So now you see the light, eh

19 08 2014

So a cops writes that “yeah you might think you have rights blah blah but I will fuck you up if you try to pull that shit with me”. . . .

To which the only possible response is:





Go your own way

28 05 2014

Conservatives, like most populists, harbored deep suspicions of institutions not under their control, . . .

It’s a throwaway line in Nicole Hemmer’s re-view of three conservative texts from 1964 and their influence on the nomination of Barry Goldwater, but it shot out of the screen right at me.

OH! I thought. Oh! That makes perfect sense!

Not that you’d be suspicious of any institution not under your ilk’s control—that does not make sense, especially in a pluralist society—but that such suspicion could help to explain the resentment and fear of a politics and culture which goes its own way.

Even more, it helps to explain the disconnect within a hyper-patriot’s rants against the US: You people cannot be trusted with all that is great and good in this country and the fact that you hold power means it is no longer great and good.

They don’t live in “our” country, but in “my/not-my” country.

Anyway, I don’t know that this is necessarily a populist or even a conservative thing. Yes, populists may be skeptical of the institutions of power and conservatives might see themselves as holding the line, but as long as they can recognize that The Other—whoever The Other may be—is not alien then they can, however grudgingly, accept the legitimacy of that Other’s rule.

In other (Other?) words, it’s possible to be a populist or a conservative and a pluralist. Harder, perhaps, than it is for a liberal (ideologically, if not in day-to-day experience), but hardly impossible.

No, I think this suspicion is more a matter of authoritarianism mixed with righteousness: We must rule because we deserve to rule because we are right and you are wrong.

Not all authoritarianism is righteous—see the many, many nations run by mere kleptocrats—but righteousness fits easily within authoritarianism (of whatever sort). If you are convinced that you have the correct answers to all questions worth asking, then there’s really no point to granting space to anyone with any other answers—or questions.

It is perhaps not so odd, then, that righteousness is so often a part of anti-authoritarian politics as well. It can take the form of a kind of counter-authority—you are wrong and we should be in charge—but it can also be joined to liberationist sensibilities, as a way of shrugging off authority altogether.

The righteous authoritarian and anti-authoritarian are not, it should be said, mirror opposites. I’ve been around and have sometimes been a righteous anti-authoritarian and they (we) have been at most really irritating: it’s tough to get shit done without authority. Since they are fine with the notion of authority per se, however, righteous authoritarians have no problem taking and exercising power.

That makes them not irritating, but scary.

It also, in its own roundabout way, helps to explain why righteous authoritarians are suspicious of anyone running things who isn’t them. They assume that others will rule just as they would, so cannot trust that they might be merely unhappy under another’s rule. They thus translate that unhappiness into oppression and prepare themselves for the persecution they know is coming.

Whether or not it ever does.





Why can’t we be friends

13 10 2013

I’m not friends with my students.

Friendly—yes, but hanging out with them, exchanging casual e-mails and texts, inviting them to read this blog? No.

I’m not opposed to becoming friends with students, but it’s not something I look for, and, pretty clearly, not something my students are looking for. Perhaps had I remained at a more traditional university, one in which the students were not so clearly focused on the vocational aspects of their education, I might have had more students who wanted to hang out and talk theory, which in turn might have led to friendships.

Either way, it’s fine.

I had ignored the Slate article on why befriending one’s students is a bad idea both because I haven’t and, more importantly, I thought it would be a typically bumptious Slate piece in which everything the reader thought she knew about the world is declared wrong.

So tiring, that.

But a piece highlighted by Jonathan Bernstein, in which political science professor Steve Green notes that he regularly shares bits of his life with his students, prompted me to go back and read the Slate piece. It turns out the problem is less with befriending students than with, yes, being open and friendly with them.

When students reported that their instructors engaged in a lot of sharing about their lives—particularly stories about past academic mistakes, even stories designed to stress that everyone has difficulty learning some topics—there is an immediate and negative impact on classroom attitudes. First, the students are more likely to engage in uncivil behaviors. Second, the students are less likely to see their instructors as having credibility, and the declines in instructor credibility are also associated with increases in uncivil behavior.

Slate writer Scott Jaschik notes that the study authors caution that instructor style influences 20 percent of “uncivil behavior” (packing up books early, texting), which means most of this behavior is outside of the control of the prof. Still, 20 percent ain’t beanbag, so if one wants a civil classroom, anything which detracts from credibility might work against that.

I don’t disagree with this. If one wants to establish authority in the classroom (as I most certainly do) without reverting to mere authoritarianism along the lines of “because I said so!” (as I most certainly do not), then establishing that one has the chops to stand in front of student, i.e., demonstrating one’s credibility, is the way to go. The reason you should listen to me is not because I am in charge but because I have the ability to teach you, which means you can learn something from me.

