even qualify the notion that mental anguish is genocide particularly since the populations of Gaza and the West Bank are not declining? Are the collective mental anguishes of national, ethnic, and religious groups the stuff of genocide everywhere and in every place? If so it means that there has been a lot of genocide on this planet. How can we call this genocide when it is not resulting in what has traditionally been considered central to any definition of genocide, population declines in specific groups? I, for one, don't think we can. Is intent consistent with what we understand about the role socialisation plays in constructing identity and community? Finally, how can we even determine national character let alone place guilt on the heads of a national group? What percentage of Israelis, if we ignore the issue of socialisation, would have to agree with the policies of their government for us to lay blame? Hey, once again we are back to numbers.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't think Israelis are saints or that the Palestinians are sinners or vice versa. I think that both sides are typically human and that there is enough blame to put on all sides. What I don't think, however, is that the Palestinians or the Arabs or the Muslims are inherently saintly because, in one version of marxist soteriology, they are oppressed. This notion is as problematic, as silly, and as wrong as what another variant of marxism claims, that the working class is the essence of good and the motor of history in the modern world, the world after feudalism. Many marxists are prisoners of their own socially and culturally constructed ideological "reality". They are, in other words, typically human, far too sadly typically human.

I should note how slippery prophetic critics of Israel can be. And it is here that the rubber really meets the road. Some argue, for example, that Israel is violating international law in Gaza. And they admittedly do have a case. At the same, however, they deny that the UN resolution creating the state of Israel is a valid international law. I would say we have a case of situational fetishisation here. Israel, they claim, is a legacy of the Balfour Agreement of 1914, an agreement that occurred some 34 years before the founding of the state of Israel and which was little important in founding of the state of Israel. Rather it was the Holocaust, the refugee crisis in Europe that came about as a result of the Holocaust, and the guilt many felt as a result of the Holocaust (never again) that was the reason for the creation of the state of Israel by the UN. The Balfour Agreement, in the wake of World War I, was no match for the Britain's need for Middle Eastern oil. An additional strategy of many marxists use is to argue that the international agreement establishing the state of Israel was a product of Western imperialism and colonialism and can hence, not to mention miraculously, be dismissed as nonbinding in international law a result. This, of course, is solipsism of the worst kind. Proponents of such views bind themselves to the international laws they agree with and demonise those they detest. Can you say double standards? Here ideology is the king of politically and ideologically correct (i.e., our brand of marxist) thinking, a common phenomenon one finds not only in some marxism but in some religious fundamentalisms.

Inconsistency when it comes to international law, by the way, is not the only mental gymnastics this soteriology of oppressed good, oppressor bad perspective demands. Those who sanctify the "oppressed" must forgive the "lowly of the world" their ethnocentrisms and their "terrorisms" and demonise those of the evil oppressor within the target of their gaze. And the similarities between "secular" meaning systems and "religious" meaning systems just keep on coming.

Ratner and his fellow travellers fall into a similar sort of ideological and melodramatic soap opera trap when it comes to Israel and Palestine. Since Gaza's population is not declining--declining population, as I noted, is central to every definition of genocide even Ratner's--they have to play a game of mental gymnastics by arguing that genocide is occurring incrementally in Palestine even though demographic data does not bear out their contention. Ratner and company, as a result, have to claim the gift of prophecy. Even though population has not declined since 1970 they uniquely know it will at some point. My problem with this, I don't even know what to call it, a flight of fancy, is that not even lawyers or academics can, as far as I know, foresee the future. This means that inevitably we must ask why, flying in the face of demographic data, the prophets of Palestinian doom are making such claims? Clearly, they are making such claims because they are defenders of the Palestinian cause and they want the world to come to Palestine's rescue. Ratner et. al, in other words, are apologists, polemicists, demagogues, and propagandists. The only clothing these false prophets are wearing, always wear, in fact, is that of the apologist, the polemicist, the demagogue, and ultimately the propagandist.

Let me close by noting that what I have written here if in outline is seen as the dementia of a feeble mind according to some of my marxist acquaintances. I guess I wasted time, energy, and money getting an education, an education that has done nothing to negate my inability to think correctly. What are we to do with a feeble minded, ignorant of logic, philosophically incapable stuck up idiot like me? Hey what can I say. I'm a midnight girl in a sunset town. Cleanse us midnighters! We think, after all, that Facebook is not the place to engage in scholarly investigations of a historical character given the semi-Twitterish nature of that beast.

