Monday, December 14, 2009

Academic Publishing...

During the AAA conference last week, I spent a ton of time in the Book Exhibit. But I wasn't just checking out the newest anthro-titles, which can be its own small joy, especially when friends and mentors have new offerings to share. I was actually walking the exhibit with students, trying to introduce several current dissertation writers (and a few newly minted PhDs) to editors at academic presses. I don't know many editors, but one or two introductions are better than none.

Every introduction won't turn into a publishing match-made-in-heaven, but it is important to grease the wheel for students as they attempt to clear that important hurdle. Indeed, it is an advisor's job.

When I was writing my dissertation, my advisor told me to "write a book," which is something I also ask of my current students. I realize that that isn't an uncontroversial position, and it is far from self-evident what the call to "write a book" even means. When you haven't even successfully written a dissertation yet (let alone a publishable manuscript), the suggestion can feel like replacing one opacity with another.

One of the things it means, I think, is to write with readers in mind, to make your claims with attention to the dramas, tensions, and storylines that will keep audiences oriented and invested. It need not mean sacrificing rigor for readability. It just asks for a little attention to storytelling (along with argumentation).

After I had defended my dissertation, my advisor made it her job to introduce me to several university press editors. In fact, she spent a lot of time helping me to think through my pitch, boiling my arguments down to their most interesting (and publishable) permutations.

My advisor made a point of saying that graduate students aren't "islands" isolated in some academic sea all by themselves. As most academics know, if the process works the way it is supposed to work, a dissertation advisor takes on a career-long role. And one part of the job description entails de-mystifying academia's backstage, helping students as they (i) prepare for "the market," (ii) negotiate job offers, (iii) deal with the challenges of post-doctoral life (committees, new colleagues, more demands, etc.), and (iv) publish their research.

In terms of the publishing maze, things are changing quite a bit. There used to be a time when it was roundly frowned upon to submit manuscripts to several academic publishers at once. That is increasingly becoming less true. Indeed, the only bit of leverage that a junior faculty member might have these days (vis-a-vis potential publishers) is the threat of going with another press that is equally invested (and also pressuring reviewers for reader reports). Again, this isn't uncontroversial, but there is a lot to recommend such multiple submissions, as long as you are up front with editors about it. For one, if an editor is really interested, he or she might promise to expedite the review process (pushing readers even more adamantly) to avoid competition. Indeed, I only submitted my first manuscript to one publisher, but only if they promised to expedite the process (not leaving one waiting around for months and months without word).

The other benefit of multiple submissions is the fact that you get more critical feedback. If Publisher 1 sends it to three anonymous reviewers and Publisher 2 sends it to three more, you can feel much more confident about the coverage your material is getting. There is less likelihood that you have missed a key critique.

Academic journals still routinely disqualify articles that have been submitted to several places at once. Book publishers are becoming more amenable to that idea, even if they aren't all happy with it. At the end of the day, a good relationship with an academic press is about a good relationship with an editor. So, whatever you do, make sure you are up front, honest, and straightforward. Editors will tell you where they stand, what they will stand for, and you all can both make informed decisions about how to proceed from there.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why publish "Obama's mama's book" at all?

Why publish “Obama’s mama’s book” at all?

That’s probably one of the most dismissive and derogatory ways of phrasing a question that at least a few anthropologists are asking at this year’s AAA conference, and in just such disparaging terms. I know that some of my colleagues won’t agree, but I can’t help but think about such a query (even in its less choleric/unflattering registers) as a somewhat non-anthropological way of framing the issue.

Duke University Press officially launched S. Ann Dunham’s Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia yesterday, which included a noontime press conference where the only question posed actually pivoted on a differently pitched version of the same theme music: Is Duke University Press only publishing this book because it was written by the President’s mother?

I received a similar e-query over the summer from a colleague, a sociologist, responding to my post about what other anthropologists had been describing, optimistically, as President Obama’s potentially anthropological sensibilities (as a function of being an “anthropologist’s son”). The sociologist started with an excerpt from my posting and then succinctly offered his rejoinder.

I wrote the following, which he cited:

Anthropologists often get lampooned and dismissed by other social scientists (and by those outside of the academy) for their (our) assumed epistemological and presentational excesses: opaque jargon, solipsistic navel gawking, the politicization of research, and on and on. But even though she didn’t raise Obama for the entirety of his childhood, his mother seems to have imparted in him a degree of thoughtfulness and genuine appreciation for cultural differences (as partially manifested in his campaign’s inclusively “multiracial” ground game) that I want to embrace as the best of what the discipline of anthropology can share with the rest of the academy and beyond.

He responded: I agree with John L. Jackson! (But would you go as far as to publish her unpublished dissertation as Duke is doing?)

Why not publish it?

I can understand some of the skepticism behind the sociologist's question. If it wasn’t published before Barack Obama became President Obama, it probably isn’t worthy of publication. It probably isn’t very good. So, why pander to the depravities of the market?

Deborah Thomas and I had a different thought. We were gearing up for last year’s AAA conference, and we heard that Dunham’s colleagues at the University of Hawaii (including Alice G. Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper) were already in the process of trying to get the dissertation published. The research was based on fieldwork in Kajar, a blacksmithing village in Indonesia, and we thought that it might be interesting to have a panel on the work (and the book) at this year’s AAA meeting.

Deborah called up the folks at Hawaii, and she found out that they’d been working to get this dissertation turned into a book for quite a long time, almost since Dunham’s death. Deb also discovered that although a few publishers had shown interest, they were dragging their feet. So, we started to read through bits of the dissertation. It is super long (in the general vicinity of 1,000 pages), and we didn’t get through all of it. But it seemed like an intriguing mix of old-school ethnographic holism and a relatively newfangled analysis of a rural Indonesian industry that Dunham characterized as "surviving," despite some anthropological predictions of its inevitable demise. She also placed her study (an “ethnography of microfinance” before microfinance was cool) within robustly historical, analytical, regulatory, and cultural contexts, which accounted for her manuscript’s daunting length.

If anyone was going to consider publishing the manuscript, it would have to be edited substantially, cut by more than half. That’s when we went to Ken Wissoker at Duke. We asked him to look at the manuscript, to talk to Dunham’s colleagues at Hawaii, and to consider publishing the work. And we wanted him to do all of that quickly enough so that it might be out and available in time for this year’s conference.

Duke was interested in publishing the book because it was written by President Obama’s mother. That is also why Deb and I were interested in it. We had even thought that President Obama might be willing to attend this year's conference and talk about his mother’s ethnographic research and its impact (if any) on his own politico-cultural outlook. He didn’t take us up on that invitation, but Dunham’s daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, graciously agreed to talk about her mother’s anthropological exploits.

But this idea that Dunham’s publication should be marked with a scarlet letter because its relevance is inflected by the fame and significance of her progeny seems strange to me.

Don’t all publishers weigh the merits of the books they produce with recourse to the potential audiences they might entice, especially university publishers increasingly being asked (by central administrations) to pay their own way? It was published because she is our President’s mother. And because that means that more readers might be interested in reading it. And because it is a bold critique of a certain Geertzian spin on the region. And because the stars aligned in just such a way that a stalled publication process got re-energized by some outside interlopers. And because it is a very solid manuscript.

The implicit presumption that that latter fact alone (or something close to it) ostensibly explains why more “legitimate” manuscripts are published by academic presses seems like an unproductive and disingenuous fiction to me, a scholarly fairy tale of Santa Clausian proportions.

This book should have been published before Obama moved into the White House. If Dunham hadn’t died prematurely, maybe it would have been. To dismiss it out of hand because it is being published now, so long after she completed the dissertation, as a function of its situated-ness at the trickster-haunted crossroads where scholarship meets “politics” (in many senses of that latter term) is, I think, a tough position to hold. Without such “from the ashes” reclamations (political and intellectual in the selfsame instant), Zora Neale Hurston, for one, wouldn’t be on any anthropological syllabi either.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Day One at the AAAs

The anthropologists are finally here!

Philadelphia's Downtown Marriott is housing the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which started last night, and The Chronicle of Higher Education has already run a story on one of Wednesday night's panels.

"A Critical History of the Darkness in El Dorado Controversy" was organized around Alice Dreger's scathing critique of Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, which was equally scathing in its criticism of how Napoleon A. Chagnon (author of, amongst other things, Yanomamo: A Fierce People) and geneticist James Neel conducted their research in the region. According to Tierney, they actually exacerbated a measles problem, failed to acquire true "informed consent" for research, and even (in Chagnon's case) allegedly fomented violent conflicts among community members. I remember the AAA meetings in 2000, 2001, and 2002 when the book's accusations first surfaced.

Conducting research for a book that she is currently writing, Dreger revisited Tierney's assertions. Not only does she claim that Tierney's work was sloppy and inaccurate (his accusations mostly flat wrong), but she also criticizes the AAA for throwing Chagnon and Neel under the bus in its 2002 report about the matter. I missed the session, but I'm sure that I'll hear anthropologists talking about it for the rest of the week.

I missed that particular panel because I was teaching my grad class yesterday afternoon (goxewu will appreciate that). And then I stayed on Penn's campus for two AAA-affiliated events.

