What’s This Weird Feeling

Doing some work in front of the TV tonight, I watched documentaries on Watergate and Alex Jones. It was something, watching an account of the moment in US history when the system held against a president who abused his power–in part because Americans learned what he’d done and turned against him–and then watching an account of the career of one of the men most responsible for making sure that Americans are unable to point to a shared set of facts about what another president who abused his power did.

It had already been a day. It started to look this morning like the pattern that’s been established for the past too many years of mass shootings failing to lead to the change an outraged nation demands might not be holding. This time, it was two events in close succession, which might have made a difference. It might also have been the state-by-state pressure exerted by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown, and other groups advocating for sensible gun policy that has made this time look like it might actually be different.

It also was starting to look like the pattern that long ago emerged with Trump–a nation is horrified to learn of the latest outrage he’s committed, Washington marshals its forces to expose the depth of his abuse of power, and a fully compromised Republican party lets him off the hook–might not hold this time. Instead of impeachments that don’t lead to convictions, we might have actual criminal accountability. The January 6 committee just might have the goods and the Justice Department just might actually live up to its name.

So maybe this is the start of something. Maybe things have gotten so bad that the efforts of the Joneses and the Murdochs to ensure we can’t all be working from the same set of facts are becoming less effective–so much less that Americans’ outrage can reach critical mass and their representatives have to listen to their demands. Maybe the evidence is piling up so high that it’s overwhelming the work of the liars, the conspiracy theorists, and the politicians who might know better but in their own personal calculus have decided that the true and the right are less important than the expedient and the advantageous. It could be that decades of hoping for better gun policy and a long six years of hoping that Trump would finally be treated like the criminal he is might finally be more than exercises in disappointment. You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it. But let’s talk about it.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Why Everything Is So Fucked Up Right Now

If you had to answer the question of why everything is so fucked up in this country right now, you could do worse than pointing at this tweet:

I’m an American in my own home, and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns, Mr. Chairman.

I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns.

I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want.

I’ll do whatever I want.

The essence of this tweet is something you expect to hear from toddlers, not members of Congress. One of the most important things we are supposed to learn as we are socialized–by playing with other children, going to school, and learning how our system of government works–is that we can’t do whatever we want, because our actions affect other people. What we do sometimes does things to other people that they don’t want done to them and that we wouldn’t done to us. As we learn what becoming a member of a functioning society entails, we learn not to swing our fist wherever we want because we don’t want it to hit the other fellow’s nose.

So maybe we don’t live in a functioning society anymore. A good portion of us root our identity in the idea that other people and their noses can go fuck themselves, that our freedom to swing our fists wildly with our eyes closed because it makes us feel good is sacred. For those among us who think this way, people who voice complaints about how their noses keep getting smashed are too sensitive, are snowflakes, should be mocked. America doesn’t owe them anything other than the chance to become nose-smashers themselves. Trump is their hero because he could give a rat’s ass about the effects of his actions and just wins wins wins. And Trump, in his red white and blue uniform, is America.

You can’t spell triumphalism without Trump.

America can’t lose, Trumpist, triumphalist thinking goes, unless un-American Americans hold it back, like (this line of thinking goes) in Vietnam, or in business, or in elections, or in defending itself against the immigrant hordes or the enemies within. If real Americans are just allowed to hang onto their guns and their prejudices and do whatever it takes–and not do things they don’t want to that might help others, like wear masks or allow people to do things they think their religion just can’t tolerate–they’ll win.

Along these lines, if you think that tweet isn’t the answer, try this shirt:

America is flag-draped death heads and guns. America is swinging fists and fuck your noses. America is good guys with guns, lots and lots of guns, all the guns you can eat.

