Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways

Two convicted felons who’ve spent seven years apiece behind bars, one brilliant, homeless man fresh off the Newark psych ward, and an ex-jock who read Foucault in high school. That’s the enrollment in my undergraduate independent study on social theory this semester. Why am I having so much fun with them?

Turn that question around. Why are we bored by normal behavior? What draws us to the deviants, miscreants, and malcontents? I’ll make it personal: why have I gone out of my way to teach in teach in two maximum-security prisons and a juvenile correctional facility? What makes me think I’m doing good by seeking out the criminals?

What makes you think so? Is it just another symptom of believing in a “New World” as the site of redemption, where all the sins and all the suffering of the past take on meaning enough to make the present bearable?

Don’t worry, I’m not invoking the specter of American Exceptionalism, the phrase some of us use to congratulate ourselves as we denounce 18th-century preachers, 19th-century politicians, and 20th-century policy-makers for exempting this part of the world from the laws of motion that regulate the rest of it. They never even wanted that exemption, contrary to what famous historians believe, because that would have placed “America” outside of any scheme of civilization, providential or not. And look, the very idea of exceptionalism was a European invention (think Spengler, Heidegger)—-only lunatics have ever believed that the US was unique rather than indispensable.

But there’s a difference here worth pondering. I have long believed that to understand the contours of American history was to understand the cutting edge of modern times, where you could hear the sawblade of human nature bend and whine as it bit into the slaughterbench that is human history. It’s on this same edge where you also feel that all those preachers and politicians and policy-makers have been so many criminals—-lying, thieving, conniving thugs and bullies who have by now forced the world to live by the law of the jungle, not even the laws of war.

What, then? What do we do with our commitment to these criminals, these deviants, miscreants, and malcontents who rule our American dreams?

When I worked as a bouncer and then a bartender, I could spot “the trouble” as easily as a dermatologist recognizes a rash. This diagnostic experience helped me later, when, as a stupid drunkard with a death wish, I wanted to start fights in bars (believe me, it’s pretty easy).

The trouble is the type who stares at you when you glance at him: he’s the guy who says “Fuck off” when you say “Excuse me,” and he’s the one wants you to know he’s not getting out of your way. He’s got a vibe, he radiates the energy you try to avoid because you know it’s dangerous to your health—-because you know his death wish is contagious.

But you gravitate toward him, don’t you, and not just to monitor his behavior on behalf of your customers or your friends, no, you go there because you want the risk he represents. He’s perfectly predictable in this narrow sense: you know that, any minute now, he’ll do or say something preposterous, and all hell will break loose.

Once upon a time he was a warrior, an implacable brute living up to the expectations of a world ruled by the sword. Then he was a pirate, the guerilla warrior steering a factory afloat on the still fluid periphery of civilization. And then a Robber Baron. Now he’s a mere criminal, the man defined by the law as a surplus of affect. Or, if he can write code, he’s the dropout, the underdog, the entrepreneur who defied the expectations of polite society and finally sold his idea to the venture capitalists from his parents’ garage.

The thing is, the man who breaks the rules and lives is the man we admire, and sometimes even treat as a hero. Why? Because he’s the man who overrules and outlives the formal logic of tragedy—-he’s the man who defies fate but is not crushed by the reach of his ambition. We used to say he outwitted the Gods. Now we say he got away with it. Either way, he doesn’t die even though he’s broken the law. That’s the last remaining difference between the tragic hero and the criminal. The criminal outlasts the law.

Since the Europeans invaded America, it’s been hard to tell the difference between the hero and the criminal, the saint and the sinner, because the development of capitalism actually requires thievery, chicanery, and piracy—-oh, and “creative destruction.” Gangsters R Us.

The American complicity with crime runs deep because rapid change is normal in this part of the world—-here crisis becomes the rule, not the exception. So if it’s true that “any incipient trend will first be felt as crime by reason of its conflict with established values,” as Kenneth Burke claimed in 1937, in the heyday of gangster movies, then the difference between criminals and heroes becomes pointless: they break the rules, they get us beyond the status quo, they urge us to expect more, they might as well be the revolutionaries we read about in college.

Or the outlaws from 19th-century dime novels.