Penn's Anthropology Department joined forces with two AAA journals (Anthropology and Education Quarterly and Transforming Anthropology) to throw an opening-night reception in the Penn Museum's Chinese Rotunda. 90-feet high, it is one of the largest unsupported masonry domes in the entire country. One of the most amazingly breathtaking interiors that any college campus can boast, it was a spectacular setting for the fete.

I left that reception early enough to attend an intimate performance of Pouring Tea, a one-man show by ethnographer E. Patrick Johnson (also, like Dreger, from Northwestern University). The performance took place at Penn's LGBT Center in The Carriage House. Vocalist Joya Jones and poets Nina Harris and Joshua Bennett (of HBO's Def Poetry fame) sanctified the space with three blistering performances. Then Johnson spent the next 40 minutes performing excerpts from interviews he conducted for his most recent book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay men of the South. He has played much larger venues with this show (and is currently preparing a more expansive stage version for a May opening in Chicago), but this tiny, cozy space was a perfect way start to a week that will be chock full of ethnographically inflected conversations. As Johnson himself described the event in his post-performance Q&A session, "it felt like I was bringing you all back with me into those small and intimate living rooms where I conducted the interviews."

Monday, November 30, 2009

This Week: "On Location" at the AAAs

The American Anthropological Association is holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia this week, and I'll be there with bells on (maybe literally).

I realize that the last time I mentioned anything about academic conferences in one of my blog-posts, the critical responses came fast and furious.

One of the consistent commenters for that posting was someone named goxewu, who kept asking me if I had to cancel any of my classes so that I could trot off to these conferences. Even though I answered the query a few different times (and a few different ways), goxewu continued to push the point, even implying that I would probably have canceled my classes this semester if they were on Mondays and Fridays (instead of Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).

But goxewu's major gripe wasn't necessarily about those missed class sessions. One of goxewu's final comments makes the argument plain: "Prof. Jackson may have done academe an unintended service with his post on conference-going, which unintentionally shone a light on the academic equivalent of Congressional junkets (which are also about a third legit, a third of marginal use, and a third paid vacations)." But are only a third of all academic conferences really legit?

Back when I was in graduate school, we used to read the yearly journalistic stories (some called them "attacks") on the ostensibly bizarre themes found among offerings at academic conferences. And these stories were seemingly offered up with a similarly delegitimizing impulse at their core.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article on the 2004 Modern Language Association meetings started with the following line: "When a professor draws a parallel between Dumbo and Detective Monk, you just know you're at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association."

The annual news stories about the AAA meetings often playfully invoke the tone and register of traditional ethnographic monographs, as does this Chicago Sun-Times piece from 1991: "Adorning themselves with jackets of tweed or gaily colored beads, puffing on elaborately carved pipes, ears pierced and decorated with rings, members of a national tribe are holding their annual potlatch in Chicago this week. They number some 3,700 [closer to 5,000 will attend this year]. But once here, they will break into smaller groups."

In many ways, I am an advocate of the academic conference. And I don't think that these venues are a waste of time, or a scam--or that they will be quickly/easily scrapped for cyber conferences in the not-too-distant future (another theory offered up after my last post). But I do sometimes mildly grumble about the fact that I can't make all of the interesting ones that are relevant to my work. And new meetings seem to pop up every single day.

For instance, on Wednesday night, E. Patrick Johnson is performing his electrifying one-man show, Pouring Tea, an adaptation of his powerful new book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, based on an extensive oral history project. On Thursday night, the AAA will host a book launch and reception for Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, by S. Ann Dunham, the mother of President Barack Obama, who died in 1995, before she could publish her work. Dunham's daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, will be present to offer remarks at the reception, which follows a panel about Dunham's work. And the exhibit "Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America," opens on Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (and runs through May 2010). The exhibit is based on ten years of ethnographic research by anthropologist Philippe Bourgois (my Penn colleague) and photographer-ethnographer Jeff Schonberg. They worked among a community of heroin injectors and crack smokers in San Francisco. The exhibit is based on their new book, also called Righteous Dopefiend. (Another Righteous Dopefiend exhibit is being presented in conjunction with the Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut Street. It is a multimedia installation that will run from December 3 through 31.)

I'll blog about these conference events--and others--all week.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The End of an Oprah

Later on today, Oprah Winfrey is supposed to announce that she's closing up shop on her wildly influential daily show. The lights go out on that televisual institution in 2011, and that will be the end of a pop-cultural era.

Of course, Oprah didn't invent the genre (and she wasn't the first person to ratchet its stakes up to national prominence), but she has owned that format for much of the last two decades, using it as an amazingly powerful platform, one that has made her the most recognizable first-name celebrity on the planet.

Some credited her "book club" with almost single-handedly keeping America literate (and the publishing industry solvent), a not completely hyperbolic claim.

I probably watched about 10 to 15 episodes of the show a year, but they were some of the most riveting moments of network TV: Tom Cruise prancing around on that couch and attacking psychoanalysis; Dave Chappelle, just back from Africa, explaining why he left his own lucrative and highly successful television show; Whitney Houston admitting her bouts with drugs, alcohol and Bobby Brown; and, of course, who can forget the James Frey controversy, which was probably the beginning of the end of her book club's golden age.

Earlier this year, I watched her show with Jay-Z, and just this week, I DVR'd her Sarah Palin interview. The hour-long format makes her engagement with these folks feel so much more substantive than the five-minute packages that you get most places on TV. She has time to ask Palin all the questions you thought needed to be posed (about that infamous Katie Couric non-answer, about Levi Johnston's public attacks on her family, about her preparedness for the White House). They are all questions we've heard put to Palin before, but Oprah's space feels like a much more intimate place for the conversation.

Indeed, Winfrey's been criticized for just such would-be intimacy, especially as it informs her unprecedented crossover appeal. Is it really fair to call her a postmodern mammy-figure (as some detractors have)? That seems like a cheap shot, an overly dismissive critique that can be thrown around quite self-servingly.

Part of what makes her show so entertaining, especially when it features someone like Palin, is that she is always as famous as the person she's interviewing. Palin is one of the most sought-after guests right now, a star in national politics, and the closest thing Republicans have to an Obama-like figure. Even still, Palin seems to recognize (and defer to) the aura of Oprah. Everyone does!

Over the past few years, Oprah Winfrey has been all over the news for what she's been doing outside of her daily broadcast (that all-girls school in South Africa, her stumping for then-Senator Obama, etc.), and she plans to devote more time to her new network, which will provide her with 24 hours a day to fill, not just one.

Winfrey is also doing things like financing the new Lee Daniels film, Precious, which I have still yet to see. Ugh!

With all of these pots on the fire, Winfrey is probably betting on the fact that she'll be even more influential after they shutter the doors to her studio show. I wouldn't doubt it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is Diversity a Dirty Word in the Academy?

Former United States Senator Rick Santorum penned an op-ed in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer that questions the military's commitment to "diversity." Santorum's "The Elephant in the Room: Diversity, but at What Cost?" argues that the Naval Academy's characterization of diversity as "highest personnel priority" is not just silly (as manifested in an attempt to diversify an all white and male color guard before a recent world series game) but also potentially "dangerous," especially if "the military's commitment to 'diversity' as job one prevented military officials and the Department of Defense from 'connecting the dots' when it came to the accused [Fort Hood] shooter."

Of course, academics hear a great deal about diversity, but is it becoming a dirty word in the academy, a potentially dangerous threat?

According to detractors, what's the problem with diversity?

Santorum likens it to "a politically correct incantation that forces otherwise reasonable people to say silly things," a critique many would extend to diversity claims within academica. (Indeed, it has been used to characterize the arguments made by many a brainstorm blogger, myself included.)

But what's wrong with diversity? The naysayers have many answers: that it discriminates against white males; that it rewards mediocrity/incompetence; that it perpetuates minority under-achievement; that it threatens the integrity of higher education; that it is undemocratic and unethical; that it runs counter to all of our loftiest ideals of equality. Diversity, they argue, is the euphemism of choice for quotas, which should be considered unfair and unconstitutional.

We know what the detractors think, but how do diversity proponents counter. Santorum lays out a version of diversity's defense in his piece, a version that seems pretty accurate to me (and woefully, as Santorum would agree, insufficient).

What's the defense of diversity, not just as an abstract principle, but as translatable into concrete decisions about, say, student admissions and faculty hiring?

Given the extent to which recent Supreme Court decisions have demonstrated growing judicial hostility towards race-inflected admission decisions/formulas (and with the increasing thematization/politicization of academia as ideologically Far-Left), are advocates conceding too much? Are they trying to have it both ways? That is, might academia be falling into a trap when it attempts to ostensibly cloak its programmatic commitments to diversity (one of the criticisms leveled at many current academic interventions)?

Is it enough to re-name programs that used to be explicitly marked as race-specific initiatives and still deploy them in service to similar goals, walking on egg-shells all the while? Are academics still fighting for a version of diversity with real institutional teeth? Or has that battle already been lost?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Most of the reviews are in, and if it weren't for Wes Anderson's new animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Lee Daniels might have the most critically acclaimed motion picture of the year.

Precious, based on the novel Push, by the poet Sapphire, is finally going into wide national release today, but most critics have been gushing about this gritty little film for weeks.