I’m sick to death of people thinking it’s American to do whatever you want. We’ve always had this attitude as one part of who we are, as colonizers and enslavers, bosses and con men, but now it seems like all the strains encouraging selfishness and destroying the impulse to work toward the public good have combined in a toxic stew of America firster, neoliberal individualist, love-it-or-leave-it ignorance and bigotry. Aggression, lack of empathy, and narcissism used to be the hallmarks of a sociopath. Now they’re job qualifications to be a Republican member of congress. Or someone who votes for one.

How do we pull out of this neoliberal tailspin? Is there any righting of the plane? Can humanities professors save us? Why are you laughing? Looking at my notes taken yesterday for a talk I’m writing about the humanities, I see this passage from Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution: “as increased use of casual academic labor, online instruction, and neoliberal governance erodes research-faculty control over curriculums, degrees, and major requirements, the last force within public universities potentially sustaining the ideal of the well-educated citizen, the liberal arts professoriat itself, will be dramatically diminished in both size and power to assert its vision.” As the state defunds higher ed and the culture devalues it, Brown argues, as people stop believing that democracy depends on educated citizens who put the public good over individual freedom, it is becoming harder for those within universities who understand this to save their institutions from becoming the kind of places that are no longer interested in producing that kind of citizen.

Cold dead hands: Thatcher, Reagan, Heston

The same holds true for institutions and individuals everywhere in America. We are all supposed to be looking for positive ROI, in our workplaces and in our lives. It’s becoming harder and harder to talk or even think about what’s just, about the greater good, about the good at all, when everybody’s competing with everybody else, when everyone and everything is ranked. I’ll argue in my talk for the possibility of working against the economization of everything within higher ed, for the idea that there are things we can do in higher ed that might fight against neoliberal rationality in higher ed and outside of it. I’d be foolish to imagine such efforts could have any effect on people like Greg Steube who think there’s any appropriate response to the mass shootings of May other than finding ways to protect the lives of the people they represent. But if public higher education could be saved as a place where future potential members of Congress and future potential voters could learn alternative ways of thinking, ways that don’t make the very notion of the public good absurd, maybe that could be something. And if others could do whatever they can to affect their own institutions, to show that things don’t have to be this way, that could be something too.

Time Lapse Map

A friend just posted a video from YouTube of a time lapse map of Europe covering 1000 years of its history.

It’s really something, watching the formation of states and empires, the slow and then sudden swallowing up of the former by the latter. It makes you think not only of the flows of people and cultures and foods and riches but of the human costs, of the lives lost every time a border shifted, and of the motivating hatreds and resulting long-lived grudges.

It also made me think of the response I’ve gotten to my last post and especially to the Op Ed that came out of it in Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has been gratifying and a little overwhelming, or if that’s too dramatic, certainly eye-opening. Many of the emails and messages I’ve gotten are about how the writer shares my reaction to the war in Ukraine and the curious experience of figuring out how to balance their support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion with the historical memory that comes with being an American Jew.

It is of course a complicated thing, and to hear from so many people I know and so many I don’t, people who have also been struggling with this, strengthens my sense that there are good and bad ways to deal with the complications of historical memory–complications this amazing moving map illustrates well. With the flows of refugees and with borders shifting under people’s feet from generation to generation, it’s no wonder that family histories and national histories in Eastern Europe become confused, roots become tangled or severed, and that some of these lives growing in this soil–individual, familial, ethnic, national–emerge twisted, bearing bitter fruit, not growing toward the light the way they should. And it’s no wonder that others who grow up in different soil far away, transplants, look back bewildered at the land they came from.

Before I get any more Chauncey Gardneresque, I’ll leave you with an invitation to stare some more at this map (embedded below) and think about the history it shows and the history that’s happening now. It’s a good way to deal with it.*

*On dealing with history rather than not dealing with it, thinking about it rather than not, letting it be taught to your children rather than fighting to keep it from them: here’s a long Twitter thread I’ve been keeping for nine or so months, on efforts in this country to make sure our own history is taught and efforts on the other side.

And here’s that video.

