And don’t give up the dream

20 04 2019

My mum’s a McCue, from a line which apparently traces back to 19th century Cork. So I’m of Irish descent. There might be some from my dad’s side as well—he’s a true American mosaic—but the McCue is a solid line.

That said, having grown up in southeastern Wisconsin, the culture was more German (which, yep, my ancestors also were) than anything else. Bit of Dutch, bit of Swedish, some Polish, heading toward Milwaukee, but I grew up in the land of bratwurst, sommer sausages, stumpf fiddles, and polkas.

Still, McCue, which was enough at some point in grad school to set me off on an “I’M IRISH” kick.

It was a shallow kick—I still haven’t read any good histories on Éire—but even a few inches will lead one into jigs, reels, Irish punk, and, as they happened to be recording when I was kicking—Black 47.

I do try to keep in mind the Pogues’s line “we celebrate the land that made us refugees” to keep any romanticism in check, but even a nationalist-skeptic like me gets choked up at a good, rousing, Rising song.

As a teen I took great pride in my cynicism; now, even though that seems a cop-out, a way to justify resignation, it’s tough to avoid.

So, yeah, I know there’s a fair amount of bullshit about the revolution and a dangerously blinkered revival of the (New) IRA, but however contrived my Irish identity, and whatever my unease with nationalism, I am not ungrateful that I can still be moved by a song celebrating liberation.

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Hush, hush, keep it down now

10 04 2019

Over 8 years ago the economist Robin Hanson wrote a  post on “gentle silent rape.”

It was a thought experiment, an attempt to understand why rape is punished more often and severely than cuckoldry, something he found “puzzling,” given that, as he had argued in a previous post

Biologically, cuckoldry is a bigger reproductive harm than rape, so we should expect a similar intensity of inherited emotions about it.

Men would rather be raped than cuckholded, he’d said—no mention is made of what women prefer—but in trying to figure out what, besides sexism, could account for the discrepancy in the social response to rape and cuckholdry, he wrote that

It occurred to me recently that we can more clearly compare cuckoldry to gentle silent rape. Imagine a woman was drugged into unconsciousness and then gently raped, so that she suffered no noticeable physical harm nor any memory of the event, and the rapist tried to keep the event secret. Now drugging someone against their will is a crime, but . . . .

Now compare the two cases, cuckoldry and gentle silent rape. . . . Consider also that it tends to be easier to prove cuckoldry than rape, so if we avoid applying the law to hard-to-prove harms, that should favor punishing cuckoldry more than rape.

I cut out all sorts of nonsense—by all means, go read the entire, short, post for yourself—as it focuses on what should be the appropriate punishment for cuckholdry (fines? torture?), and I, like so, so many others before me, want to focus on the gentle silent rape.

Why now? Well, I heard a couple of interviews with Miriam Toews, a Canadian author who wrote a novel based on the real-life mass drugging and rape of Mennonite women by Mennonite men in a Bolivia, a years-long ordeal which was only exposed in 2009.

I’d never heard of this before, and I won’t go into the entire, horrifying and enraging tale here—again, click on the links to read what happened—but upon listening to an interview today I was reminded of that old Hanson post: Hey, didn’t some economist write about the relative non-harms of rape of which the women have no memory?

It was a bonkers post, one which Hanson continues to defend (while declaring that any mention of him as pro-rape is “bordering on slander“). Hey, he’s just, y’know, asking questions.

I’m all in favor of asking questions, and it’s important for scholars to turn conventions inside-out. To analyze a phenomenon fully, it makes sense to poke at it from every angle, to press even on the sore spots.

But if, as Hanson claims, you’re simply “trying to understand the world and work out puzzles and theories,” then you’ve got to bring those puzzles and theories back to the world you’re trying to understand.

He says he’s a “nerdy intellectual type” who’s “probably personally less able to and inclined to think those things through,” which is a helluva statement from someone who’s trying to understand the world.

It’s also irresponsible as hell.

By all means, apply your “simple evolutionary heuristic to ask roughly what would we guess the overall level of concerns about these things to be”, but then you need to, as the economistically-minded are so fond of saying, “mark to market”, to see if that heuristic or puzzle or theory actually does tell you anything about the phenomenon you’re prodding.