Even before it had a distributor, I wrote about Daniels and the Sapphire book right here on my blog, especially after the film won prestigious awards at Sundance and Cannes, something close to the equivalent of Best Picture Prizes at both festivals.

I called my previous post "Sundancing with Controversy," because I thought that Daniels had chosen a very difficult book: the first-person story of a poor, sexually-abused (by her father), HIV-positive black teenage mother named Precious Jones who has to negotiate a cruel and unforgiving world. Daniels court's controversy in his films, so I wasn't surprised that he'd gone after this powerful (and disturbing) little book. Here's some of what I wrote about him back in January:

Lee Daniels is the unconventional filmmaker responsible for helping to create provocative and disturbing independent films such asMonster’s Ball (famous for Halle Berry’s controversial sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton) and The Woodsman (which boasts Kevin Bacon’s riveting and sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile). Shadowboxer, his 2005 directorial debut, was most cited for its incestuous interracial sex scenes (between Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Helen Mirren). But I own a copy of that movie simply to show people its bizarrely unexplained (and matter-of-fact) depictions of a suburban Philadelphia landscape seemingly awash in stray Zebras.

In all of his films, Daniels pushes the envelope. He usually rips and defaces it, too.

And just as I thought, even though most reviewers applaud his film as "unforgettable," "remarkable," and something that, according to Rolling Stone, will leave audiences "moved like no film in years," one or two critics have come down very hard on Precious. For example, Armond White's NYPress review has been making the rounds as the harshest version of this anti-Precious critique. "Not since The Birth of a Nation," White writes, "has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious." Quite a claim!

My colleague at Penn, Salamishah Tillet, has penned a very thoughtful reading of the film that places its generally positive critical reception in conversation with the venom that Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple received. Her essay puts the film's critical praise in a much more productive and robust cultural/political context. And it might help us to unpack some of White's hostility, too.

Has anyone out there seen the film? (It has been in NYC for at least a week.) If so, what's your verdict?

It just got to Philadelphia today. So, I'm planning to buy a ticket for the weekend. As you can guess, I'll give you all my two cents after I see it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Loathing Academic Conferences

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably start off by admitting that I'm in the middle of a particularly heavy conference stretch right now, which clearly informs this mini-tirade.

American Studies, one of my favorite annual meetings, held its conference in DC this past weekend, and the event overlapped with the American Academy of Religion's gathering in Montreal. I'm finally just back from both, and the National Communication Association's conference starts tomorrow. In Chicago!

It seems that many of the academic associations (at least the ones putting on conferences that I've planned to attend) have conspired to meet at one and the same time most years. Indeed, some folks might even push for a few extra weeks in the Fall semester just to accommodate all of these meetings.

I have to admit that I really enjoy a great deal about these conferences. At ASA, I hung out with old classmates from Columbia, and met up with Doug Mitchell from the University of Chicago Press, the editorial impresario responsible for much of what's most amazing about Chicago's backlist.

Then I hopped on a plane for AAR (finishing, in flight, the provocative epilogue for Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980, a powerful argument about the links between liberalism and black radicalism/nationalism written by Devin Fergus, who matriculated through Columbia's History Department while I was making my way through Anthropology).

I have only been to three AARs in the last decade or so (and once it was simply to screen a film that I helped produce on African American deployments of the Bible), but I immediately got caught up in the energy of the meeting this year. Besides taking part in a panel that I found particularly useful for my own work (a session examining methodological concerns specific to the ethnography of religion organized by Marla Frederick and featuring Kersten Priest, Tracey Hucks and R. Marie Griffith), I also hung out with old friends, reconnected with new ones, and had a great discussion (about so much more than just my current book project) with Sharmila Sen at Harvard University Press.

But given all that, why am I back in Philly and feeling so drained? Usually, good conferences energize me (Ford Fellows Conferences got me through my final years of grad school), and I would characterize my experiences at both of these recent events quite positively.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I'm still trying to figure out how to "do" academic conferences properly. At this point, I spend so much more time just chatting with people in the convention hallways and grabbing "coffee" at hotel lounges (as opposed to sitting attentively through actual sessions) that it almost seems scandalous. Indeed, I went to a total of two sessions at AAR (besides my own) and not even one at ASA. I told you: scandalous! Granted, I only had a day (less than a full day) at ASA before shuttling off to Canada, but it still felt wrong.

And I made a pact with myself way back in graduate school that I would never read a paper at an academic conference. And I've stuck to that irrational decision. Maybe it is my own idiosyncratic version of ADD (academic-speak deficit disorder), but I get super bored when most scholars read papers, especially when they don't even seem particularly moved by what they're saying. So, I have lunged in the other direction. I just try to talk my stuff out. Sometimes with notes and sometimes without, which usually means that I forget semi-major points (even when I have the notes in front of my, I tend to make the mistake of not looking down at them) and probably come off as somehow not taking the event seriously enough (because I didn't read prepared comments). It also means that I don't always bring everything back together neatly at the end of my 20 minutes. But I think I am getting better at that. And cultivating such a non-readerly skill is worth the minor embarrassments along the way.

So, I come back from conferences not quite sure of what (substantively) I got out of them. And then it is right off to the next one.

In early December, the American Anthropological Association meetings are here in Philadelphia, and I am going to take part in all of that one, too. This time, at least, I won't be presenting. But I have already committed to checking out several sessions on every single day. I'll let folks know how that goes.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Who posts "comments" to blogs? And why?

It isn't just happenstance that some of the most dismissive and hostile "comments" to blog posts come from anonymous readers. Anonymity gives courage to the cowardly. And that was the case long before the Internet.

Of course, it doesn't even make sense to respond to dismissive comments. Nothing good can come of it.

I'm not sure that both of the comments listed below are dismissive, but I did want to take a second to reframe a couple of responses to my recent "mentoring" post.

The first, posted by "goxewu," is simple and straightforward:

Wait a minute. There's an "associate dean" for just "undergraduate studies" in just one school (and the middleweight one of "communications," at that) at Penn? Prof. Jackson is hereby enjoined from ever, ever complaining in the slightest about the problem of administrative top-heaviness in higher education.

This "goxewu" ignores the point of my piece and asks why a "middleweight" school like "communications" would even need an "associate dean" for its undergraduates? Is it really that atypical for "just one school" to have a dean devoted to undergraduate education? If anything, I would have imagined that "goxewu" would have asked why communication/s was a school at all, instead of just a department. The lack of such an additional query seems telling.

And why this drive-by attack on "communications" as middleweight in the first place? What does that even mean? Goxewu represents a lot of people (academics and non-academics) who relish the idea of banishing entire fields with the snobbish wave of a hand. In faddish discussions about interdisciplinarity, we should spend some time interrogating our assumptions about disciplinary pecking orders, assumptions that get translated into all kinds of easily assumed hierarchies within the academy.

The second comment, left by "vfichera," responds to the actual substance of my posting. S/he quotes some of what I wrote:

"I have been touched by some equally memorable students here, and I have been trying to ask myself how I can be most helpful to them, especially in the context of an academic lifestyle that can already feel so overburdened and hectic."

And then responds with the following:

A little bit of "Prairie Home Companion" would be useful here or a touch of Jaime Escalante ("Stand and Deliver") -- all of the students are potentially memorable. Mentoring is not about just helping the "memorable" to achieve greater heights of success but of unfolding the talents of all of the students, of touching those who feel out-of-touch, of being a true advisor instead of having "professional advisors" for students to "relieve the faculty of that burden."

The corporatization of the university has indeed been achieved by proliferating administrations which have, with the consent of the tenured faculty, eroded the traditional roles of faculty into bits and pieces which are "adjuncted-out" to the point where undergraduates are even paying tuition to teach and advise themselves, as "undergraduate TAs" and "peer-mentors" -- often for academic credit.

Mentoring starts with faculty's acceptance and faithfulness to the full panoply of teaching and governance responsibilities, not just research. As the tenured faculty participate in the unraveling of their own duties and responsibilities onto more "manageable" personnel, they are "enabling" nothing less than the transformative unraveling of the idea of the university itself.

I feel like vfichera is picking a fight with someone else, a fight that he or she has probably been waging for quite a while.

vfichera's discussion about the "corporatization of the university" should be taken seriously, and s/he lists a number of reasons (not excerpted above) why "the tenured professoriate" should do better by its students, which was the point of my post.

I don't want to fall into that old Clintonian trap of parsing what is is, but should we talk about what it means to call a student memorable?

I remember students for any number of reasons, including those "who feel out-of-touch." vfichera is right that mentoring isn't a zero-sum thing. We should take on all students, especially if they are willing to meet us close to half way. But is it wrong to remember some students more than others? Is anything else even possible?

But part of vfichera's real point is about the shifting of duties from tenured/tenure-tracked faculty to the growing number of hired guns working on an adjunct basis--and with much less job security. The adjunctification of higher education is an important issue. I'm just not completely convinced of vfichera's way of linking it to my post on mentoring.

Of course, comments to blogs (like blog entries themselves) often boast a tangentialist logic, stream-of-consciousness as organizing principle. Fair enough. And vfichera's point is still well taken: the move to relieve faculty of more and more of their advising duties is something that faculty members should be spending much more time discussing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Academic Melancholia?