Beyond the Pale

Russia has now been attacking Ukraine for five days. Like most of the people I know, I’ve been watching events unfold, I’ve stayed up late surfing cable news and Twitter, I’ve been distracted from my work. As I’ve been following what’s happening over there, I’ve also been noticing how people over here have reacted, and I’ve been uneasy about how quickly the embrace of the innocent Ukraine can be joined by hatred of the attacking Russia without remembering that it’s not a country or a people attacking, it’s an army, ordered by a dictator. I think this will get sorted out, mostly–the pictures of the streets of Moscow filled with protestors ought to do it–but it’s made me think how we connect ourselves to conflicts a world away, how we are happy to pick sides, and also, for some of us with families from over there, a long time ago, how weird it is find ourselves doing it.

The old neighborhood, now

Like many American Jews, I descend from people from a variety of places around central and eastern Europe. There were people from Slutsk, a suburb of Minsk, the capital and largest city in Belarus, who came over in the 1880s; like many people now named Cohen, their name was changed at Castle Garden, the Ellis Island before Ellis Island. In the US, one of them married someone from Kyiv. There were people who came over much earlier, in 1840, from Königsberg, a city then in East Prussia, later (after they left) in the German empire, now in Russia as Kaliningrad. There were people who came over earlier from Prague whose last name indicates they may have been from Schlesien or Silesia, which means they might have been from Königsberg or thereabouts too. There is even one who came over from England but whose family was originally from the West Prussian city of Posen, then in West Prussia, before and after the Polish city of Poznań.

Castle Garden

And that’s just one side of the family. The other I know less about, but it comes from Eastern Europe too, by different routes, as those grandparents met over here too.

The weirdness of my finding myself rooting for Ukraine, which is of course the wronged party and is fighting courageously, comes from that history, one that is, again, common among American Jews. I come from people who came from all over Eastern Europe and who got out, under circumstances I cannot imagine–one of them, my great grandfather, got on a boat with his older brother when he was twelve years old–and leaving behind circumstances and histories I also cannot imagine. But I know that they were marked by ill-treatment inspired by centuries-old anti-Semitism. We don’t know of anyone still left by the late 1930s, but many of the places my people were from were places that didn’t always treat Jews so well well before then.

The old neighborhood, then

Many were from the Pale of Settlement, the part of the growing Russian empire in the 18th century until WWI that included Belarus, most of Ukraine, and Eastern Poland. It was the only region of the expanding Russia where most Jews were allowed to live, other than a few with wealth or advanced education, but there were farm towns and cities within it that didn’t always allow them, such as Kyiv, and an eventual ban on all rural areas. This led to many having to live in impoverished shtetls, subject to quotas, restrictions of the kinds of work they were allowed (of which there was never enough), and brutal pogroms carried out by Cossacks and others.

So you see the problem. When I see a video from Ukraine of children doing athletic training after the style of traditional Cossack training, or a live recreation of a famous painting of Cossacks, the brave resistance to Russian aggression that I’m supposed to see is joined by what I know and imagine of the men who raided Jewish towns on horseback. When I watch live reporting from Kiev and hear the sirens and fear for the fate of the beautiful old churches and the families driven down to the subways, I’m also thinking of the Jews who were driven from those cities, joining the Jews expelled from St. Petersburg and Moscow. When I watch Putin leap back in time past the Cold War and try revive the imperial Russia of two hundred years ago, I see the Tsars, but the scenes of violence get all mixed up with the Cossacks of Ukraine and the Nazis who decimated the Jews, starting in earnest with the last, biggest pogrom, Kristallnacht.

I’m not saying my unease is logical. It’s all mixed up. I know that Putin’s claim that he’s pursuing deNazification in Ukraine is the worst sort of gaslighting. And I know that Zelensky is Jewish, and it’s heartening, though it seems that his election came as a surprise to some, given Ukraine’s past, and that it’s something he seemed to be trying not to mention during his campaign. And it’s heartening to see Ukraine rally around him, and Europe and the world rally around Ukraine. It’s just sometimes hard to know exactly where to stand in relation to this history as it happens, where my families’ uprooted roots allow me to plant myself in it.