So am I wrong in thinking that telling my students, most of whom are first-generation college students from working- and lower-middle class backgrounds that I was a first-generation college student from a working-/lower-middle class background is a kind of encouragement to them? Am I demonstrating an ability to speak across apparent boundaries or am I, in transgressing those boundaries, reducing my credibility?

As Steve Greene notes, “Sharing about your personal life and sharing things that make you seen less competent are entirely different kettles of fish.” There’s also the question of whether sharing how you messed up, academically or pedagogically and then sorted it out demonstrates incompetence or competence.

Oh, and there’s the rather significant issue of the connection between uncivil behavior and learning. I have no problem believing that a student who’s texting isn’t paying attention, but is the student who isn’t texting paying attention? As for packing up books, well, that’s may be less about incivility than about needing to get to a class across campus and wanting to hit the bathroom/snack shop before that next class.

I want to be an effective teacher in a way which makes sense to me, so as a generally casual person an über-formal approach probably won’t work. I also know that the students aren’t there to learn all about me but all about the subject I’m teaching, so any storytelling ought to be minimized and only used to illustrate a pedagogical point.

Yeah, openness about oneself can go too far in terms of self-indulgence or indiscretion, but insofar as I take an open approach toward knowledge about the world, that I think that open approach is the best approach, I am skeptical that an appropriate openness with the students will cause their minds to snap shut.

When I tell my students on the first day that I don’t take myself too seriously (which is almost true) but I do take the work seriously (which is really true), I recognize that I may be sanding away some of my own authority in a way which dulls my own credibility, and thus may increase their skepticism of me.

That’s not such a bad thing: let them question me, which gives me the chance, in responding to them, to demonstrate that I do know what I’m doing, and that they might just want to follow along, to see what comes next.





Three babies

17 10 2011

Bit more than that, actually, and stolen, I mean.

What had initially been reported as almost 300 is now a hundred thousand times larger than that:

300,000 babies stolen from their parents – and sold for adoption: Haunting BBC documentary exposes 50-year scandal of baby trafficking by the Catholic church in Spain

By Polly Dunbar

Last updated at 11:55 AM on 16th October 2011

Up to 300,000 Spanish babies were stolen from their parents and sold for adoption over a period of five decades, a new investigation reveals.

The children were trafficked by a secret network of doctors, nurses, priests and nuns in a widespread practice that began during General Franco’s dictatorship and continued until the early Nineties.

Hundreds of families who had babies taken from Spanish hospitals are now battling for an official government investigation into the scandal.
Several mothers say they were told their first-born children had died during or soon after they gave birth.

But the women, often young and unmarried, were told they could not see the body of the infant or attend their burial.

In reality, the babies were sold to childless couples whose devout beliefs and financial security meant that they were seen as more appropriate parents. (more)

Oh, the good old days, when authority was never checked or questioned.




Whisper words of wisdom

24 11 2010

Allow a moment of sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church.

No, really.

The old girl is over 1500* years old, and the world now is not the world of its founding or expansion—a tough spot for an institution based on both spreading the Word and upholding eternal truths.  Yes, the One True Church has had to deal with interlopers and usurpers—in particular that centuries-long unpleasantness sparked by a disgruntled monk—but always, always, she has held true.

(*Given the un- and dis-organization of early Christian communities, a conservative estimate seems best. Oh, and for the purposes of this post, ‘the Church’ is defined narrowly as the institution, not the laypeople.)

Truth—ay, there’s the rub. Or, perhaps, insert the requisite LOLcats image here: ‘The Truth: I haz it.’

Consider the view of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, newly elected preside of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“You get the impression that the Holy See or the pope is like Congress and every once in a while says, ‘Oh, let’s change this law,’ ” he said. “We can’t.”

The key is to convince [would-be] parishioners of the Church’s position:

He said he was chagrined when he saw a long line of people last Sunday on Fifth Avenue. “I’m talking two blocks, a line of people waiting to get into …” he said, pausing for suspense. “Abercrombie and Fitch. And I thought, wow, there’s no line of people waiting to get into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the treasure in there is of eternal value. What can I do to help our great people appreciate that tradition?”

Hence the dilemma: We have this great tradition. . . that many reject.

The whys of the rejection are likely numerous—people don’t think the traditions are great, don’t think they’re immutable, don’t believe the Church is the best or only repository of those traditions, etc.—but that people are able to reject them means that those trying to sell the eternal value of those traditions have to figure out how to persuade the rejectionists to change their minds.