But here they are, these deviants, miscreants, and malcontents. Seth shot a man to death, Mark killed a man while driving drunk—-they’ve both been reading David Harvey since they were locked up—-and then there’s Al-Zamar, the most brilliant student I’ve encountered in forty years of teaching, who has spent two of the last four weeks in the psych ward at UMDNJ in Newark, and who lives, if that’s the right word, in a homeless shelter. Their comrade in texts is 19-year old Michael, who went to Ridgewood High and wrestled heavyweight his senior year, also with Michel Foucault. Like me, he keeps looking around the room, wondering how he got here.

I do pinch myself from time to time. I do wonder how I got to be a professor, a guy who reads and writes—-and talks-—for a living, knowing that when I was 20 years old, I had a gun to my head. The question I ask myself is, how did you get so lucky?

There’s no good answer, not in this part of the world. Some of us become criminals, some of us become heroes. The rest of us get by.

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Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter New Jersey

Yesterday morning I drove to work from my girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea, so I went down 7th Avenue to the Holland Tunnel instead of taking my usual route over the George Washington Bridge. For some reason, probably because the snow has mostly melted but nothing green has yet sprouted, maybe because I never understood the state of mind that is New Jersey—-I lived there for twenty years—-crossing over on the Newark Bay Bridge felt like entering Hell.

I abandoned all hope, even though I was headed for New Brunswick to teach Augustine’s Confessions. For all I could see were monuments to fossil fuels—-this state is already a gruesome tableau of what drove us to extinction. I was back in the Field Museum of Natural History at the age of eight, looking at a badly lit diorama showing how cave men killed wooly mammoths. I was, as then, identifying with the animals.

Remember that roughly two-thirds of New Jersey is unfit for human habitation—-between the Great Dismal Swamp and the Pine Barrens, there’s little respite and no room—-but it’s still the most densely populated state. Also that there are more registered automobiles than licensed drivers. And that if you add up the miles of pavement that make up the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, plus Route 17 and Route 1 (the original Interstate), you could cover every inch of Massachusetts in concrete (a public works project fit for Scott Walker’s first term).

So what did I see as I descended on the far side of that decrepit bridge? A thousand acres of parking lots, dozens of warehouses and loading docks, many hundreds of containers stacked seven stories high, five airplanes taking off from Newark in the space of ten minutes, and maybe a half million automobiles. Most of the cars I saw were driverless, covered in white plastic, waiting in lots the size of Texas ranches or already loaded onto trucks for local shipment, but they’re nonetheless bound to choke these skies.

Remember that it’s only after this, a bleak vision that would, I hope, tax the stoic skills of Tacitus himself—-it’s only after I descend from the Newark Bay Bridge and turn south onto the Turnpike—-that the oil refineries rise from the marshlands on my left and the squat white oil tanks begin to crowd the same fluid grounds to my right.

It’s only then that I begin to think about Augustine and the change of moral climate he brought by writing The Confessions, by living up to the challenge of the New Testament, by acknowledging that the world was, in fact, disintegrating, and even disgusting, but still insisting that hope wasn’t merely a matter of faith in the time to come—-the return of the messiah-—but of faith in the here and now, in the comrades from an inchoate, subterranean social movement that hadn’t yet coalesced around any single program, idea, ritual, or purpose, except this: every one of us, every slave, beggar, whore, and thief is the equal of our so-called betters, the men of wealth and power who lord it over us, and not only this, we are the equals of God himself, we can now begin to imagine ourselves as self-mastering, so that the external discipline of forced labor, or the worship of a remote deity, now becomes our choice as human beings.

The absence of faith is a mental nullity. When you place it counts as much as where.

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God is not dead, for I am He.

As an English major, I took a course on the European novel when I was near graduating from college. It was taught by a young woman who organized the course, brilliantly I can say in retrospect, around the notion of first-person but fictional confessions. She was already predicting the murder of the novel at the hands of the memoirist: she didn’t get tenure.

We started with Augustine, a choice I have ever since admired, and have returned to it in bleak times, when winter feels like the end of all seasons because it freezes my soul. I didn’t understand his Confessions at that age, because I was too sure of everything, including my own intelligence. Like I said, I admired them, but I’ve only recently appreciated their excess, and so can now re-read them to replenish my spirit, to restore my faltering faith in the future.