Had he done so, Hanson might have come across the story of the Mennonite women in Bolivia, might have considered whether gentle silent rape was even a thing worth conjuring, and whether he had any understanding of harm, much less the world, at all.





The kind of skin you can see through

3 04 2019

“Don’t touch me!”

That was pretty much my mantra throughout my teen years and into college. No hugs, no kisses, no thank you.

There’s no trauma beneath that, just an angry, depressed and otherwise-articulate kid who couldn’t figure out any other way to set boundaries, be they physical or emotional.

As I got older I eased up, and today can reasonably tolerate and even enjoy non-romantic physical affection. (Except for holding hands: hate that.) It’s been years and years since I’ve flinched at a friendly arm flung around my shoulder.

Which is good; flinching is socially awkward. Also, given that I live in a city in which I am often snug up against others on the train or bus—although most of us have the decency to pretend we each have our own space—it’s probably for the best I don’t freak when I don’t have at least 36″ between me and the next person.

You know what this is leading to, right? Fuckin’ Joe Biden.

I’ve certainly enjoyed the ‘Uncle Joe’ of the Obama years, the Onion bits about Camaro Joe and the guy who’d ‘get out over his skis,’ but it was always a scam—hell, I enjoyed it because it was a scam.

Oh, sure, he might really (really) like gettin’ up close ‘n personal (in that hoarse-whispered Scranton ‘Joey’) way, but the man was a senator from the state of banking and credit for decades and ended up VP and, jesus, you gotta be full of knives if you’re going to get anywhere in DC.

Especially if you’re going to be as folksy as Joe.

In fact, that folksiness was, if not all, then certainly also about the power. He was the one who pulled you in, who cracked the slightly-off jokes, who caressed your shoulders, and, uh, sniffed your hair—not you. He may not have been mean or nasty, but he was in charge. He liked being in charge.

There’s no point in disentangling motives: the power granted him the leeway to be touchy-feely, and the touchy-feely-ness perpetuated the power. It’s not complicated: he likes both.

I never met Biden and don’t know how I would have reacted had he leaned in, uninvited, toward me, but I’d like to think my inner teenager would have reared up and snarled.





Don’t you know he never shirks

13 03 2019

I could give a shit about the Ivy League.

They’re good schools, no question, but out of the over 3000 institutions of higher education in the US, they educate a relatively small number of students. And while I don’t doubt that those Ivied students receive a mighty fine education, I also don’t doubt that those same students could receive an equally fine education at a non-Ivy.

No, what matters is not that you graduate with a BA or BS, but that you graduate from Harvard or Yale.

So be it.

(When I was younger I was so overawed by the Ivies that not only did I not even consider applying there, I was impressed that a friend at Madison had a friend who went to Harvard. I had her get me a sweatshirt when she visited him there.

That awe had diminished by the time I lived in the Boston area. I occasionally walked through Harvard Yard and. . . it’s very nice. I like college campuses, and the Harvard campus is. . . very nice. But, really, that’s all it is: another college campus.)

Anyway, this is all only adjacent to the SCANDAL of rich people paying off craven people in order to guarantee their rich kids a spot at their preferred university table. Yes, in a land in which a rich man can legally “donate” $2.5 million to get his dim son into Harvard, it is truly shocking that rich people will illegally “donate” somewhat less to get their heirs and heiresses into universities of their choosing.

This is mostly just an irritating/amusing combo, but the bit that does truly chafe was pointed out by someone on Twitter who, like me, attended a public university. I can’t find the tweet-storm, but he noted that the real damn crime was the fact that public universities have been starved for funds and that the mighty fine educations one can receive at such institutions is increasingly out of reach for too many.

My first semester at Madison, in 1984, cost $500, 550—something like that; by my last semester, it was over $900. For the fall of 2019? $10,555.52 for a Wisconsin resident. Also, neither the SAT nor the ACT was required, nor, I believe, did I have to write an essay; in my recollection (which, y’know, may not be reliable), it was a two-page application. As a Wisconsin resident with a decent GPA, I was in.