Do academics have good reason to be depressed?

When I was in graduate school, I had two friends (also grad students) who cried (literally broke down in tears) just about every single week of their graduate school careers--and it might even have been more like every day. They seemed truly miserable much of the time, and it took them both a lot of soul-searching to find a way out of that existential morass.

For me, back then, their plight always seemed like a powerful lesson, a reminder that "the life of the mind" should be challenging without being debilitating. But it isn't necessarily easy to maintain some kind of discrete firewall between those two alternatives. And academics seem to have more and more reason to court such melancholia all the time.

For one thing, the nature of our conversations/debates are sometimes so unnecessarily cantankerous--if not downright petty. Very little is new under the sun, least of all of that rhetoric/stance of dismissive and hostile critique. But how useful is it? What's the point? And that stuff only gets worse with the Internet. Everyone's doing it. With ostensible impunity. Indeed, academics aren't the only ones who seem to have gone FOX News (even National Enquirer) in terms of over-the-top and ad hominem attacks on interlocutors. But we are supposed to offer up a different model of engagement, no? (Just reading the venomous comments posted to people's Brainstorm Blogs can make one depressed.)

And are academics friendship-deprived?

That could be another reason for academic melancholia. Of course, we have colleagues. If we're lucky, very generous and supportive ones, but are we under-friended? I have one colleague who claims that he hasn't made a new "friend" in the academy since 1997. Not just a cordial acquaintance, but a substantive and full-fledged friend. Given the nature of our sometimes-hostile exchanges (as mentioned above), it stands to reason that we wouldn't concomitantly cultivate the skills needed to successfully befriend folks. I just had a grad student return from an academic conference and complain about the fact that everyone she met in the lobby of the conference hotel seemed to only half-listen to her as they scanned the crowd for more prestigious scholars to talk to. Does getting disciplined into academic life mean unlearning some of the basic rules of social interaction? If so, that's reason enough to be discouraged.

For most of us, how happy is life within the Ivory Tower? I keep telling non-academics that academia is the best gig around. And it is. But why do so many faculty members across the country sometimes appear quite clearly unhappy and anxious about their lot? And it is a state that often lasts well after individuals have cleared the tenure hurdle.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Racial Headlines: Rush Limbaugh, Marc Hill and Injustices of the Peace

I spent the last four days in sunny Southern California, and most of that time found me losing my mind about the zaniness of America's current racial landscape.

I went out West to take part in a fantastic conference, "Reading Scriptures, Reading America: Interruptions, Orientations, and Mimicry among U.S. Communities of Color," sponsored by Claremont Graduate University's Institute for Signifying Scriptures. I presented research from the book I'm currently writing (an examination of African-American Hebrew Israelites) as part of one of the conference panels organized by Velma Love (Florida A&M University), sharing the stage with Renee K. Harrison (Payne Theological Seminary).

Since it had been a long time since my last stint out West, I ended up squeezing in several different things: meetings with potential agents in Los Angeles (about some screenplays I've written), spending time with a couple academic friends and their newborn at UCI, and very briefly crashing the Ford Foundation Fellows conference in Irvine, California. (The Ford conference was as inspiring as ever!)

During much of my trip, I was also following three breaking news stories, excluding that boy-in-a-balloon "hoax" that CNN spent most of the weekend unpacking.

There was the story about that Louisiana justice of the peace who was unwilling to marry an inter-racial couple, Rush Limbaugh's response to his recent NFL snub, and Rupert Murdoch personally announcing FOX News contributor Marc Lamont Hill's firing at a stockholder meeting. All three stories are still playing themselves out, but I just wanted to make a few early comments.

1. Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish in southeastern Louisiana, refused to marry the mixed couple out of concern for their offspring--at least, that's the argument he made on CBS's The Early Show today. "I've had countless numbers of people that was born in that situation," Bardwell said. "And they claim that the blacks or the whites didn't accept the children. And I didn't want to put the children in that position." What a fascinating twist. Traditionally, such racially informed objections to miscegenation would have been framed in terms of eugenics (the degeneration of racial purity/prowess) or adamant white supremacy (the divinely pre-ordained discreteness of our racial order), but concern for the social plight of the children themselves wouldn't necessarily have been the trump card for an official in Bardwell's position. Of course, what is most interesting about Bardwell's stance is that he denies being racist at all--and claims not to even understand why his recusal has caused such controversy. He doesn't believe that what he did was unconstitutional, and he doesn't think that it should be considered racist. My recent book, Racial Paranoia, anticipates Bardwell's move and helps to explain the unprecedented logic of racialism in contemporary America.

2. Bardwell doesn't accept the charge of racism and neither does Rush Limbaugh. The latter penned a very careful response to his recent disavowal by those would-be St. Louis Rams owners in the Wall Street Journal while I was out in Cali. Limbaugh claimed that many of his accusers (including Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton) are actually the racists, citing Jackson's infamous "hymie-town" reference and Sharpton's role in the Tawana Brawley case. He also blamed Sharpton for fomenting the racial rage that erupted in two NYC riots during the 1990s. Sharpton is contemplating a lawsuit (for defamation) unless he gets an apology from Limbaugh, which I can safely predict will probably not be forthcoming. I did read my Brainstorm colleague's short post on the Limbaugh story last week. Mark Bauerlein's piece nicely frames the controversies, and he later asked readers if they could actually "cite Limbaugh's racist statements." Is Limbaugh a racist? That's become the operative question. I have listened to Limbaugh. His commitments to racial provocation are, in my opinion, self-evident. His investment in racial insensitivity (like his playful celebration of that "Obama, The Magic Negro" song) is also legion. Does that mean he's a racist? Part of the point of my recent book is to argue that claims/counter-claims about racism aren't productive. His advocates claim "no." His detractors say "yes." If someone can definitely prove that Limbaugh is a racist, does that mean that he doesn't have the right to own an NFL team? It is his $400 billion dollar media contract. He can spend that money on whatever he wants. But NFL players also have the right to voice their objections. Hopefully, the two sides can listen to one another instead of starting a shouting match that ends with both camps sulking in their respective, non-communicative corners. Also, I can understand why Limbaugh would try to defend himself against accusations of racism. But I don't buy the claim (given Limbaugh's consistency on questions of race) that the accusations themselves are on-their-face absurd. They can be wrong without being unreasonable.

3. And what can be said about Murdoch's ousting of Marc Hill? Hill was the object of an on-line campaign after a recent blog-post from David Horowitz that voiced outrage at the fact that Hill was given the privilege of serving as a pundit on Bill O'Reilly's nightly show. Hill was accused of supporting cop-killers (for comments about Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal) and of anti-Semitism (for an old article Hill wrote about Khalid Muhammad). I had assumed that Hill's job was safe. Fox News gets tons of pressure to oust other controversial figures on their programs, and they never buckle. If Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter are welcome on Fox, how could they ever justify firing Hill? Well, I was wrong. Moreover, there is a general logic to such witch-hunting that has become a pathetically hegemonic mode of political activism. It is justified by rhetoric of holding people "accountable." But what kind of politic really manifests itself in such victories? Is getting Beck or Hill or Coulter or anyone else off FOX News truly a gesture of political significance? How about thwarting Limbaugh's attempt to spend his millions? Or do such moves exemplify a trivialization of politics that is part of the problem?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ethics of the Pop Quiz

When I was an undergraduate, which really wasn't all that long ago, attending classes and completing my coursework constituted the sine qua non of my university existence. And that was probably true for many of my classmates at Howard University. Sure, we had extracurricular activities (some political and some recreational, some artistic and some just plain self-destructive), but that stuff probably didn't take up nearly as many hours per week as the tons of things students are busy with between class sessions these days.

I first noticed the difference (between then and now) when I taught at Duke University and served as faculty-in-residence for a first-year dormitory. I did the latter for three energizing years, and each incoming class seemed more over-extended and hyper-scheduled than the one before.

They were all serious students. They wouldn't have gotten into Duke if they weren't. But they also boasted an amazingly full life outside of the classroom. They volunteered for every worthy cause you could imagine. They interned at some of the most prestigious institutions around. They played multiple sports, toured with high school musical bands, and some of them even had time to start their own non-profits. And they were doing this all at the same time. In high school!

Indeed, what was most shocking was the realization that this model of full-time schooling mixed with full-time everything else only got ramped up once they started college. They were so accustomed to being frantically busy that they didn't even blink at the prospect of piling on tons more extracurricular work to their demanding semesterly courses: cheerleader, columnist for the campus newspaper, volunteer for university and community programs, RA, GA, athlete, lead performer in the campus play, official MC for weekly spoken-word events on campus, and on and on and on. It was exhausting (and admittedly exhilarating) just to watch them run around campus.

Of course, they got most of this stuff done because they barely slept. Again, I lived in the dorm. I know this to be true. They might have gotten up a little later than I did each morning, but that's only because they went to bed as my alarm clock rang out.

I think that I probably did two all-nighters during my entire undergraduate career. Nowadays, some students are lucky if they get away with two all-nighters a month--or even a week.

And they do all this not just because they can (new media technologies facilitate such hectic social dynamics in truly unprecedented ways), but also because they know that we (their professors and advisers) expect it.