Erich Auerbach was the bridge that led me back, the first time, to Augustine. According to my disintegrating copy of Mimesis, I read it in 1980-81, when I was teaching in a maximum-security prison (Stateville), ghost-writing for a dean, and getting a job as an editor at Scott, Foresman & Co. Auerbach’s third chapter, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” scared me, to the clichéd point of goose bumps and hair standing on end.

Of course I asked myself why the man’s impossible erudition made me so uncomfortable, horrified even. My feeble answer at the time was that Auerbach wrote as if Augustine were right—-that “the wicked walk in a circle,” that faith in a better future is only another name for hope. The pagan doctrines Augustine tried to erase from memory were hopeless, because if the past and the future are equivalent phases in a cyclical recurrence without beginning or end, fortune rather than purpose is the regulative principle of the human condition.

Promising is pointless if that is our condition—-Hannah Arendt notwithstanding-—except as the insignia of personal honor (virtue as the ancients knew it), or of faith in nothing but God. That is why Karl Lowith, like Arendt a student of Heidegger, could write the following, in Meaning in History (1949): “The primary fact of human existence [for Augustine] is not . . . identity through generations, but the fact that each individual and generation is weak and ignorant, decaying and dying, and yet capable of being renewed by a spiritual regeneration.” [p. 163]

Compare this to what Karl Marx wrote in a letter to P. V. Annenkov on December 28, 1846: “Every productive force is an acquired force, the product of prior activity. . . . Because of this simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces acquired by the previous generation, which serve it as the raw material for new production, a coherence arises in human history, a history of humanity takes shape.”

Historical consciousness as we know it, as Marx understood it, presupposes the death of God, then, or at least the displacement of his providence. Lowith reminds us of this fact when he writes, again about Augustine: “But it is precisely the absence of a detailed correlation between sacred and secular events which distinguishes Augustine’s Christian apology from Bossuet’s more elaborate theology of political history and from Hegel’s philosophy of history, both of which prove too much by deducing guarantees of salvation and success from historical events. What to us seems a lack in Augustine’s understanding and appreciation of secular history is due to his unconditional recognition of God’s sovereignty in promoting, frustrating, or perverting the purposes of man.” [p. 172]

But turn to Book 10 of The Confessions. Here you’ll find a dissertation on human memory that challenges God’s singularity—-the unique character of his powers—-as well as his sovereignty. In these amazing passages you’ll experience the open, nearly colloquial “direct address” that makes the book a rhetorical trove, almost a biblical thesaurus, and a literary masterpiece. You’ll discover, as Martin Luther did, that Augustine addresses God as an equal, as “Thou, my inmost Physician”: you’ll think, this is where the Reformation began, and where the novel was born.

Listen now to the blasphemer, whose supposed motto was in interiore homine habitat veritas (“in the inward man dwells the truth”).

“Yet I, though in Thy sight I despise myself, and account myself dust and ashes; yet I know something of Thee, which I know not of myself. And truly, now we see through a glass darkly, not face to face as yet.” [par. 7]

“These things did my inner man know by the ministry of the outer: I the inner knew them; I, the mind, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, ‘I am not He, but He made me. . . .

“Yea, I discern the breath of lilies from violets, though smelling nothing; and I prefer honey to sweet wine, smooth before rugged, at the time neither trusting nor handling, but remembering only. These things do I within, in that vast court of my memory. . . . There also meet I with myself, and recall myself . . . .” [pars. 13-14]

“The memory containeth also reasons and laws innumerable of numbers and dimensions, none of which has any bodily sense impressed; seeing they have neither colour, nor sound, nor taste, nor smell, nor touch. I have heard the sound of the words whereby when discovered they are denoted; but the sounds are other than the things.” [par. 19]

“All these things I remember, and how I learnt them I remember. Many things also falsely objected against them have I heard, and remember; which though they be false, yet it is not false that I remember them.” [par. 20]

“But what is nearer to me than myself? And lo, the force of mine own memory is not understood by me; though I cannot so much as name myself without it. For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness?” [par. 25]