This historical rootlessness, or uprootedness, the fact that I had to ask my father to refresh my memory on this family history, the fact that I know so little of the roots on my mother’s side–maybe it’s an effect and a cause. It’s the effect of the endless diaspora and the particular diasporas of Eastern Europe’s Jews, the expulsions, emigrations, name changes and language changes, an Old World that’s happy to see the back of you and a New World that doesn’t want to know where you came from, a partial amnesia and an urge to remember, and maybe even for some of us a disinclination to settle in, to join, to be fully of a place, even a place in history.

I should grow like an onion with my head in the ground. Maybe then I’d have some roots.

In Doctrine Nation

I just missed a planning meeting of my AAUP chapter because I got caught up writing testimony opposing the spate of anti-public education bills in my state legislature. (Actually, just three of many horrible bills. And I’ll be submitting my testimony rather than delivering it because there’s a pandemic raging and my state house currently has no rules on mask wearing.) As befits the times and my near constant rage at the abdication of the responsibilities of their offices by government officials from DC to Jefferson City and of their civic responsibilities by neighbors near and far, what I wrote is kind of angry.

The sixth Missouri capitol building (there’s been a lot of fires)

I’ve tried to write this next sentence five times and every time devolved into summaries of all of the horrible legislation supported over the years by the legislators who are sponsoring these bills. So I’m just going to share my testimony, say something in closing, and take my dog for a walk before it gets dark. The bills I’m opposing are HB 1474, “The Parents’ Bill of Rights Act of 2022,” HB 1747, which appears not to have the usual misleading name but it’s about making it easier to recall school board members, and HB 1995, “The Parents’ Bill of Rights for Student Well-Being,” which is just confusing.

I am under no illusion that anybody in the state house will read this testimony, and that’s fine because it’s inarticulate and breaks most of the rules of effective testimony. I can only hope that it adds a little height to a tall stack of testimony, though I am afraid that people are too overwhelmed–by the attacks coming from the right on so many fronts and by how hard it is to manage not only to get along from day to day but to manage the rage–to find the time and energy to sit down and write these. But we should all be aware and do what we can. And if the Missouri GOP manages to pass any of this awful legislation rather than just let it fade into memory as part of the ongoing campaign to keep Missouri’s culture war fires burning, then they should at least know how many people they don’t speak for.

One more thing: Today I saw that one of the architects of the manufactured Critical Race Theory kerfuffle, Christopher Rufo, is pivoting from his CRT strategy, which he has openly acknowledged as a strategy like the give-it-all-away Bond villain he is, to “transparency.” He has also decided, as my friend Aaron Hanlon pointed out, to plug into the worst of the right’s conspiracy theories.

Teaching is now “grooming,”and teachers are “predators.”

The cynicism of this tactic is breathtaking, and it couldn’t be more dangerous. The danger, and the danger of the bills above and the rest of them in Missouri and around the country (see Indiana’s, for example), isn’t just to public education. It’s to the idea that the people on the other side, whichever side you’re on, aren’t your enemies but members of your community with whom you disagree, and that we have institutions and mechanisms through which to deal with those disagreements. It’s even dangerous to the idea that if the institutions fail you, you can protest, you can publicly criticize, boycott, make your case heard and your power felt. It’s dangerous to these things to paint the people who disagree with you as enemies, as vile taboo-breaking criminals who should be violently cast out of society, put on lists, exposed and removed. That’s what this “transparency” push is about–make a lot of noise about how you’re shining a light on the horrible things happening in the basement under the pizza place, even if there’s nothing happening and the pizza place doesn’t have a basement. Embolden voters to feel like there’s an evil they must vigilantly guard against and you’ll kill two birds with one stone–your voters will be mobilized, enraged, will storm school board meetings and town halls, and the people who disagree with you will be too terrified to speak up or at least to teach your children that something bad happened in their country, and keeps happening.