Note to self: don't assume that when someone posts something about some topic they are extensively familiar with the historiography of the subject they posted about.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Revolution Will Be Televised: Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder

As you grow up you realise that there are things you see, hear, taste, or touch in your life that will change it. There were a number of things that I saw, heard, tasted, and touched in my life as I grew up that changed it. In the mid-1960s there was the Beatles. In the late 1960s there was Vietnam. In the mid-1970s there was British television.

I started watching British television in the mid-1970s thanks to PBS. The first British television show I ever watched was ITV's Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975, PBS 1974-1976. Upon my first viewing of Upstairs Downstairs I fell in love with this drama of servants downstairs and masters upstairs and have been a devotee of British television ever since. As a result I watched Masterpiece Theatre religiously on Sundays and Mystery on Thursdays ever since.

Upstairs Downstairs wasn't the only Masterpiece Theatre British show that changed my life. Another was a BBC show which dramatised the suffragette movement in Great Britain, Shoulder to Shoulder (1974, PBS 1975). I was only a couple of years out of high school when Shoulder to Shoulder made its initial appearance on PBS. Since we didn't learn much, really anything at all about women's and feminist history in America's schools at the time, everything I saw in Shoulder to Shoulder was new to me and was an incredible learning experience for me. I knew nothing about the Pankhurst's, father Richard, mother Emmeline, daughters Christabel, Sylvia, or Adele. I knew nothing of suffragettes Annie Kenney or Constance Lytton. I knew nothing of women's struggle for the vote in the United Kingdom. I knew nothing of the activism, the sometimes violent activism, that helped get women, well some women, the vote in 1918. I knew nothing of the arrest and brutal force feeding of suffragette activists by the British powers that be. I knew nothing of the splits between Emmeline, Christabel, and their allies and those of Sylvia and her allies.

Shoulder to Shoulder changed all that. Shoulder to Shoulder made me think not only about human rights, something my opposition to the Vietnam War made me think extensively about, but also about women's rights. It is not an exaggeration to say that Shoulder to Shoulder changed my life. Shoulder to Shoulder made me a feminist, if an imperfect feminist.

The tale of how Shoulder to Shoulder came about is an interesting one. Shoulder to Shoulder was the creation of actress Georgia Brown, who also played Annie Kenney in the show, script editor Midge Mackenzie, and producer extraordinaire Verity Lambert (Doctor Who, The Naked Civil Servant, G.B.H., Jonathan Creek) who bemoaned the lack of shows about women and women's history on British television so they decided to do something about it. Shoulder to Shoulder is the something they did about the lack of women and women's history on the tube.

The Shoulder to Shoulder Brown, Mackenzie, and Lambert made consisted of six approximately 75 minute"plays": "The Pankhursts" (3 April 1974/5 October 1975), "Annie Kenney" (10 April 1974/12 October 1975), "Lady Constance Lytton" (17 April 1974/19 October 1979), "Christabel Pankhurst" (24 April 1974/26 October 1975), "Outrage!" (1 May 1974/2 November 1975), and "Sylvia Pankhurst" (8 May 1974/9 November 1979). Each "play" told not only personal stories of some of the women involved in the suffragette movement but also, as their lives intersected, the chronological history of the women's movement itself and the movements broader contexts.

There is another story that is as interesting perhaps as that of how Shoulder to Shoulder came about in the first place and that is the story of Shoulder to Shoulder's subsequent broadcasting and media release history. The BBC apparently rebroadcast Shoulder to Shoulder in the 1980s and rebroadcast episode two, "Annie Kenney", on 7 April 2008 ("Annie Kenney" was also shown as part of Birkbeck College's 15 May 2014 symposium Shoulder to Shoulder: Female Suffrage, Second-Wave Feminism and Feminist TV Drama in the 1970s). As of 2014, Shoulder to Shoulder's 40th birthday, neither the BBC's DVD arm, 2Entertain, nor those DVD companies which specialise in British television releases, Acorn, BFS, or Network, have released this significant show on DVD. The question why none of these corporations have released Shoulder to Shoulder (we could, by the way, also ask why academics have written sparingly on the show) inevitably raises its potentially ugly face as a result. Is it because the the Beeb, Acorn, BFS, and Network think there is no market for the show out there in consumerland? Is it because the show represents social movements which were violent and socialist in a positive light? The Daily Mail would not approve?