Notice: Augustine here enacts the division of the western philosophical tradition between Anglo-American empiricism and German Idealism! Now listen to him as he compares himself to God, or rather makes himself a God-man, as would the Protestants of a millennium later:

“Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifold; and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself. What am I then, O my God? What nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding immense. Behold in the plains, and caves and caverns of my memory . . . innumerable kinds of things . . .—over all these do I run, I fly; I dive on this, and on that, as far as I can, and there is no end. So great is the force of memory, so great the force of life, even in the mortal life of man. What shall I do then, O Thou my true life, my God? I will pass even beyond this power of mine which is called memory: yea, I will pass beyond it, that I may approach unto Thee, O sweet Light.” [par. 26]

Like you, my Lord, but also my fellow men and women, I will renounce my powers and submit my own body to the judgments of this profane world, where I am sure to suffer unto death. I will forgive your transgressions, O my God, by relinquishing this greatest power, of memory, and forgetting your trespasses against us.

It’s the most astonishing moment in western literature until that servant grabs a sword in Act III, Scene 7 of King Lear, and says to his master, “Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.”

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On the Road with Neil Young

In July of 1993, I went on a twelve-day road trip with my two kids, then aged nine and six, driving a Ford Aerostar minivan from Highland Park, New Jersey, a suburb of New York (the whole state is a colonial appendage of the metropolis, ever more pavement even unto Pennsylvania), to Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where my brother and his family had recently moved. I had just sent the manuscript of my second book to the publisher-—that was Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940-—and was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

But I was also feeling pretty unhappy about my ten-year old marriage. I’d been Mr. Mom for three years by then, and the rewards of the role were now beginning to look like excuses for inertia and estrangement. My wife wouldn’t be on the road with us, she’d be flying in for the weekend only, because she couldn’t afford any time away from her high-pressure publishing job in the city. Driving toward Chicago, the place I still called home, I started to ask myself why I had to stay married. Did I actually need a wife to be a father? Did I want to become a cliché out of Updike and start fucking the neighbor’s wife?

So when my wife and I were briefly alone in my brother’s living room on the Saturday of her arrival—-I had picked her up at O’Hare an hour earlier-—I said, “You know, we have to talk, because, well, I think we have nothing left in common, nothing to talk about, except these kids. I’m sorry, it’s hard to say, but I don’t see why we’re married. Not anymore, I mean, I don’t see the point.”

She said, “Are you drunk? Don’t be absurd.” She left the room. I didn’t know how to follow her, or follow up, so I left the house. I walked around my brother’s fancy new neighborhood in a daze, wondering if I meant what I said. I drove her to the airport the next day, in what the 19th century called grim silence.

That conversation happened again and again, and more frequently, over the next ten years, until there really was nothing left to talk about, not even the kids. Meanwhile I left home three times, and finally escaped on the third try. And yes, I did start fucking the neighbor’s wife.

In retrospect-—and what other standpoint is there?-—being on the road that summer wasn’t just a pleasure. It was the beginning of the end of the marriage, because the time I spent with those kids let me see them as real people who would outlast any change in the relationship between their mother and me. Over this long haul, they became individuals in their own right, not merely my children.

The soundtrack of this process of mutual recognition—-on the road that summer, I believe my children began to see me as a person, not merely their father-—was composed by Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Merle Haggard.

We tuned into lots of radio stations along the way, of course, because this was the technological moment just before the Internet and satellite radio redefined telecommunication, and this was also the musical moment of grunge, heavy metal, hip-hop, and over-produced pop: we heard songs by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Metallica, DelAmitri, and (I think) Green Day, but the signals always receded, so we kept falling back on the three cassette tapes we carried across country. (I admit, though, that I had one other tape up my sleeve, N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which I would’ve played had the others failed.)

That bass line was my design. I wanted these kids to hear the origins and the echoes of the tastes they were already developing: I wanted them to hear the generation that had made the music of their time possible. But my curriculum couldn’t have worked if the musicians themselves weren’t compelling. I suppose I could’ve brought the blues tapes I had compiled over several years for my cultural history courses. I didn’t because I was afraid that music would sound too ancient, too old-timey, too much like a lesson plan, not enough listening just for fun.