To apply today? SAT & ACT scores (minus the writing portion) are required, along with two essays, a letter of recommendation, and rigorous academic preparation.

I did not have rigorous academic preparation, and while I did take both the SAT and the ACT, I didn’t prepare at all and was hungover for at least one of them.

I did fine at Madison, and graduated with relatively little debt.

Now, maybe all the testing and essaying and whatnot serve a real academic purpose, but as a first-generation college student who went to a high school where maybe 10 percent of my graduating class went to college, I’d have had damn little guidance on how to navigate all of those requirements.

Ugh, it’s late, and once again my points are skittering away from me, but I want to reiterate that the damned shame about higher ed in the US is not that a few rich people are gaming the system, but that that same system—entrance into which is seen as necessary to have any kind of shot at a decent life—has increasingly been turned into an expensive game in its own right.





I try to imagine another planet, another sun

4 03 2019

JT introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones back in Sellery A.

Those were the days of vinyl and hanging out between classes and Terri, Terri, you gotta listen to this, the needle placed just so on the first track:

And as that fades, the notes slowing into silence, this kicks in:

Eighteen in a dorm room in Madison, the sun flooding in, and just JT and me, just listening.

The lyrics scatter across the music, a mosaic less of sense than mood, and then there’s this:

I’m not asking so much

I try to imagine another planet, another sun

Where I don’t look like me

And everything I do matters

To be nothing and everything, to run away and be fully there; I’ve been scampering across that teeter-totter ever since.

I wonder if that’s why, even though I’m middle-aged, I don’t quite feel grown: isn’t growing up about managing, getting past, that all-or-nothing? To come to terms with one’s presence in the world?

I haven’t, yet. Over 50 years old and I haven’t, yet.

It’s not all bad; it’s not even mostly bad. It’s okay, it’s fine.

But how can that be enough? Shouldn’t there be something more to this, one, life? I want that something more, to leave my fingerprints on something beyond me—not (just) to be remembered, but to have known something beyond myself.

I used to, back in those days. It wasn’t complicated: there were things I wanted and so went for. Not everything, (not everyone. . .) but a lot, and maybe it was running but it felt toward, not away.

Well, then the ground gave way, and gravity was suspended. Took a long time to learn how to walk again.

But it’s also been awhile since I’ve been walking, and I know, I know, I’ve written variations on this theme too many times before, but my steps don’t always reach the ground and I could use a bit of gravity.





I really don’t know life at all

11 02 2019

I have been insufficiently cynical.

Tough to write that—cynicism has been my schtick since I was in high school—but the accumulation of more-and-less recent events have clearly revealed that I have been a goddamned Pollyanna about my fellow human beings.

Oh, I know, people can do terrible things great and small, that we are selfish and mean, blah blah. Big deal. I can say we suck all day long and even believe it, but does that belief emanate from the very marrow of my being?

Apparently not.

Now, maybe this is good, maybe this is bad, but I feel like I’ve caught myself out.

Example: Howard Schultz. I know, but this isn’t about yet another rich guy’s delusion that making money qualifies one for the presidency; no, this is about his dumb-ass comments that billionaires shouldn’t be referred to as such, but as “people of means” or “people of wealth.”

Yes, the billionaire who thinks his billions qualify him for the White House doesn’t want us to foul his pure air with such noxious terms as “billionaire,” but to be kinder, gentler, toward such sensitive souls as himself. To notice his massive pile of money is simply. . . unseemly.

You’d think I’d be disgusted by his disdain for social welfare and horror at a wealth taxOh no! after paying a shit-ton in taxes I will only have a mega-shit-ton of money left!—and I am. But rich people grabbing at all of the monies is nothing new.*

No, it’s the goddamned sensitivity about the rest of noticing that they’ve grabbed all of the monies and the expectation that we should cater to those sensitivities. Your gaze wounds me! Avert your eyes!

Yes, we’re supposed to pay attention to him because he’s a billionaire but not that he’s a billionaire. Uh huh.