It’s getting dark and my dog has been patient, so I’m going to take her and my blood pressure for a walk and take a route where I don’t see my neighborhood’s Gadsden flag. And I’ll try not to see the people I don’t agree with as my enemy or as monsters, no matter how deeply wrong they are and no matter how much of a danger what they’re doing poses to the places I live. They’re not my enemy and they’re not monsters, but the things they are trying to do in our state houses and city halls need to be opposed, loudly, by anybody who can take a deep enough breath, in spite of the rage, to yell. There’s nothing heroic or worthy of praise about trying to not see the people on the other side in as negative a light as they’re being told to see you. It couldn’t be more basic. Don’t tread on each other, the flag could read, and everything might be a little better.

Happy Anniversary

Satellite view of New York City on September 12, 2001

I wrote something a few months ago for the Los Angeles Times about the importance of how Americans remember the events of September 11, 2001–on anniversaries and all the other days–for how we acted immediately and long after. Twenty years of war later, there are people waving the flag harder than ever, itching for a fight with whatever nation calls us chicken and whichever American calls us for us to look critically at ourselves. Tonight, a few hours before the anniversary of last year’s riot and attempted coup, I’m thinking that the way we remember January 6, 2021 will be just as important.

Gallows erected near the Capitol on January 6, 2021

My junior senator, who encouraged the big lie and who never wavered in his pandering even in the immediate aftermath of the attack, when even the likes of Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy were shocked into honesty about what had just happened, has been on Fox and Breitbart revising history like the 1619 Projector of his pretend nightmares. In the op-ed he wrote for the Fox Disinformation Network today, Hawley argues, “The most surprising outcome—and the day’s true legacy—was the Left’s attempt to use the Capitol unrest to foster a permanent climate of fear and repression.”

My junior senator

As the House Committee on the attack inches closer to the organizers of the coup, the leading lights of the Grand Old Party have zoomed straight past gaslighting to pissing on the nation’s leg and telling it it’s raining. Not only were the insurrectionists not doing anything wrong, or just overzealous in their pursuit of secure elections, or crypto-Antifa, the real ones to worry about are–surprise!–“the Left.”

From the studio of George W. Bush

There was a lot of talk the last time we had a peaceful transition of power about moving on from blaming the previous administration for lying us into war, under the idea that the nation might better heal if we didn’t try to hold members of the administration accountable. And so the hawks and profiteers got to ride off into the sunset of the Hoover Institution and the mansion studio, we stayed in Afghanistan for twenty years, and the fiscal and psychic space occupied by the military remains far too big.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake again. You can’t heal if you don’t cut out the thing that’s making you sick. If we want to keep our republic, we have to call out the people who tried to destroy it and are trying still. The traditional gift for the first anniversary is paper, and I can’t think of a better gift than a subpoena. Then maybe we’ll get closer to knowing what the true legacy will really be.

December 28, 2021

So today is the 55th anniversary of my birth. (Do a little math and you’ll have my birth year, which is enough to check in at my orthopedist’s office but not much else.) Birthdays are generally weird, out-of-body experiences for me, as I think I do a pretty bad job of what Joan Didion once wrote that we should all do, namely “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” and on my birthday those people tend to pop up whether I want to renew our acquaintance or not.

me a long time ago

It’s been a generally weird year too, if you haven’t noticed, and it’s ending with a bang. The pandemic that we’re supposed to be post- is not going away, even as the people who run our institutions are bowing to political pressure and acting like it is. My high schooler will in a few days return to a school that will no longer have a mask mandate, in large part because my state’s attorney general is bullying school districts into ending mandates. In a society that is as post-racial as it is post-pandemic, books are being banned in schools and hundreds of anti-antiracism (and other kids of bigotry) bills are lining up at state houses across the country. Republican-dominated state houses are also busy finding ways to rig future elections by gerrymander and wholesale replacement of election officials. And the January 6 conspirators are writing books laying out their plans, including the 100 lawmakers they had lined up to help them overturn the election, and as yet none of them seem to be paying any kind of price.