It is no longer enough to be valedictorian. You have to excel in the classroom and demonstrate a robust set of commitments far beyond it. Everyone is telling them that this is what is going to make them stand out. And they've been hearing that mantra for a long, long time now, which means that some of them have been juggling schoolwork with other kinds of work (with an eye towards scholarship competitions and college admissions) since well before high school. It is hard-wired into is generation's cultural DNA. They assume that future employers are looking beyond 4.0 grade point averages (especially in an age of supposed grade inflation), so they are meeting those expectations with a vengeance.

And since that is the backdrop, I always feel a little guilty about the fact that my testing instrument of choice is (and has always been) the pop quiz. After all, aren't we supposed to be treating students like adults? Providing them with the readings, giving them the test dates, and then asking them to manage their time such that they are prepared for the scheduled exam--or not, right?

My pedagogical model, instead, is always predicated on wanting to make sure that students read the materials as I assign them, in time to contribute to classroom discussions, not as their admittedly packed schedules allow. But is that fair? Infantilizing? Unreasonable?

My students know that the unannounced quizzes are easy 100s for those who have done the reading. There are no trick (or particularly difficult) questions on them, just a request that students demonstrate (in "short answer" form) a basic comprehension of the readings before we go over them.

I've even been known to manifest the pop threat if a large lecture class seems particularly under-attended one slow Wednesday morning in the middle of the semester. Again, it is a reward for the folks in attendance and a punishment for the students who thought to sit that day out. But should I leave students alone to manage their hectic semesters and stop waxing nostalgic/romantic about some bygone, seemingly prelapsarian, moment when the classroom was ostensibly the center of the undergraduate universe?

Friday, October 9, 2009

You Can't Lose for Winning, Or Can You? Obama's Nobel Prize

I never understood the phrase, "you can't win for losing." Not really. I assume that it implies something like "without bad luck, I'd have no luck at all," the assumption that some people would only win anything if we gave out awards for Best Loser.

Obama recently lost his bid to help Chicago host the Olympics, but he clearly is a "winner," and that was even before he beat McCain in the last presidential election.

But the Nobel folks have taken his winningness to entirely new heights, and some detractors are confused (and insulted) by their recent decision--an attempt, some say, to counteract that Olympic snub or to thumb noses at the last Bush regime.

My brainstorm colleague Laurie Fendrich has already beaten me to the punch with her provocative and "political" contextualization of this morning's Nobel announcement. But I still wanted to add another inflection to this morning's Obama buzz, and it is predicated on the twitterati's tongue-in-cheek responses to Obama's newest win.

In a thread called ReasonsBHHwonNPP, here are some of the TwitterWorld's answers:

Because he fostered a friendship between a black professor and a white police officer.

For restoring US rep because they couldn't kick Bush a Nobel War prize on the way out the door.

Because he didn't smack Joe Wilson.

Because a beer in the rose garden is a revolutionary way to broker peace.

Because he has directed american military might toward our common enemy: the Moon.

Because the Arizona State University board of trustees weren't voting.

Because going for the Nobel Prize is like a race and well, he is half Kenyan.

Because anyone who has to deal w/Am Politics tday & hasnt punched anyone in the face deserves it.

And I know that Chronicle readers could undoubtedly add some zingers of their own. Indeed, Obama probably would have preferred not winning this particular prize, just because so many people are going to spend their time further demonizing him for it.

"Don't hate the playa," hip-hop MCs advise. "Hate the game." That's another colloquial saying that seems very appropriate today.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Establishment Clause vs. Memorial Cause

I'm teaching an undergraduate course on the mass mediation of religious beliefs this semester, and the students are taking an interdisciplinary look at how new media technology's ubiquity has changed (in big and small ways) people's religious experiences and practices all over the world, re-configuring spiritual communities and re-framing debates about religious tolerance.

The course examines the power of celebrity televangelists and their massive "digital churches."

It tries to provide some historical context for current (decidedly post-Scopes) debates about the science of "intelligent design."

It also traces contemporary and historical deployments of faith and religious truth to justify concomitant claims about the nature/reality of racial differences and gender hierarchies. For instance, popular readings of Noah's curse on Ham or Jacob's usurpation of Esau's birthright serve as two irreconcilable origin stories for the divine sanctioning of racialism. And Paul's oft-cited admonition in Ephesians ("Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.") has been a relatively unambiguous (if increasingly contested) justification for "male headship" in the church and beyond.

I have tried to organize the course such that students approach religion from an anthropological point of view (respecting religion as a particularly important example of "culture") while also recognizing that such would-be social scientific treatments might still represent blasphemous or irreverent engagements/interpretations (from the perspective of some believers). Or that it could slide too-easily into a dismissive attack on religion altogether, reducing it to little more than "false consciousness" (in the Marxian formulation) or even "neurological disorder" (in the Bill Maherian sense, which you find in his recent documentary, Religulous).

Students are asked to take religion seriously (culturally, socially and politically) without falling into the trap of seeing it exclusively as a threat to humanity. Indeed, for much of the time that sociologists and anthropologists have studied religion, they thought about it more as social glue than anything else, as something that helps societies to reproduce themselves over time and not only a potential handmaiden to our own annihilation, which is one version of the current take on religious excess in the age of WMDs.

The course also spends some time getting students to think about the relationship between "secular humanism" and "fundamentalism," two fraught and loaded terms in an ongoing debate about the true nature of religion's place within a seemingly rational "public sphere," a public sphere that was supposed to be creating more and more distance between its logic and the seemingly unfalsifiable principles of religious dogma. Of course, all of this means that my students and I are particularly primed for following any public coverage of religious controversies, and the newly Sotomayor'd Supreme Court's pending decision on that five-foot tall memorial cross housed (for over 70 years now) on a stretch of the Mohave Desert owned by the United States government is one case in point.

Since I co-taught a course on "race, religion and the law" at Harvard Law School last semester (with an absolutely brilliant scholar who truly understands these issues inside and out, Noah Feldman), I am particularly interested to see how the Establishment Clause fares against the memorializing cause that the cross represents. For the ACLU, this case is cut-and-dry. They say that such "stand-alone religious symbols" shouldn't have any place on public land whatsoever. Many military vets are outraged about the ACLU's stance, and some religious leaders accuse the organization of trying to purge America's public landscape of any and all religious iconography. The cross was declared a violation of the Establishment Clause in 2002, and Congress has been trying to find some way to resolve the issue without tearing down the cross itself. The ACLU thinks that the Congressional move to fix the constitutionality dilemma (by giving that strip of land to a veterans organization and declaring it a national memorial) is just a sham and doesn't correct the church-state problem in the least.

Any day now, the Supreme Court is going to tell us if the ACLU is right. For the students in my course this semester, the entire controversy is another example of religion's central place in America's cultural and political landscape.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The White House Strikes Back

In a web-post labeled "Reality Check," the White house recently blasted Fox News for trying to "smear the Administration's effort to win the Olympics for the United States."

The White House has been attempting to stay somewhat above the fray with respect to partisan media debates about the coverage of Obama's administration, but its official website offered a blog entry this Wednesday that castigated the "fair and balanced" network for supposedly being anything but. The post specifically highlights Glenn Beck's criticisms as indicative of the network's overall "disregard for the facts" in its coverage of Obama's White House.

The White House pushes back against several things:

a) Glenn Beck's claim that Vancouver lost a billion dollars when it hosted the Olympics is dismissed as a function of the fact that Vancouver will, in fact, host its Olympics in 2010.

b) A Beck guest arguing that Chicago's city government is so fiscally irresponsible that it has to close down city-services several days every week is met with the counterclaim that Chicago will only have three reduced-service days (including Thanksgiving and Christmas) in all of 2009.

c) Beck's questions about Valerie Jarrett's financial stake in Chicago's Olympic proposal is flatly denied by maintaining that she "divested all her real estate holdings except for a single investment that has nothing to do with the Olympic bid."

Of course, Beck won't let this stand, and his defenders are most certainly marshaling evidence for their rejoinders right now. I haven't checked, they might have already launched their counterattacks. At which point, Obama's supporters will be forced to respond in kind. America's politico-cultural war is all about an irrational escalation of this rhetorical arms race.

There is certainly no Archimedean point from which to engage these issues. Not for Obama, not for any of us. We all get dragged into this partisan alley-fight, even those of us who think we can just play-dead by the electoral curb somewhere, curling our political selves into a fetal position as rabid ideologues throw wild haymakers at one another above our heads.

Could it be possible that, say, Valerie Jarrett will get even richer as a function of Chicago succeeding to win the Olympic games? Probably. As will Chicago's "haves" on the other side that supposedly firewalled-off political aisle. Elites from both parties lie when they maintain that the other side corners the market on any self-interested implications of the work they perform in the public sphere. There are legitimate cases to be made about when such self-serving consequences cross the line, ethically speaking, but is there a point when the wildly partisan discourse that constitutes our political bathwater gets so dirty that the baby might not be able to survive? As professors, is there any way to teach our students to see the potential political ramifications of our social and cultural choices/beliefs without forcing them to gulp down the swill from that same filthy tub?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Are You E-gnoring Me?