*Okay, I’ll be honest: the depths to which rich people will go to get more riches does shock me. I’m aware of the concept of loss aversion, but once you have so much money that everything is effectively free doesn’t this concept lose its mojo? Aren’t we now out of the realm of cognitive biases and into that of sociopathy?

Consider the Sacklers, the crazy-rich family behind Purdue Pharma and one of the main drivers of the opioid crisis. They denied oxycodone was addictive, even as

Kathe Sackler, a board member, pitched “Project Tango,” a secret plan to grow Purdue beyond providing painkillers by also providing a drug, Suboxone, to treat those addicted.

“Addictive opioids and opioid addiction are ‘naturally linked,’ ” she allegedly wrote in September 2014.

Jeez, I remember this episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or you could compare the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma to the executives at Omni Consumer Products (RoboCop, natch).

I mean, the Sacklers’ desire for MOREMOREMORE MONEY is beyond cartoon villainy, and yet, there it is.

I don’t get it.

Money is useful—that I get. It’s portable and transferable and in a society in which you must pay for goods, necessary. I’ve been broke and not-broke, and not-broke is better. But how much beyond not-broke do you have to go before you can say, “okay, enough”?

I’d guess that we’d all have different beyond-lines, and that we’d probably side-eye each other’s lines, so, okay. But not to have any lines at all? Not to have any concept of “enough”?

I guess, in the end, that doesn’t shock me. It puzzles me, but doesn’t shock. But the willing reduction of one’s life to the pursuit of MORE MONEY, the expectation that MORE MONEY is all there is, all that matters and ought to matter?

That’s fucked up.





Teacher, teach me

7 02 2019

Back in class, again, which is good.

Yeah, I have those other jobs, but teaching is my main job, and I’m pretty good at it. I’m also lucky in that I like what I’m teaching; if I get bored, I change up the syllabus et voilà, no longer bored.

I changed up my intro American politics syllabus last spring. My approach with past syllabi has been to cover the basics via textbook/class lecture, and then try to integrate a complementary theme to bring out some of the wrinkles of our political system; in this version, the complementary theme is street-level or “outside” politics, to contrast with the “inside” politics centered on government.

The first semester was kinda rough, as the first semester of a new syllabus tends to be: I have an idea, but it doesn’t always translate well to practice. The second semester tends to go better, as I figure out which goes better with what, and I usually hit my stride by the third semester.

However.

Last semester it never really gelled. I don’t know if it was me, if it was the arrangement of the material, the students, some combination, or, y’know, Trump (just because).

It was frustrating as hell, not least because I think the particulars of the outside theme are fascinating as hell: I focus on the civil rights movement 1960-65, specifically, on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I chose SNCC both because it was less well known than MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and because the students in SNCC were not much older than the students in my classroom.

It also didn’t hurt that there’s a boatload of good material available online, so my students wouldn’t have to fork over more money for books.

Anyway, SNCC has the sit-ins! Freedom Rides! Freedom Summer! The SNCC volunteers were brave and scared and resolute and angry and patient and oh my goddess they risked everything for themselves and their fellow human beings.

And those young men and women weren’t terribly impressed with politicians or presidents, the NAACP or MLK, even as they relied on them to convert direct action into law.

I could go on—but I won’t. The upshot was that my students just weren’t into it and I couldn’t figure out how to get them into it.

So, this semester I tinkered a bit with the schedule to try to make it easier for the students to engage with it, to see the connections (and frictions) between the activists and the politicians, and to understand that politics happens at all different levels.

We’ll see if it works. Initial indications are good—although this may have less to do with me and the schedule than with having students who bring an interest in politics with them into the class. When that happens—when there are a handful of students who are eager to question or comment—the discussions are richer, and tend to pull in even more students.

That was part of what I was missing last semester: that participatory core that could energize everyone else.

That said, I remember what a long-ago college professor said to me: “Ten percent of the students are going to love you no matter what you do, ten percent will hate you no matter what you do, and the other 80 percent don’t really care one way or the other.”

I’d long since come to see that as a challenge, to try to rope that 80 percent into caring—not about me, but about the subject. Last semester that didn’t happen, which sucked. I don’t like to fail my students, and that’s what I did.

But it’s a new semester, and so far, so good.