Peter Navarro, author and one of the president’s men

One of the people I used to be who popped up today is pictured up above, and tonight we’re getting reacquainted. I have no memory of that picture being taken, but from the haircut, the shirt, and the furniture, it was taken in the mid-1970s in the Jersey shore house on stilts where my family spent our summers. Seeing it has made me remember the summer of 1973–I’m guessing a year before this picture, but I’m really not sure–when my mother taught me how to draw faces while we watched the Watergate hearings. Lying on my stomach with a drawing pad, I had hours to sketch the faces of the president’s men on the TV screen. I also absorbed Watergate–if not the details of what had happened and was happening, then certainly the feelings of those hearings, the feelings in our beach house. I also learned something of the details about Nixon and company from Doonesbury, as I learned most of my popular culture from Mad magazine.

What I think I learned from the hearings and from Garry Trudeau (and, come to think of it, from Mad), in addition to how to draw a little, was complicated. It was scary to learn that there were men in charge who couldn’t be trusted, who did bad things and could (and should) be mocked for it. But there was something empowering about the second part, learning that there were places, in and outside of Washington, where those men could be called to account, either officially or through the power of words and drawings. So the loss of innocence about the president, about authority, was accompanied by the gaining of faith in the power of institutions and individuals to criticize and try to set things right.

Doonesbury July 5, 1973

I don’t know how much that kid could have articulated about all of this at the time. As I said, we haven’t kept in very good touch. But having him stare out at me tonight and remembering things about those summers down the shore–the games of kick the can in the sand streets, bodysurfing for hours, finding dead sand sharks and those little live crabs that burrow back into the sand when the waves roll back out–hasn’t been so bad. And it’s reminded me of one of the sources of the anger I can’t stop feeling these days at the people in positions of authority who risk our lives and the future of our country to further their careers, to line their pockets, maybe to hasten the apocalypse. But it’s also reminded me of what people were calling, for a little while, resistance.

I can’t help wondering what this particular person I used to be would think of the person I am now. Joan Didion, who died a few days ago, described the reappearance of the people we used to be like this: “they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” I really don’t know. I’ve ended up making a living talking about words and how we use them and sometimes using them to talk about bad actors and structures and about ways to resist them, but at 4 a.m. it sometimes doesn’t feel like much. Did I desert that kid with the wide-open face? My dad was born five months earlier than Didion, in July 1934. At moments like this, on birthdays, a couple of bourbons in, woken up out of our day-to-day half-slumber, we could be forgiven for wondering whether we’ve made our parents proud, whether at the end of our lives we will have made our younger selves proud, even whether our parents, near the end of their lives, are on speaking terms with the people they used to be. We could wonder whether our kids will remember themselves when they get to the middle of their lives, or nearer the end, and whether they will look back and know what the people they used to be would think of the people they’ve become. And we could wonder whether our children will have grown up in a world where it seemed like the bad guys could be fought off by word and deed and the institutions that shape their lives could be saved, so that their older selves might have some hope in the face of the inevitable fuckery of people who want to take advantage of power rather than use it to serve the people who put them in position to do so.

It’s a lot to think about.