The beginning of the academic year is full of excitement and activity. Especially activity. There's all that frantic prep to get courses ready for students (completing syllabi, posting readings, organizing lectures). Then your Fall meeting schedule starts to kick-in, and you end up spending late nights doing all the reading and writing that's no longer possible during daylight hours. I get it. I've been there. Truth be told, I'm marooned there right now.

If you have any "televisual interests" (i.e., if you are even the mildest of TV-Junkies), the new Fall season has started, and the shows you forgot about are clamoring for your distracted attention.

Many academics want to have their cake and eat it, too. We spend our summers hunkered down trying to make major headway on our research projects (which, for me, meant editing the first rough cut of an ethnographic film on violence in Jamaica and starting to gain momentum on my next book, an examination of Black Hebrewism/s). But we still want to maintain at least a bit of that scholarly momentum after the start of the Fall semester. And all of this is piled on top of things like childcare and/or romantic relationships and/or all the other substantive stuff of life convincing us that it's worth living.

Of course, something has to give. And for many academics, the composite "something" includes diligence about email correspondences.

And I get it. I'm notorious for delayed responses to emails. There are many folks who could tell you that. So, I am the last person who has the right to get upset when his own email queries drop into that cyber vortex reserved for unrequited letter-writing, a veritable black hole of avoided emaildom.

Many of us abuse emails, which means that others of us feel inundated by too many of them, most of it Internet litter (or worse) that requires disposal.

And what more than hubris allows any of us to assume that we'll get an email response back from someone we haven't even met, or don't know very well. For all we know, it probably just landed in their hyper-filtering "junk-mail" box.

But what about friends and colleagues who don't respond? You've sent off what you imagine to be an urgent or personal or detailed message, carefully crafted, about some topic of importance to you and, hopefully, them (not the forwarding of spam-infected jokes that some supposed cyber-friends propagate). But you get nothing back. Not after a day. Not after two days. Or a week. Or two weeks. Eventually, after a month or two, you just happen to remember, in a flash, that you never heard from them at all. "Hey, s/he never got back to me?" Not even an automated confirmation that it was received and opened, which is some small consolation for the cyber-dissed.

What is the proper response to such e-gnoring? Am I the only one keeping a list of such offenders--for some subsequent moment of non-cyber reckoning?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Promotion Paranoia

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from a friend/colleague at a university on the West Coast. (I'll try to stay purposefully vague about things, which will include avoiding gendered pronouns.)

The person, a rigorous scholar in the social sciences, is frantically trying to get a dossier completed for a pending promotion review, which explains why I would get a buzz at 8:45 in the morning, Philadelphia time. Said friend/colleague was pulling an all-nighter.

This colleague was freaking out about the tenure process, and our conversation went something like this:

ME: Hey, it has been a long time. How are things?

THEM: I'm going crazy over here.

ME: Why? What's up?

THEM: This tenure thing. They are trying to make me go insane.

ME: All the material you have to assemble?

THEM: No. Well, yeah. But not just that. There is all this voting about the process. Everyone is constantly voting on whether my file should move to the next phase. All these hurdles. Voting, voting, voting. And I've caught myself interpreting every small exchange with my colleagues as an indication of how they might stand on my case, on how they might be voting. Ugh! And every once in a while I get a strange look or comment that nearly drives me over the cliff. It has gotten to the point where I wish I could just avoid any contact with ANYBODY until the process is done. How did you cope? Any tips?

Unfortunately, I didn't have any tips. At least nothing that I thought would really help. I was lucky enough to be on leave when I first went up for tenure, which meant that I could mostly avoid the kind of "promotion paranoia" that my friend was describing.

I always tell people that one of the benefits of going to Columbia University in the mid-1990s was that you were exposed to some very high-profile tenure denials. There was one in Comparative Literature that I remember. And even in my own department, Anthropology.

Those decisions made some of my fellow graduate students completely terrified of the tenure process, which was so secretive and seemingly capricious. But for other students, those same decisions were potentially liberating. That's because we thought of them (fairly or not) as little more than "political" decisions, either with the capital "P" of ideological differences (people who just don't like your theoretical endgame) or the small "p" of pettier interpersonal differences (people who just don't like you).

Either way, it seemed to instruct us that we had better do what we really enjoyed (as fledgling scholars), because there would never be a foolproof way to game the tenure process, to predetermine the outcome in any particular case. So, we didn't want to get stuck doing a research project for years and years simply (or mostly) because we thought it might land us a good job on the road to tenure.

But do folks have other ways of coping with this promotion paranoia that they would recommend? If so, I'll pass them on.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Either/Or Racial Analysis

On the train ride back from Washington to Philadelphia this morning, after catching the U.S. premiere of filmmaker Haile Gerima's new feature film, Teza, I read the David Brooks NYTs op-ed, "No, It's Not About Race." Brooks does a compelling job historically contextualizing the "populist backlash" against Obama's policies. The partisan media, on the Left and Right, is making racism the story, Brooks says, but the real causal truth lies elsewhere.

"[Obama] has fused federal power with Wall Street, the auto industry, the health-care industries, and the energy sector," Brooks writes, and there is a long history of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian resistance to "the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers." All this, coupled with the fact that the tea-party demonstrators mingled peacefully on September 12th with thousands of African Americans out that same day for a Black Family Reunion Celebration, gives Brooks confidence that racism has nothing to do with the anti-Obama protests, even at their most hostile and high-pitched (seemingly secessionist) levels.

I have already tried to argue, in my recent book on "racial paranoia" in contemporary America, for the substantive difference between, say, purchasing a hot dog on the street from someone of a different race, having an innocently fleeting conversation with a racial stranger, and forming substantive ties across racial lines. The former is the problem when it is not reinforced by the latter. Did members of these two groups (the Tea Partyers and the Black Family Reunioners), as a function of the happenstance of their unrelated public events, exchange phone numbers and start lasting relationships? Or did they simply perform the self-conscious dance of anxious racial politeness that our post civil-rights assumptions about public civility demand, especially across racial lines?

Indeed, I also want to push back a bit against this zero-sum-game kind of public analysis about race and racism, this all-or-nothing rhetoric that says either racism is the definitive cause of something (a smoking gun still hot to the touch and smelling of ash) or completely irrelevant, relegating anything more nuanced and realistic to the dustbin reserved for the politically useless: what can't be dismissed or demagogued in a single sound bite.

In some ways, Haile Gerima might offer a more compelling take on the issue than Brooks. Gerima's new film, Teza, is a powerful epic tale of an Ethiopian medical scientist and would-be revolutionary who returns from Germany, where he did his studies, to find an Ethiopia torn asunder by the socialist dogma that he once espoused. Gerima's most ambitious and powerful film to date, Teza is also a story about what do with race/racism as a factor in social life.

Without giving too much of the film away, Gerima decides on a both/and model. Just when you think that he's offering a view of Ethiopian politics that pivots exclusively on ostensibly nonracial ideological concerns, he tries to remind us that racism is always there, less a smoking gun than a smoldering fire that continues to burn, slowly and faintly, even after we think we've stamped it out. And if not carefully minded and fully doused, Gerima claims, it can always find a way to burst itself back into flame.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Where Is Your @$%!&*ing Final Paper?

I missed most of President Obama’s speech Wednesday night, but I’ve been getting tons of messages about S.C. Representative Joe Wilson heckling him during the address, screaming “You lie!” from a seat in the audience. Even though it does seem a little weird and disrespectful that a Congressman would decide to voice his objections in such a backalley way (and he’s since, of course, apologized), was this vulgar display all that qualitatively different from, say, Wilson going on FOX News later on that very evening and calling Obama a liar after the fact?

I actually don’t want to talk about the kind of rage that prompted Wilson to publicly yell at the standing President, but it reminded me of one of academe’s double standards around public displays of hostility.

What are we to make of the athletic coach who shouts at his or her players for making a bad play?

I’m not just talking about Bobby Knight-style tossing of chairs across basketball courts. He’s something like the King of Sports Rage. But so many coaches do it, even seemingly mild-mannered ones. And sometimes with four-letter expletives as rhetorical garnish. “What the @#&!$^% were you thinking on that play!? Sit the @!#$& down!!!!”

I spent four years at Duke University watching from the stands while two relatively even-keeled coaches (Coach K and Coach G) periodically hurled quite enraged charges at their undergraduate players. I remember thinking, what would people say if faculty treated those same students that way?

“Where’s your @&#!&!ing paper? This final paper is absolute @&#!!*!”

It would be absurd. Outrageous. But why do coaches get away with such abuse when these very students don their athletic uniforms? It seems like just the kind of arbitrary social convention that demonstrates a version of what anthropologist Mary Douglas once described as the central importance of culturally specific understandings of “matter out of place.” Things get deemed profane/dirty/obscene/vulgar as a function of “where” they are, not just “what” they are. For some reason, we think about the classroom as the wrong place for university employees to curse at their students. What makes basketball courts or football fields more appropriate? Does the presence of the crowd somehow matter? What is it?

Of course, just one of the many differences between a coach shouting at his/her players and Wilson snapping at Obama is that the coach and athlete consider themselves to be fighting for the same goal, literally on the same team. How many people in Congress really think about their colleagues “across the aisle” with a similarly inclusive attitude?