A number of commenters on the Dolan piece note that this amounts to a view of ‘Change your mind so we don’t have to’—a reasonable take on the Church’s position.

But those same commenters are also missing the point: the Church does in fact hold the position that there are eternal truths, that it is the guardian of those truths, and that to compromise on those truths is to call into question the point of the Church itself. Granted, some of those commenters are doing just that, but others seem to think that the Church simply needs to ‘get with the times’ when in fact the Church thinks it’s the times which need to get with the Church.

This is Ross Douthat’s view, expressed in his usual fuzzy, befuddled, obedient manner:

Here the Church struggles and struggles, in ways that it doesn’t on other controversial issues, to make its teaching understood and its moral reasoning transparent. . . . Orthodox Catholics sometimes argue that the problem is simply that the teaching hasn’t been adequately explicated and defended, whether by bishops or priests or laypeople — and there’s truth to this. But the problem probably runs deeper than that: It isn’t just that the arguments for the teaching aren’t advanced vigorously and eloquently enough; it’s that the distinctions that the Church makes bump up against people’s moral intuitions more than they do on other fronts, and the Church’s arguments often take on a kind of hair-splitting quality that’s absent on other hot-button questions. (As in: The natural law permits me to rigorously chart my temperature and/or measure my cervical mucus every day in an effort to avoid conception, but it doesn’t permit me to use a condom? Really?)

So Douthat sees that even those who generally follow the Church’s teachings nonetheless squint at the reasoning behind the pronouncements on Truth—in this case, the anti-contraception Truth. Thus, should these same laypeople follow their own reason to the Truth?

Not exactly:

Now for a serious Catholic, the argument from tradition and authority is a real argument, not just the dodge that many people assume it to be. And the fact that the Church’s moral reasoning seems unpersuasive may just reflect the distorting impact of a contraceptive culture on the individual conscience.

Again: the problem, dear (un)believer is with you.

But what if the Church does try, however fitfully, to make practical sense of its moral stance in an im- or a-moral world, as with condom use in paid-for sex? You get it from all sides, from those of us skeptical of the morality of its stance to those who consider it an impermissible detour from the straight and narrow.

John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a moral theologian, urged the publisher not to publish the Pope’s book, Light of the World, arguing it would only create a ‘mess’. That a Vatican spokesman later clarified that the Pope’s comment related not just to male but also to female prostitutes, was almost unbelievable, given the implications regarding contraception:

Indeed, Dr. Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, could barely countenance Father Lombardi’s comments that broadened the debate to include women. “I don’t think it’s a clarification; it’s a muddying of the waters,” he said. “My opinion is that the pope purposely chose a male prostitute to avoid that particular debate.”

And if Benedict was in fact opening that debate? “I think the pope’s wrong,” Dr. Haas added.

Well.

The Church has to hold the line because, were any slack allowed, the meaning of the line would cease, as would that of the Church itself. Yet not to loosen the line means that people will flee, if only to save themselves from suffocation—and in so doing, to call into question the meaning of the line and that of the Church itself.

It is a true dilemma, and for that reason, I am sympathetic.

But—you knew I’d throw a ‘but’ in—the Church itself is the author of this dilemma. It set itself up as the One True Church, the path to salvation, the authority on all matters God, so much so that authority itself was reified. The point of the Church became the Church.

This is, of course, an ancient dilemma, one which runs through the history of not just Church but Christianity itself. Early dissenters (including Pelagians and some gnostics, among others) argued that God was carried within and thus no formal structure was necessary; a thousand or so years later protesters lay the Bible before the people and told them that was all they needed. (That those Protestants set up their own structures is another issue.) Sola fidelis, sola scriptura.

But the Church, the Church said No. The Church said We are the One True Faith. The Church said, in effect (if anachronistically): Who you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?

The Church, in other words, rested the faith on its authority, rather than its authority on faith. In doing so, the truth of the authority calcified into the Church’s Truth and, as such, could be neither compromised or countermanded. The Church is the repository of God’s Word, its guardian and keeper; to doubt this authority is to risk losing the keys to the Kingdom itself.

This risk has kept many inside, as, I hasten to add, have faith and love for the Church itself. But those on the outside, especially those faith-seekers on the outside, see the lines and the walls of the Church and wonder Where is God in all this?





Won’t get fooled again

20 05 2009

I was going to post something light, whimsical, even.

Then I read the paper.

The report on abuse in Irish schools was released earlier today, and offers up yet more horrifying stories of beatings, rape, humiliation, and all-around violence. Unfortunately, the Christian Brothers successfully sued the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse to keep the names of the violent criminals its members out of the report, so justice, so long in coming, will be delayed even more.

