History recalls how great the fall can be

26 10 2017

My teaching has changed.

Not that it’s obvious: I’m still teaching the same subjects (politics, bioethics) and assigning the same (-ish) readings, still presenting much of the same material, still asking many of the same questions, and still assigning papers and take home essays.

But I’m also less, mm, neutral than I used to be.

Again, not in terms of conclusions I expect students to reach or questions they may ask—I invite disagreement—but in stressing what is at stake in these questions and conclusions. I want them to know that everything we study has happened, is happening, or could happen, and that these happenings matter. They must be able to think in order to deal with what is and what’s next.

What was that old Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones quote? Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict!

I don’t say that directly to the students, but, yes, that’s the attitude I now take in teaching them.

This started awhile ago, in teaching bioethics. Bioethics is not neutral: there is explicit value placed on human life, health is a good, and biomedical research is in general (although not always in the particulars) to be encouraged. Those who work in bioethics make commitments to the values of the field, and while there is little consensus on how best to uphold those values, there is a sense that, yes, to work in bioethics is to pick a side.

I think that exists in other fields, as well, although in much older fields (bioethics is quite young), those values may be submerged beneath a veneer of professionalism, i.e., what matters is what is done rather than what is valued in the doing. That doesn’t mean those professionals are value-free so much as value-assumed.

Shit, I’m not getting this right. What I want to say is: read the last chapter of Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler.  Really, read the whole thing—it’s a terrific takedown of David Irving’s Holocaust-denying, Hitler-apologizing, so-called historical work (an evisceration performed in service to Deborah Lipstadt’s defense against Irving’s libel claim)—but in that last chapter he goes all-in on the necessity of standards in historical research, and of the necessity of historical research itself:

Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents those that they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case or abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability or otherwise, simply because they want for whatever reason to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures as impartially as possible in order to arrive as a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not willfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents, and events for which there is no historical evidence to make their arguments more plausible to their readers.

At least, they do not do any of these things if they wish to retain any kind of reputable status as historians. [pp. 250-251]

Irving, of course, did all of these.

Now it could be said, fairly, that what Evans presents is an idealized version of what is a good historian, and that, as with idealized versions of scientific inquiry, the reality falls rather short. Still, he is making the argument that we can, with much effort, learn, come to know something of the past, and that this knowledge matters enough for historians to put in that effort.

I am more leery than Evans of speaking of the truth of various events, but, really, if I believe—if I know—that Holocaust denial is false, then aren’t I saying that the truth is, in some way, out there?

Anyway, in last week’s politics & culture course we went over the early career of Hitler; I made a point to highlight that his eliminationist antisemitism was there from the outset (1920) and that those who would deny that Hitler knew anything about or wanted to kill all Jews were not credible. The evidence is there, I said, in documents and speeches, in the recollections of others and in his own book, and these can’t just be dismissed.

You can’t just make shit up.

They tittered when I said that, but I was dead serious. Yes, there are legitimate interpretative differences of agreed-upon evidence, and not everything can be known, but if you want to know—if you value knowledge—then you have to take reasoned account of that evidence. You can’t, I repeated, just make shit up.

And that, I guess, is how I take a shortcut to this post’s end: I have until too recently been too cavalier about the value of knowledge itself. Ye gads, yes, the post-structuralist in me is screaming and the epistemological nihilist rolling her eyes, but I can’t, or really, won’t, in this moment, say Lol, nothing matters.

I never really did teach as if nothing mattered, and I’m (almost) always enthusiastic about what I do teach—it is not uncommon for me to interject Isn’t this cool!—but, yeah, I have had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with regard to what the students get out of a course. I wanted them, sure, to get something out of it, but I don’t know that I ever thought it necessary that they do so.

Now, I think it’s necessary, that it was always necessary.


And I said “shit!”

16 10 2017

I happily saw shit on Saturday.

Well, I didn’t see “shit”, per se; instead, I saw what happens to shit at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. C. had gotten tickets for a tour via OpenHouse New York, one of those nifty freebies available to New Yorkers which I always think I should do! and then forget to do. C did not forget.

The tour started with a lecture by an assistant director at the plant, during which he talked about the process by which water and waste makes it way to the plant, how garbage (whatever happened to fall into sewers) gets removed, what happens when its (BABY WIPES) are not and how non-removed trash (BABY WIPES) gum up the works and makes him very unhappy.

Guys, baby wipes in the toilet are bad. DON’T FLUSH BABY WIPES.

The wastewater is then cycloned and centrifuged and filtered and munched on by aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, biosolids (including food waste) is shunted off for re-use, and the 95%-clean water is piped into the East River. The assistant director (who hates BABY WIPES) pointed out that, not to brag or anything, but the EPA only requires 85%-clean.

Anyway, the lecture was good and informative and he had props of the water at various stages, but, really, we were there for the Digesters Eggs.

These babies:

There are two sets of four, and they sent us up to the top, 10 at a time, in a verrrrrry slow elevator.

The view was lovely:

I thought it might stink, but, really, it didn’t. There were portholes at the top through which you could look at the churning water, but absent a leak around these seals (which, okay, one or two of the eggs had leaky seals), nothin’.