No matter, Neil Young stole the show. The kids loved Van and Merle, especially “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Moondance” and “Ramblin’ Fever,” but they dug Neil. His strange, whiney, breathy voice captured them. The reedy sound of it held us together in silence for hundreds of miles. “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old Man,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” . . . by the time we got to Cedar Point, Ohio, they knew all the verses, and they were involuntarily singing or murmuring along. When I told them about “Almost Cut My Hair” from the CSNY album, how it had changed my life—-“I had an Afro!””—-they laughed hysterically and told me they couldn’t believe my hair was ever longer than it was right then, when I looked, I am told, like a state trooper.

Cedar Point was our first day’s destination, recommended by a graduate student at Rutgers, Andrea Volpe. It’s a whole township on Lake Erie devoted to the art of the amusement park. We found a motel within a couple of miles from the park itself, with an indoor pool and access to convenience stores—-in other words, a snack and a swim for them, a twelve-pack for me.

Then we headed for the park. It was enchanting. I had always refused to take them to Disneyland or Disney World, on the grounds that I’d just be complaining all day about the premise and the purpose of the place, maybe even lose my shit and get jailed by Mickey Mouse. But Cedar Point was like Riverview, the amusement park on Belmont Avenue in Chicago that some developer tore down soon after I graduated from high school. My father grew up within a mile of that park and the other monument to old Chicago, Wrigley Field. He tested rides at Riverview when he was a kid. I tested girlfriends there when I was a kid.

Cedar Point was then an archeological marvel, the Olduvai Gorge of amusement parks: a shiny, high-tech set of new thrill rides built on the Paleolithic ruins of a funky circus, the place where the freaks, the barkers, and the runaways were the founding fathers. We spent three hours walking, talking, and riding, no lines—-it was a Thursday night—-then eating a late dinner on the grounds, in a real restaurant, no fast food. We were exhausted by the time we found the Aerostar and drove back to the motel.

We settled into our room, two king-size beds and a huge TV. They drank Cokes from the vending machine, I drank beer from the twelve-pack I had put on ice. I scrolled through the channels for a few minutes without any protest or plea from the children in the other bed, and then they started shrieking.

I had missed it. It was Neil Young in concert! I fell asleep while it was still in progress, long before they did. They talked about it all the way to Chicago the next day. The only interruptions of their intense conversation were cuts from the Neil Young cassette, and these were played on demand by the driver to prove a point one or the other was making. They were already composing the kind of notes a fan draws on in debate with fellow aficionados: “No, man, that wasn’t the concert of 1993, you’re thinking of the Grammy awards, when he sang ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ with Eddie Vedder.”

When I hear Neil Young these days, this is what I think of, two kids finding their own voices through his. Or was it three?

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How to be in pain

Oxycodone is a good idea. Unless it puts you to sleep.

Once upon a time, I was having back trouble (spinal stenosis), nothing unusual for a man my age. I had already scheduled surgery at Mount Sinai when a semi-famous friend mentioned my condition to a truly famous biographer who happened to be my former colleague. He thereupon insisted that I see his own doctor, a good friend and a semi-famous upper-East Side neurosurgeon—-few patients, many patents—-who took no insurance.

Impressed by this portfolio of cultural capital, I went to see the neurosurgeon. His waiting room looks like the bookstore I’ll open when I inherit some money from unknown relatives. A well-lighted place, real books on wooden shelves, the New York Review of Books and the LRB as well as The New Yorker strewn artfully, art books the size of your body opened on tables, people poring over them as if being a patient isn’t the point of being there.

No paperwork, no bullshit, just human kindness—-“have a seat, he’ll be right with you”—-and then the doctor himself comes out to the waiting room and calls my name. We shake hands, I’m even more impressed, but I keep looking around for a reality check, you know, like, someone with a clipboard. None ever appears.

When we get into his office, first thing he says is, “This won’t cost you any more than two thousand dollars, no matter what we find in there.” I protest, because I know that the anesthesia alone, and I mean just the drugs, not the attending physician, will run into five, maybe six figures, but he waves my words away.

Then he says, “You’re an alcoholic. You’re going to have a vexed relationship to the painkillers I have to prescribe for the post-op. Oxycodone, oxycontin, hydrocodone. These will fuck you up, big time.”