From the Executive Summary:

More than 90% of all witnesses who gave evidence to the Confidential Committee reported being physically abused while in schools or out-of-home care. Physical abuse was a component of the vast majority of abuse reported in all decades and institutions and witnesses described pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives. They frequently described casual, random physical abuse but many wished to report only the times when the frequency and severity were such that they were injured or in fear for their lives. In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water. Witnesses reported being beaten in front of other staff, residents, patients and pupils as well as in private. Physical abuse was reported to have been perpetrated by religious and lay staff, older residents and others who were associated with the schools and institutions. There were many reports of injuries as a result of physical abuse, including broken bones, lacerations and bruising.

And, of course, these children were rarely believed, or blamed for the torment visited upon them by both clerical and lay authorities. Again, from the ES:

Contemporary complaints were made to the School authorities, the Gardaí, the Department of Education, Health Boards, priests of the parish and others by witnesses, their parents and relatives. Witnesses reported that at times protective action was taken following complaints being made. In other instances complaints were ignored, witnesses were punished, or pressure was brought to bear on the child and family to deny the complaint and/or to remain silent. Witnesses reported that their sense of shame, the power of the abuser, the culture of secrecy and isolation and the fear of physical punishment inhibited them in disclosing abuse.

I saw a clip on the BBC of a man who had survived his years in the schools. He looked to be in his fifties or sixties, but the anguish was fresh.

According to the BBC, ‘The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, said those who perpetrated violence and abuse should be held to account, “no matter how long ago it happened”.’

So tell the good Brothers to release the damned names themselves. Don’t abandon that anguished man again.

I’ve been reading a number of different reactions to the release of the Commission report, including, dishearteningly, those few who argue that the abuse ‘wasn’t that bad’. Many more commentators blame the Catholic Church, with the blame running from the hierarchy to celibacy to gay priests to the heresy of Jansenism.

I’m not particularly interested in defending the Church—goddess knows it has more than enough lawyers to defend itself. But I don’t think the problem is with Catholicism per se, not least when inquiries into abuses in Australia and Canada revealed similar problems in Anglican-run institutions.

It’s not even a problem with Christianity or religion. There was recently an article in the St. Petersburg Times about the abuse, even death, of inmates at the Florida School for Boys. (Go here for the multi-media report.) The state knew there were problems, knew for decades there were problems, but little was done.

No one was charged for the torture and death of these boys.

Should I mention Guantanamo? Abu Ghraib? The prison outside of Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan? Hell, what about prisons within the US?

The dynamics of abuse in these various places is not all the same, but they do share one very important element in common: Unchecked authority.

Both parts of that phrase are important: Many of those [edit to add: who] abused were authority figures themselves, or granted authority to so abuse by those in positions superior to them. And those who didn’t condone the abuse itself nonetheless shielded these men (and in the case of the Irish Sisters of Mercy, women) from the civil and criminal consequences of their actions.

Oh, sure, Lindy England and Charles Grainor and Fathers Geoghan and Shanley were tried and sent to prison, but the problems of unchecked authority go far beyond these few so-called bad apples.

No, the abuse in borne of the righteousness of such authority, be it clerical or civic righteousness. These kids were delinquents or whores or incorrigible; prisoners are the lowest of the low, animals, threats to society; terrorists are, well, terrorists. In all cases ‘harsh treatment’ is acceptable, encouraged, even. How else are they to learn? How else are they to know who’s in charge? How else are they to know what’s good for them?

And it is such righteousness which allows abuse to continue, unchecked. Those in charge are holding the line, keeping us safe, willing to do the dirty work we all want done but don’t want to know about. They are good men and women; heroes, even.

Well, fuck that. I’m not an anarchist—I believe in authority, properly exercised—but if those in authority cannot, in fact, exercise it properly, then why bother? If those in authority escape prosecution (almost everyone), retain their licenses to practice law (Gonzalez, Yoo), remain on the bench (Bybee), get booted upward to a position in the Vatican (Cardinal Law), or get a school named after them (Arthur G. Dozier, head of the Florida School for Boys during the worst of the abuses), why the fuck should any of us respect this so-called authority?

And walking away or getting past all this or not looking backward or playing the blame game? No. Open it up, open it all up, and let those who authorized this abuse justify themselves in public, before the public, and, perhaps, before a jury.

Otherwise we’re just stuck with Meet the new boss, same as the old boss—be that boss a priest, a cardinal, a superintendent, a CIA official, or a president.

Open it up, open it all up.