(Previously published on The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog and in the Durham Herald-Sun.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ode to Lingua Franca

In symbolic preparation for the start of another academic year, I ritualistically cleaned out one of the many file cabinets today, one of the several that I haven't opened in what seems like millennia. There are usually at least two or three pleasant surprises to be uncovered during such a process, and this time around I came across my old stash of Lingua Franca magazines. And I immediately had a dilemma. Do I throw them away or not?

The purported rationale for this annual late-summer exercise is just such purging. I'm a packrat, a trait I probably got from my mom, who tosses just about everything that comes across her kitchen table into a cardboard box (to be filed away and subsequently forgotten). Plus, I'm an ethnographer who considers just every bit of material culture ever manufactured potential "data" that might be deployable in some future attempt at cultural analysis, which means that I always have a "professional" rationalization for my hoarding.

Even still, I try to be strong during my September office purgings. But Lingua Franca has a special place in my heart. Maybe it should be granted some kind of special/prileged status amidst the other junk in need of immediate discarding. I mean, this magazine got me through the first couple years of graduate school at Columbia.

Something like The Chronicle of Higher Education meets The Nation (with a little National Enquirer thrown in for good measure), Lingua Franca was a not-so-guilty pleasure for my grad school cohort in the early 1990s. That's where we learned how academic/intellectual debates translated into institutional fault lines and interpersonal squabbles. It covered academe under the guise of in-depth investigative journalism, which meant that it didn't just dish the gossipy dirt (which was always in full supply); they also tried to breakdown complicated theoretical ideas and explain disputes within fields that had implications beyond them.

For the grad students I knew, this was like getting a cheat sheet on contemporary academic life and its conceptual/analytical conflagrations. Of course, the stories always had a slant, and they usually angered as many people as they excited. But this still seemed like a wonderful way to get at least one pretty well-researched (and popularly pitched) interpretation of academic issues with an impressive degree of institutional contextualization of things.

When I found out that the magazine was closing up shop in 2001, I was no longer a graduate student. And though I'd kept my subscription, I'd stopped doing the cover-to-cover readings that had given my years in grad school such delicious pleasure. Even still, I was crushed that future grad students would be denied the same opportunity to enjoy Lingua Franca. What a pity.

(For one take on the end of Lingua Franca, see "Who Killed Lingua Franca?")

Which brings me to my question: In the age of on-line publishing, could someone resurrect Lingua Franca and actually make it profitable? Or does The Chronicle pick up enough of the slack?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Second-Nature of Politics

So, the semester has finally started. It really has. And I've got a stack of half-written student recommendations (and more than one unfinished syllabus) to prove it. Classes don't begin at Penn until next week, and I have been trying to take a little break before the delicious storm that is the start of every new academic year pours down on my head.

I've also re-read many of the scathing comments to my last few Chronicle posts, trying to honestly consider their criticisms, including the idea that my Chronicle posts exemplify the kind of left-wing brainwashing that needs to be purged from the academy.

I don't see it, but I would also readily concede that that doesn't necessarily mean the criticisms are unfounded. Culture is powered by self-deluding blinders. It is a kind of second-nature that usually only gets harder to recognize the more you try to spot it. Culture wouldn't be culture if we spent most of our time second-guessing it, especially not the parts of it we take for granted. We do most of whatever it is we do everyday with a lack of explicit consciousness that rivals the potency of more ostensibly hard-wired and biological instincts. So, that is all to say that any ideologue is the last person to recognize his or her own subjective biases passing themselves off as objective truths in the public sphere, which means that I'd probably be one of the last people to see (or want to see) any truths in those aforementioned criticisms.

To make matters worse, other people's cultural practices are always easier for someone else to see, at least insofar as they differ from the cultural practices of the person doing the looking.

All that is simply a way of saying that I take all critiques seriously, if not as statements of objective fact about the world then at least as a different set of cultural assumptions about what "facts" actually mean, where the rubber hits the road on all this stuff anyway.

Even still, I want to state my distaste for a few common moves in the rhetorical/ideolgocal battle being mercilessly waged between so-called The Left and Right. First of all, there is this winner-take-all mentality that only tries to defeat the opposing team--at all costs, come hell or high water. That might work in the short term for people trying to win elections (even if not for the long-term good of those they represent), but it certainly doesn't work if the default team in quiestion is robustly inclusive. Economist Glenn Loury makes this us-them point quite clearly with respect to multiracial conflicts in his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality. What if we all started with the assumption that we were playing for the same team? Would our rhetoric change? Our political endgame?

Point two: just because the Chronicle is about "higher education" doesn't mean that discussions of hip-hop artists being deployed to explain international politics or an invocation of "obamaphobia" in a discussion about our over-heated public debates are categorically out of order. One can talk politics without trying to brainwash people or push a partisan agenda. Of course, we live in a world where many people seem happy to reduce any talk of "the political" to one or both of those impoverished alternatives. I reject that claim, even if I sound like Pollyanna.

Do I tend to lean "left" on most things? That's probably true (most days), but I'm genuinely interested in listening to other people, from all sides of all issues, and challenging my own too-comfortable cultural assumptions about politics or anything else.

At the same time, I do get a little froggy and want to jump back at what I think are unproductive attacks. For example, when Michelle Malkin describes my aforementioned "Obamaphobobia" post as a "screed" on her website and declares that I have called her book "a hate crime," it takes all that I have not to cry "foul." What was she reading? Is this the kind of gloss on texts that informs the interpretations found in her bestselling book? Besides that, she's calling somebody else's work a screed? That seems like the pot signifyin(g) on the kettle, if you know what I mean. If only her mention of my post had gotten my Racial Paranoia book anywhere near the hemisphere of her book's sales figures. Maybe it would have all been worth it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shame On You, Joyce Joyce!

I had just started reading an article by literary scholar Joyce Ann Joyce in a recent issue of the journal Callaloo when I came across her severe critique of my latest book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness.

Joyce is probably most famous in some academic circles for having been tapped to replace Molefi Asante as head of African American Studies at Temple University in the late 1990s. Asante wasn't pleased with that selection, and he made his displeasure very public. He even went so far as to claim that she would destroy his Afrocentric project/curriculum. Many scholars dismissed his attacks as sexist bigmanism, but having been subjected to so many vicious attacks during her stint at the helm, Joyce ended up stepping down a little ahead of schedule.

Anyway, that's just a too-short recap of the Joyce-Asante dispute. Here's the passage from her new article that discusses my book:

In his book Professor John Jackson, Jr. makes his contribution to the devaluation of racial issues in the quality of Black lives. In the chapter “Racial Paranoia’s Canonical Texts,” he uses John A. Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am and many other invaluable historical studies, such as Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro as examples of a long line of conspiracy theories that imbue Black paranoia and that retard healthy relations between Blacks and Whites. Johnson’s use of Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro contains a humorous ironic element. Carter G. Woodson not only details how a Euro-American education influences the thinking—and thus the methodology—of the Black intellectual, but his work and especially his success at forging the institutionalization of Black History Week, which is now Black History Month, precedes and makes the way for the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, Black Arts Movement, and thus the institutionalization of the first Black Studies Program at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) in 1968. This initial program provoked universities to add Black Studies to their curriculum and to focus on the hiring of Black faculty. Thus were it not for what Johnson refers to as paranoia and an obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories, it is quite possible that he would not be securely ensconced behind the walls of the University of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, Black intellectual history counters Johnson’s paranoia with legal facts (though I am fully aware that some intellectuals no longer believe in the concept of facts). Yet, I hope that we still believe in what we can see. One of the things we can see is the overwhelming number of Blacks, Latinos, and poor Whites in the American prison system. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall’s Race, Law, and American Society presents a documented history of laws that affected Black survival from the early seventeenth century to the twenty-first century. Her detailed summaries of legal and Supreme Court decisions over a four-hundred-year period suggest that Blacks have substantial reason to be paranoid.

First of all, a relatively minor point. My name is Jackson, not Johnson. She calls me the latter three times in this paragraph. Three big red flags.

Second, I quote the books/authors she mentions because they are important and canonical . Not because they are somehow responsible for "retard(ing) healthy relations between Blacks and Whites." That isn't even close to the book's argument about social causality vis-a-vis race/racism.

I don't blame Carter G. Woodson or John Williams for "racial paranoia" at all. In fact, I don't even use those two texts in the same way. I invoke one portion of Williams's marketing strategy for The Man Who Cried I Am to illustrate the ingenuous way he tried to increase general interest in his 1967 novel by playing off of urban legends and conspiracy theories. I invoke Woodson, Kunjufu, Diop, Cress-Welsing, and others to demonstrate that African-American skepticism toward White America's espoused commitments to full racial equality has a substantial reading list. Is that really a controversial claim?

Joyce writes that "were it not for what Johnson refers to as paranoia and an obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories, it is quite possible that he would not be securely ensconced behind the walls of the University of Pennsylvania." I am far from arguing that African Americans have an "obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories." And we certainly don't corner the market on such proclivities. I do contend that legitimate racial skepticism pivots on some of the very same terrain as seemingly "unfounded conspiracy theories." And the anthropologist in me wants people to take such theories seriously as "social facts" instead of dismissing them out of hand. That's my point. I must not make it clearly enough.