Thankfully, thanks to kissmequick8, it is possible to watch Shoulder to Shoulder again if in not optimal conditions on Youtube. I recently rewatched the show--you can to by clicking on the links above--and found it to be as good if not better than I rather hazily remembered it. It is, in my opinion, in the same starried league as Upstairs Downstairs and I Claudius. I can only now hope that activism among fans of the show will force the BBC to release or allow another company to release this wonderful and significant television show about one of the great social movements in world history as soon as possible.

Further Reading:
Sergio Angelini, Shoulder to Shoulder, BFI Screenonline
Vicky Ball and Janet McCabe, "Let’s Hope That the Cultural Return of the Suffragettes Lasts This Time", The Conversation, 23 May 2014
Janet McCabe, "Report on Symposium, Shoulder to Shoulder", Critical Studies in Television Online, 13 June 2014
Janet McCabe and Vicky Ball, "The Nearly Forgotten 40 Year-Old BBC Mini-Series, Shoulder to Shoulder Reminds Us Why the Struggle for Gender Equality Still Matters", British Politics and Policy, LSE, 4 June 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

Academia as Provincial...

Yesterday I was talking to a female academic in the humanities on the subject of women's and feminist history. When I mentioned British feminism and the Pankhurst's she said she had never heard of the Pankhurst's. She was, she said, not a specialist in British Studies.

For me this statement and the attitude that underlies it are the very essence of what is wrong with academia as opposed to the intellectual life, a life that strives to constantly learn something new. Academics far too often divide things up into the silly little boxes they call disciplines and subdivide these silly little boxes into ever tinier silly little boxes they call subdisciplines.

The problem with such silly little boxes is that they undermine a more accurate understanding of humans and human life, something that should be one of the things central to an examined life. The Pankhurst's may have been British or English but they were also central to a feminist movement that crossed the silly little boundaries socially and culturally constructed and then fetishised by academe be these disciplinary or nationalist. The suffragist movement in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond interacted with each other and influenced each other and national feminisms cannot be understood without understanding the transnational nature of nineteenth and twentieth century feminism. Beyond this it seems to me that everyone with an active mind should seek to understand the history of an important social and cultural movement that has changed the world.

And people wonder why I have little patience with and little respect for academia, the most opiated of the bourgeoisie I have encountered. Another glass of wine Reg?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thesis...Antithesis...Death to the Infidel...

A poster on Facebook recently asked "Do you A Enjoy our political debates B Enjoy my personal stories C Enjoy my attempts at humor D Enjoy my sports stories E Like a good variety. F Wish I would give it a rest and quit clogging up your Facebook pages."

The interesting thing about discussions is that they are by and large not discussions. Those who take part in discussions who see governments as the essence of evil in the universe, for example, are not engaging in discussions grounded in empirical evidence or facts. They are simply expressing their ideological beliefs in dogmatic statements that are similar to Christian catechisms of the past and present. Like religious dogmatists they expect you to agree with them. It is the old tried and unfortunately true I am OK if you want to be OK you must believe like me ideological stratagem.

Now I want to add another wrinkle to this discussion of political and economic discussions. Many on the right--political, religious, economic--are more inquisitors than discussants. They believe that only they are "real Americans" and that anyone who disagrees with them are trying to undermine the American way of life (see the sadly looney response of many on the right to Obama's presidency for empirical proof of this statement). All of this points up the need for what Dennis Potter calls heterodoxy.

Facts are facts even if we recognise that the world we humans have created is socially and culturally constructed. Napoleon did invade Russia in 1812. Why he did and the various viable interpretations (hermeneutics) of why Napoleon invaded (economic, political, cultural, geographic, demographic) Russia point up the need for a realisation that facts are multiply interpretable and that a variety of interpretations may be viable at one and the same time. And as Jarvis Paisley notes we all need to respect and listen to these various viable and valid interpretations. But we should never forget that opinions worth respecting have to be valid and viable interpretations first.