I say, “How do you know I’m an alcoholic?” And then, self-righteousness rising, so my diaphragm now begins to feel like a furnace, I point my finger at him and say, “Are you saying I’m an addict, already?”

“I read your medical records, that’s how I know you’re an alcoholic. It’s not rocket science. Yes, you’re an addict. Already. You have the same ‘genetic defect’ that doomed the Indians. When you take a painkiller, let’s say 5 milligrams of oxycodone or hydrocodone or whatever, you’ll go right to sleep. Your body just doesn’t know how to deal with this kind of depressant.”

“I do OK with pain,” I say, relaxing, reclining, and I feel like I’m apologizing, “so maybe I can just avoid the oxycontin,” and here I’m remembering that relatives of mine were addicted to this shit.

“No, you can’t,” the semi-famous neurosurgeon says, “it’ll hurt too much, and aspirin won’t help. The point is to see your own vulnerability. I guarantee that you’ll get addicted if you take it according to my own prescription. Then what? Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Well, yeah, I do, but it’s four years later, Doc. Meanwhile, you’ve dug into my lumbar vertebrae twice, and your colleagues have rummaged around elsewhere, in both my knees, just to begin with. These painkillers you’re talking about are now just there, not “over there” like something I reach for in desperate need, nah, they’ve become no more important than aspirin.

I understand what you’re saying.

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“As I would not be a slave . . .”

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

That’s Abraham Lincoln in 1857, from an unpublished fragment he jotted and folded and stored, but never uttered in public. It’s a startling idea about liberty, equality, and democracy worth thinking through in view of our national disgrace in these times.

Having witnessed the death of Michael Brown and the exoneration of his uniformed murderer, Darren Wilson, not to mention the police slaughter of a 12-year old black boy who was playing with a toy gun, you might be tempted to give thanks that you don’t live in those neighborhoods where the cops go to find crime. Which is to say, you might be tempted to console or congratulate yourself for being white.

Think again. What Lincoln is saying here is that liberty can’t survive the eclipse of equality, no matter the cause of that eclipse—race, class, whatever.

Democracy requires both liberty and equality. Freedom is not just the absence of external constraint in the form of state power, as the earnest neoliberals of our time, utilitarians all, would like to think. No, it consists of access to the resources (income, culture, society, education, etc.) that allow you to realize your natural talents, to become the self you imagine before its possibility even appears as a practical question-—it’s the freedom to project yourself into a world that doesn’t yet exist.

So conceived, my liberty depends on yours, because your intelligence is one of those crucial resources to which I need access. I can’t become what I hope to unless you can, too, unless you function not as my secretary, my servant, my slave, or my muse, but as my equal partner in the imagination and the construction of what lies ahead, what we might create. Only then will you and I be free of the constraints that culture, society, and education produce. Only then can we be free of the past.

My liberty requires our equality. My freedom is endangered to the precise extent that yours is—-to the precise extent I can take liberties that you can’t—-regardless of where we live. This is not an ethical principle with no purchase on the real world. It’s just a fact, the underside of Lincoln’s aphorism.

So do feel sorry for all the young black men who have died in vain, and their families, and their friends and their neighborhoods. But do also start worrying about yourself. John Donne was right. That bell you’re hearing tolls for thee.


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Heir Apparent to Thomas Friedman

Timothy Egan clearly sees himself as the rightful heir to Thomas Friedman, who is willing to say anything, no matter how inane or offensive, as long as it guarantees him air time and column inches. Three weeks ago, Egan claimed that sports are the most progressive force of our time, no matter that Muhammad Ali was barred from boxing in his prime for daring to oppose the Vietnam War from the standpoint of his solidarity with the Nation of Islam, or that the last bastions of homophobia are the two most popular professional leagues.

Two weeks ago, he claimed that “commencement bigots” had hijacked freedom of speech and diversity of opinion. His primary case in point was Condoleeza Rice, who, as George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, heedlessly promoted a needless invasion of Iraq and earnestly defended torture—-not just any kind, but waterboarding—-as the necessary corollary of a larger “war on terror.” According to Egan, she stepped down from her $35,000 gig at the Rutgers commencement because the “forces of intolerance” had silenced her. No matter that she declined the invitation because a grass-roots movement led by former undergraduates (most prominently, Larry Ladutke, a former student of mine), then taken up by a faculty petition, insisted that she had the right to express her opinion, and the opportunity to be honored and compensated as an exemplar of education, but not at the expense of and by the Rutgers community, faculty and students included, without its consent.