Von Humboldt’s Gift

With apologies to Saul Bellow

In 1896, a biographer of Prussian linguist, philosopher, and government official Wilhelm von Humboldt discovered a fragmentary text by his subject and included it as an appendix to his biography. It was eighty-six years old and was instantly championed as foundational to the modern university as developed in Germany–in part by von Humboldt himself at the University of Berlin–which itself provided the model for the American research university. It was called “On the Internal Structure of the University in Berlin and Its Relationship to Other Organizations.” While scholars who study the history of the university argue about its importance or even the idea that Humboldtsches Bildungsideal or the Humboldtian model for the university is a unified and applicable thing, the story of its importance is itself important for how it has been used (as Louis Menand, Paul Reitter, and Chad Wellmon tell us in their introduction to The Rise of the Research University). Still, that discovered fragment and von Humboldt’s educational reforms have given us a way to frame what universities can and should be. At the center of this vision is Akademische Freiheit or academic freedom–composed of lehrfreiheit, freedom to teach, and lernfreiheit, freedom to learn. These freedoms, von Humboldt argued, must not be interfered with, writing, “the state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better without it.”

As Menand, Reitter, and Wellmon also remind us, it was not that von Humboldt believed the state and the university must have nothing to do with each other; he was, after all, a government official when he created the University of Berlin. What he believed was that universities would be of most use to the state if the state respected the principles of academic freedom, allowing them to make and pass on Wissenschaft, the pure knowledge that could be used to shape the future.

A similar principle exists in the US, especially in its public universities, not only through the strong influence of the German university on those founded here but also through the influence of the first federal aid to higher education, the Morrill Acts, which granted land and the proceeds of sold land to public universities with the idea that these land grant institutions would serve the people of their state.

The contemporary public university is a complicated institution. With the turn to private foundations, to the federal government during the Cold War, and to corporations with public-private partnerships, what Clark Kerr called the “multiversity” exists in a web of financial arrangements that can threaten academic freedom. Add to this the now decades-long shrinking of federal and state funding for higher education and a political climate in which one party scores points off of its disdain for intellectuals and campus politics, and you’ve got a recipe for multiple disasters.

With apologies to the public good that is higher education

A pair of potential disasters now loom at my university, one more obviously a threat to academic freedom, the other less obviously one but not less threatening, and both similar to developments threatening universities across the country. The first is yet another attack on what opponents to the teaching of the history of race in the US insist on calling CRT and identifying with the 1619 Project. A state senator has pre-filed a bill that if passed would forbid any educational institution receiving state funding from employing “any curriculum implementing critical race theory” at penalty of the withholding of ten percent of the funding due to it. Critical race theory is a comically big umbrella in this bill, covering a variety of sins no competent educator would ever commit, a catalog of caricatures of teaching the history of slavery and discrimination. Like many extreme bills filed by my state’s legislators, it shouldn’t and probably won’t pass. Unless it does.

The second looming threat to academic freedom at my university is a change to the university’s Collected Rules and Regulations rushed through at a meeting of the governing board last week. They amended a recent rule change made to reflect the decision in favor of a lawsuit brought by a professor at the law school that said employees must be allowed to leave firearms in their parked cars. Removing all language pertaining to this rule, the amendment is intended to allow anyone, including students and visitors, to do the same. There is no language about the guns being secured or the cars being locked. The only language left about firearms forbids them being concealed- or open-carried on campus. A protest by the university president that campus police leadership was against this change, for obvious reasons including the increased chance of guns being stolen from remotely parked cars, was ignored, and the proposal, brought by the newly appointed former head of the state Republican party, passed.

With apologies to Florida

Without academic freedom, universities become arms of the state or service providers to private industry. We’ve seen this threat in the recent attempt by the University of Florida to muzzle members of its faculty who tried to testify against a voting initiative of the governor, saying their testimony represented a “conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida.” We see it in attempts to curtail the freedom of faculty to teach US history in ways that make some politicians uneasy. We will see it on campuses that allow guns closer and closer to classrooms and offices, chilling the ability of scholars, students, and teachers to speak truth to power or to anyone with a temper.