I deploy "paranoia" quite purposefully, pointedly, and NOT as a way to disparage/ridicule Black skepticism.

My use of "paranoia" is hardly a concession to reactionary dismissals of Black skepticism (as misplaced and dysfunctional). Rather, it is a reclamation of the term as a potentially reasonable response the surreal cultural logic of our contemporary racial moment. Moreover, I want to argue that Blacks who invoke racism to describe anything short of Black people being lynched from trees are already labeled paranoid. Given that context, I maintain that being called "paranoid" for invoking subtler forms of race/racism isn't something to be feared.

Joyce ends her criticism of my book by referencing Gloria J. Browne-Marshall's Race, Law, and American Society and arguing that "Blacks have substantial reason to be paranoid." Again, that is one major summary of my book's very point, especially in a politically correct environment wherein racial wolves (formerly dressed in white sheets) know that they have to pass themselves off as sheep to be taken seriously in the public sphere. (Obama's election may signal the beginning of the end of "political correctness" in its current form as a function of the re-politicization of "whiteness" as a "marked" category in newly urgent need of defense against threats like "reverse discrimination." Indeed, much of the Sotomayor hearing seemed to frame the conversation about contemporary race relations in just those terms.)

Joyce maintains that my book contributes "to the devaluation of racial issues in the quality of Black lives." Devaluation in what sense? I'm not taking racial issues seriously by taking even the most cynical and skeptical ones seriously? Maybe she (or others) can accuse me of placing too much value on racial issue, but too little?

Joyce doesn't even disagree with my argument: that there is a powerful (and historically grounded) reason for Black paranoia/skepticism today. So, why is she misreading my book? Or reading it so ungenerously? Or maybe not reading it at all and just assuming my endgame based on the book's title?

One answer, I'd argue, is that some Black academics have already gone post-racial.

Post-raciality could never really be about completely eliminating race. That's a fantasy. Instead, it tends to mean finding ways to evoke race when helpful, using it for protective cover as necessary and disqualifying any opponent's equivalent gesture. It means, for some people, claiming not to see racism almost anywhere except when it is purportedly "reverse racism" to be spied. It is a convenient and self-serving form of racial reasoning, and there's an equally self-serving organizing principle around race/racism at work in certain sections of the academy. And some Black academics have their own variation on that theme.

I don't know Joyce Ann Joyce. I've never met her. And that might be the beginning of the problem.

Some Black academics seem to think that a racially inflected nepotism/cronyism is equivalent to progressive racial politics writ large. The Black folks they know and love are family, fictive kin. Supporting their own social network is supposed to mean supporting "the race." Anyone else can go to hell--Yellow, Brown, White, or Black.

Joyce doesn't know me, but she assumes that she's seen my kind before.

Maybe she thinks that I am a reactionary Black neo-con who lines his pockets by dismissing Black angst and struggle. Or maybe she just maligns my book (after an insultingly cursory glance) because she doesn't actually know me. I hope her sense of racial community (her investment in the "quality of black lives") doesn't simply begin and end with her own social capital. That would be a form of post-racialism masquerading as a racial agenda. If so, shame on you, Joyce Joyce.

Shame on me, perhaps, for calling out an "elder" in public, but I wanted to correct what I consider a blatant (and unjustifiable) misinterpretation of my work.

Joyce knows the danger of such wholesale dismissals. She is also someone who should care enough about the book's topic/theme to read it carefully, even if she would still ultimately disagree with its actual arguments.

Obamaphobia 2009

"He's a socialist." "He's a communist." "He's anti-American." "Heck, he wasn't even born in the United States."

By most accounts, Obama has been taking a public pounding lately. His poll numbers are falling. His attempt to revamp our health care system appears decidedly stalled.

Of course, that very same health care agenda has even been blitzed by angry protesters at town hall meetings all around the country, protesters accused (by those on the Left) of either being extremist zealots or disingenuous provocateurs/plants.

These same indignant protesters claim to read between the lines of Obama's public statements about health care, accusing him of trying to nationalize it. Or worse.

Over the last few days, there has even been talk (media-covered talk) about an Obama-led Democratic conspiracy to create "death panels" charged with determining which sick Americans will be given the privilege of government-dispensed health care.

There are also rumors about secret FEMA "concentration camps" being built by an Obama regime with a specifically Totalitarian and Fascist endgame. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck went on FOX News to announce that after "several days of research" to debunk such claims about secret camps, "I can't debunk them."

FEMA is one "usual suspect" in conspiracy theories about evil government plots. In my book Racial Paranoia, I discuss similar theories from the 1950s and 60s about secret concentration camps being built for troublesome Americans. In that earlier version of things, those on the Left were prime candidates for such ideologically driven gulags. Today, far Right conservatives are the ones imaginings themselves most vulnerable to the possibility of political imprisonment. And pundits such as Lou Dobbs (for his straight-faced coverage of the "birthers") and the aforementioned Glenn Beck have been consistently criticized for fomenting such outlandishness.

Of course, Beck already didn't like Obama. "This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people," Beck claimed (on another FOX News program). "This guy is, I believe, a racist." (Some of Beck's show's advertisers have dropped his program as a function of such statements.)

But Beck isn't alone in this game of high-profile Obama-bashing. Michelle Malkin's bestselling book Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks and Cronies is a manifesto of Obamaphobia.

In many ways, this is simply how politics gets done. And it probably always has been. Many of the attacks on George W. Bush were brutal and merciless, and they still hardly hold a candle to some of the partisan rhetorical assaults of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In some ways, we've mellowed as a nation, even as the non-mellow among us gain increasing access to far-flung members of their "fringe" with advances in global media. A relatively small group of like-minded people can have a disproportionate impact on our collective public stage, especially if they make effective use of new media technologies. They can almost create Movements, and seemingly overnight. Indeed, we might be living in an era of the incessant and media-spawned Mini Social Movement. (Again, think of the "Birthers Movement" and its claim about Obama not really being an American citizen.) We could call such things social movements du jour, maybe pseudo social movements. But with a little media coverage, even pseudo social movements become "real" in ways that can have substantive consequences for all of us.

Americans' current "run on guns" isn't just about a potential change in national policy around gun control and the right to bear arms. Some of it also seems to be predicated on an uptick in right-wing militias and their renewed calls for a "race war." Part of it is about a kind of "racial paranoia" linked to economic insecurities, a racial paranoia that pivots on a growing social movement around reactionary racial politicking. (The way "race" functioned in the Sotomayor confirmation hearings was one example of what this reactionary racial rhetoric sounds like today. The fallout from the Gates-Crowley Affair was another.)

Mark Potok, editor the the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report sees "a resurgence of right-wing hate groups and radical ideas" linked to the ascendence of America's first Black President. Recent reports put out by the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms seem to corroborate that claim. With unemployment and deficit spending on the rise and Americans full of fear about their own economic futures, we should be careful not to fall into the same old trap of racial scapegoating. It is easy. We've mastered it. It might even allow some of us to sleep more soundly at night. But it is utterly and ultimately the most self-dstructive response we can have to our present predicament.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Birth Certificates to Beer Summits: It's a Baudrillard World!

Nobody talks about Baudrillard anymore, but this has been a summer replete with political absurdities of Baudrillardian proportions.

Budrillard is most famous for his use of the concept simulacra, the idea of a copy passing itself off as "the real McCoy" without anything original or genuine actually vouchsafing it. This was his post-Marxian and post-Freudian attempt to talk about the newfangled nature of late 20th century culture, especially as funneled through--and even concocted out of wholecloth--by mass mediation itself.

There was that delicious reference to his book, Simulacra and Simulation, in the first installment of the Matrix trilogy, but Baudrillard is often dismissed as too ridiculously hyperbolic to take seriously (for instance, his 1995 claim that "the Gulf War did not take place"). His critics describe him as even more theoretically vacuous than other fetishized, French-imported social critics. But after watching the bizarre wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson's death for the last month or so, I am starting to think that Baudrillard has become more useful (to think with) than ever before.

Who else but Baudrillard can make sense of the nonsensicial mainstream ratcheting up of absurdist (and seemingly unfalsifiable) claims about Obama's supposed foreignness? What better justifies globally covered "beer summit" over race-relations proffered as a technique for innoculating ourselves against future racial misunderstandings? How else can we wrap our heads around Sarah Palin's decision to open herself up to new attacks on her political preparedness (just as she is wont to fend them off)?

Is the Baudrillardian moment upon us? Have we moved unabashedly from "real" politics to mere simulacra? I think so. This has been the summer of simulacra.

Indeed, the only folks who might have a more productive handle on the contemporary political moment might be the early 20th century surrealists. Although, truth be told, it seems to me that we might have already collectively "jumped the shark" (as a global public) so much that we could be experiencing something closer to a simulacra of the surreal, its artificially manufactured, cynically pre-fabbed, and hyper-produced Reality-TVesque carbon copy.

And if even our contemporary surreality is a sham, we are in real big trouble.

Think about it. Imagine a world where a Boston police officer calls Skip Gates a "banana-eating jungle monkey" and declares that he would have actually used pepperspray on the professor. And then the officer seems dumbfounded that people think he sounds like an unreconstruced racist. And this, even after the media's hyper-scrutiny of Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments. Is this all too stupid to really be surreal?