I don’t know what these are, but you can see get a sense of how huge this site is:

This was and is a highly industrialized area of Brooklyn: Newtown Creek itself is hella polluted from over a century of industry, and goddess only knows what’s in the ground. Given that pollution is the ultimate anti-gentrifier, the area hasn’t been overtaken by lofts and hipster bars; instead, there are metal recycling businesses across the street from the plant, and National Grid (gas) has facilities in the area.

In fact, National Grid is in the early stages of building its own facility on the plant to capture, process, and use the methane produced via the Digester Eggs. Sustainability, baby!

The plant does try to capture and reuse the methane for its own power purposes, but their storage is limited; further, the bladder inside a storage facility had collapsed, so it was being flamed-off, here:

It was all very cool, and C and I agreed that it would be great if she (who’s finishing an environmental science degree) got a job here.

I know, most visitors to New York never leave Manhattan, and, honestly, that’s fine! There’s lots to see in Manhattan!

But Manhattan is onstage, and as much as I thought when younger that I wanted an onstage life, I have come to appreciate the gears of backstage. And it really doesn’t get more backstage than waste treatment.

Hit the road, Jack

12 10 2017

Enough with the fucking men.

Oh, I know, I’m supposed to say Most men aren’t predators and #NotAllMen and maybe even Some of my best friends are men, but, honestly, enough.

It’s not just Harvey Weinstein (who deserves every shitty non-violent thing coming to him), or Donald Trump, or Roger Ailes or Bill O’Reilly or R. Kelly or Bill Cosby, not just Hollywood and the media and politics, but the university (see here and here and here and . . . ), finance, tech, and pretty well any damned place where men and women work.

And whose fault is this? I think you know.

Yes, it’s women’s fault that men harass them (us), for not being professional, for being too casual, for being too sexy, for being naive, for being too yielding, not fighting back, for having the goddamned audacity of daring to walk into the world in our female bodies.

(And, oh yes, men are also abused—see Terry Crews and Corey Feldman—which serves to demonstrate that shitty male sexual-power dynamics can ensnare anyone.)

If there are rumors or whisper campaigns? Well, maybe that’s not the real story, or maybe it’s just women misinterpreting things, or, y’know, maybe there’s just not enough evidence, he-said/she-said, whattayagonnado? And, oh, cmon, that favorite actor/comedian/musician couldn’t really have done that, could they? I mean, they’re famous: why would they have to take what so many would willingly offer?

And then when the harassment and abuse can no longer be ignored? Well, then, it’s our fault for not having IMMEDIATELY reported it or IMMEDIATELY denounced the abuser and, really, aren’t we just a part of the problem with our silence?

This is where I snap. I am unshocked by violence against women, by sexual harassment and catcalling and the everyday-ness of treating women as the sexual adjuncts of men. I should note I have never been sexually assaulted, am not usually catcalled, and have dealt with only a handful of harassers/abusers, so my rage is less personal than ontological: this is how it is to be a woman in our fucking world.

So Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic donor, is exposed as criminally creepy, and. . . it’s somehow Hillary’s fault? Anthony Bourdain has gone after Weinstein and those who covered for him, but he made sure to take the time to express his “disappointment” in Hillary Clinton.

Yes, the Democratic Party and countless Democratic candidates—including male ones!—have taken Weinstein’s money, but, really, it’s a problem that Hillary’s response has been “uninspiring”, that she said she didn’t know?

Such horseshit, such worm-infested horseshit.

Here’s where the “enough with men!” comes in: if “everyone” really did know, then why is it only the women who should have spoken up? Jane Fonda said she feels “ashamed” for not coming forward a year ago, when she first found out; how many Hollywood men feel guilty for having known for years? How many of them are wondering why they didn’t take those rumors more seriously, didn’t take the women seriously?

Anthony Bourdain: if everyone knew, if you knew, then why didn’t you say something?

I don’t hate Bourdain, enjoyed Kitchen Confidential, and have watched and will likely watch some of his t.v. shows. I’d probably enjoy a barstool-bullshitting session with him, and would be unsurprised to find out he treats people decently. In short, I don’t think he’s a bad guy.

Which is rather the point: He’s not a bad guy, and he manages to slam a woman for not reacting in the right way to a bad man.

He’s not horrible, but, really, that’s all that can be said.


When I first jumped on Twitter and started following a bunch of people of color, I’d commonly see withering references to white people (or wypipo)—references which would inevitably lead to white folks jumping into that person’s mentions to say “. . . but not me!”

I didn’t do this, but I understood the impulse: You want to be one of the good guys, and just as if not more importantly, you want to be recognized as one of the good guys. #NotAllWhitePeople. . . .

The original Tweeter would usually react with anything from exasperation to impatience to contempt: If this truly doesn’t apply to you, then why do you need to make this about you?

I understood that response as well, or thought I did. I mean, I could see that the Tweeter had a point, but weren’t they, maybe, a bit. . . harsh?

Well. Yes. And?

I have come to see that the harshness was merited, an honest expression of distrust in the goodness of white people, of skepticism that white people really have any interest in confronting white supremacy, in getting outside of their (our) own whiteness.

I think most men are not rapists, are not harassers, and think most men probably treat people (including women people) decently. I also think most men don’t see themselves as in any way responsible for the culture which make it easy for some of them to behave so horribly.

So, enough. No credit for not being horrible, no credit for meeting minimal standards of humanness.

That doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly, can’t be decent colleagues, can’t enjoy ourselves in a session of barstool-bullshitting, but, when it counts, until I see otherwise, I don’t expect men to step up.