Here is how Egan addressed these issues, among them torture, in his column on “commencement bigots”:

“She canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university. It’s no contest who showed more class. Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war. O.K. And by shutting her down the point is . . . what?

“The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush—two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States—was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal. But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts. You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”

In her official capacities as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Rice advocated waterboarding in the name of an unjust war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. What’s the big deal? You want to know what torture is? Never mind Guantanamo, go directly to a Stanford commencement, where, exposed to the California sun, they make you listen to a Supreme Court justice drone on about the rule of law as it regulates the behavior of nations at war.

And now today, Timothy Egan berates Americans for digging “a serous national memory hole.” They’re ignorant of their own past, and so they keep saying stupid things. It’s not just the 18 year-olds who lack a “firm grasp of our nation’s history.” No, “look at the top”: “Opinion leaders, corporate titans, politicians, media personalities, and educators-—dunce caps for all.”

Tom Perkins, Ken Langone, for example, who’ve been “comparing the plight of our country’s very rich to the objects of Hitler’s wrath.” And Sarah Palin, who has “recently declared that torture is as American as Sunday school”! OMG, what were they thinking? Rich people aren’t persecuted as Jews were in the Germany of the Third Reich, also, c’mon, the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and did I mention that torture is a violation of human rights and international law?

Do I have to spell this out? Today Timothy Egan accuses Americans of lacking exactly what he does—-historical consciousness, a sense of the past and its weight. “One doesn’t expect Palin to know that the Eighth Amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ or that torture is banned by international treaties signed by the United States. But is it too much to ask for her to realize that Imperial Japan, our enemy in World War II, was prosecuted for waterboarding?”

No, it’s not too much to ask of her. How about you, Tim? As a student or faculty member at Rutgers, how would you feel if the Board of Governors announced that it was giving an honorary degree to Sarah Palin, plus an honorarium for her commencement address? Would you join a small knot of protesters, or just chalk it up to fair and balanced free speech?

Timothy Egan is so incapable of thinking historically about his own ideas, let alone his own country, that he approached two of the worst historians on the planet for explanations of the lack he attributes to the rest of us, and was happy with their dumb answers.

“I asked a couple of the nation’s premier time travelers, the filmmaker Ken Burns and his frequent writing partner Dayton Duncan, why so many Americans can’t even place the Civil War in the right half-century, or think we fought alongside the Germans in World War II.”

Burns thinks the problem is a lack of “civics” in the school curriculum, which he compares to the “operating system” for citizenry: if only we grasped it, we’d “know how government is constructed” and appreciate its design. As if I’d be a better driver if I understood internal combustion or a better blogger if I could write code. Duncan goes for the profoundly tautological: “Americans [have] tended to be ‘ahistorical’” because they “choose to forget the context of our past.” Like Egan, and like most professional historians, he mistakes his own intellectual affliction for a cultural epidemic.

Egan begins and ends with slavery and the Civil War, as I suppose he must. He complains that according to a Pew Study of 2011, “nearly half of Americans think the main cause of the Civil War was a dispute over federal authority—-not slavery.” He laments the fact that “the South was allowed to promote the inaccurate narrative of ‘the Lost Cause’-—[it was] all about states’ rights and Northern aggression.”

No matter that for a century Americans were taught that slavery was a secondary issue in the coming, the conduct, and the conclusion of the Civil War, by teachers, by statesmen, by progressive historians like Charles and Mary Beard. No matter that William H. Dunning of Columbia meanwhile supervised dozens of PhD dissertations that proved Reconstruction was no less a tragedy than the Civil War itself, because the cause of racial equality was never more than a childish dream. No matter that the Dunning School ruled the journals and the presses—and the movies—until the 1950s.

I survey my students in the 100-level survey class, asking them what they think was the proximate cause of the Civil War. They split according to what they’ve been taught in high school, states’ rights here, slavery there. Why not?

Here’s a longer look at the question of History Standards.

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