Monday, February 15, 2010

In the Wake of Haiti: Jay Leno and Amy Bishop

It feels callous, even pathetic, to go on with business-as-usual while Haiti continues to reel from such a singular catastrophe. Not that it is really a viable alternative to stand still, catatonic and mouth ajar, wallowing in all the graphic (sometimes gratuitous) images offered up all day, everyday, by news outlets.

Those same media outlets have toned down their coverage of Haiti considerably these past two weeks, which seems welcomingly merciful, I have to selfishly admit, even as it also shocks me how quickly the 24-hour news cycle can chew up and spit out any story, including one as massive as the Haitian disaster. A nor'easter seems hardly to merit displacing it at the top of anybody's news hour.

Even after we've sent our checks (contra Rush Limbaugh's suggestions) and commiserated with friends about the tragedy (the injustice of the event itself, the high-profile mean-spiritedness of certain religious explanations for it, the frustrating tales about the difficulty of relief efforts and the plight of those "kidnapped" orphans), we still have to go on with the rest of our day, the rest of our lives, right? Anything else seems almost like courting psychosis, dancing with the devil of existential despair.

And I have certainly taken that advice. I spent the end of January and the beginning of February staying up late at night to watch Conan O'Brien and David Letterman hurl insults (in the guise of "jokes") at Jay Leno. I guzzled down the season premiere of 24, and I made it my business to YouTube Mo'Nique's acceptance speech from the Golden Globes (just because everybody seemed to be talking about it). I did all of this with the Haitian earthquake's aftermath punctuating the noisy pauses between these silly vices.

For me, it feels almost schizophrenic to be following the events in Haiti while, say, preparing for weekly sessions of my graduate course (on the noeme of film). I also have a few grad students and recent grads on the academic job market, so I am writing recommendations and helping them to deal with the inevitable anxieties that such professional hurdles produce. This week, I'll spend much more time on that stuff than I will watching the news coverage from Haiti.

All academic eyes are now focused on the shooting in Huntsville. A faculty member at the University of Alabama is denied tenure (another one of those anxiety-filled professional hurdles), and she makes some of her colleagues pay for it with their lives. The entire affair feels like academia's version of a natural disaster: what can happen when the tectonic plates beneath the ever-secretive tenure process shift just enough for others to really feel it. Of course, the person denied tenure already feels the devastation, but it is a decidedly individualized experience, mostly dealt with off-stage and out of public view.

At the same time, very little really feels "natural" about this Law and Order-type murder story, its headlines coming fast and furious. The Chronicle Of Higher Education has descended on the scene like academia's version of the New York Times, and we are continuing to get details about the shooter's quirkiness and interpersonal oddities.

An academic friend of mine claims to find it "strange" that such post-tenure shootings don't happen more often, especially given how "nutty" academics can be. And she readily includes herself in that unflattering characterization, which I respected, even as I demanded that she make an exception for my own self-avowed normalcy. But is she right? Given how fraught the climb up academia's ladder, is it shocking how infrequently such violent retaliation takes place? What, if anything, does this shooting really tell us about a "life of the mind" or about the way academics adjudicate it? How long before the Amy Bishop story gets bumped from the headlines, and is there something faculty members should actually learn from the entire thing before it does?