Contrary to an increasingly influential narrative, universities are not hotbeds of radicalism, safe spaces for coddled children to learn how to hate their country. They are crucial to democracy. If we let these people chuck the whole experiment of Akademische Freiheit and just watch whatever independence remains at public universities wither away, if we let them do this without a fight, we will get what we deserve and we will lose our democracy. And those who throw it away will lose the right to ever again talk about freedom, academic or otherwise.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The greatest story ever told, American version, begins at Plymouth Rock. It’s the story of innocents arriving on virgin shores, triumphing over unprovoked attacks, and boldly heading west, triumphing over unearned hostility and fulfilling their manifest destiny, a destiny that extends across the globe as they export democracy to grateful nations. The occasional moments when the innocents fail to triumph are never their fault: they are the victims of sneak attacks, or insufficient support at home, but they are always in the right. As innocents are.

This story has been heavily edited, of course. One part that it leaves out begins more than a year earlier, when the White Lion docks in Jamestown. It’s the story of West Africans kidnapped from their original kidnappers and sold to the English settlers, inaugurating two and a half centuries of slavery and another century and a half and counting of oppression. Another part of our history that didn’t make the cut also starts at the beginning, the story of the people who were already here when the Europeans arrived, people who over centuries were systematically eliminated, dispossessed, and forced to assimilate.

The greatest story, the official story, doesn’t work unless those other stories are left out. There’s no way to tell a story of righteous innocents building their new Eden on the backs of enslaved people, on land violently cleared of the people who had lived there. It just doesn’t hold together. There’s no way to cry victim when you lose if you’ve left behind so many victims of your own. Leaving out that much from your national story takes a lot of effort, which may explain the anger and violence that seems to erupt when people try to surface the left out bits, when events occasion the telling of the other stories.


In the last two days we’ve seen the effort it takes to maintain this greatest story and the rage that erupts when the other stories become visible. McCarthy’s speech last night and this morning’s Rittenhouse verdict offer glimpses of these stories at work. The anger, the petulant cries of victimhood, the righteousness. Above all, the innocence, unjustly attacked, defending itself. McCarthy’s unhinged rant didn’t come out of nowhere. The celebrations on the right of the Rittenhouse verdict, the public thanks for the blow he struck for gun rights and “self-defense” when he used the rifle he brought to a protest to kill two people and nearly blow the arm off a third–they didn’t come out of nowhere.


McCarthy’s America, where friendly congressmen run to their house to get you some antifreeze for your overheating car, is apparently being threatened by outside forces, by China and all sorts of brown foreigners crossing our southern border, and by those among us who coddle them. Rittenhouse’s America has to be defended against protestors, with long guns if need be–and then its defenders get attacked for defending it! This vision of America the innocent, strong but under unfair attack and needing defense, may be most threatened by assertions of what it refuses to see. This is why The 1619 Project has gotten such organized, astroturfed opposition. It’s why Black Lives Matter is Public Enemy Number One when China isn’t enough.

Public Service

The last thirty-six hours have been tough if you’re not a true believer in America’s unerring innocence or in the people who are. We’re just a couple of flipped seats away from McCarthy being Speaker of the House. We are one verdict closer to the cosplay cavalry feeling not just emboldened but invited to mow down protestors. But there’s one messy, hard-to-tell part of the story of the last day and a half that’s falling off the radar and that gives us something hopeful to focus on–the House passing Build Back Better. The people behind it are trying to address the inequities that spring from the history I’m talking about, the stories that some would rather not get told, or taught. If you’re feeling hopeless about where the country is headed, maybe this will help. If you think our flawed institutions can’t address what’s wrong, you’re going to have to ignore what this administration has been working so hard to do. You’ve got to try to see–and tell–the whole story.

Triumph of the Will

Yesterday, after wrangling with my very patient editor over the results of a user review of a new table of contents for my first-year writing textbook, I spent a few minutes trying to remember the name of a textbook from the early 1990s that George Will had railed against in a column as an example of the evils done by Tenured Radicals™. I never did find it, but I did find an old chestnut from Newsweek about which I’d forgotten, Will’s 1991 “Curdled Politics on Campus.” If I remember correctly, this is the Will column that made an appearance in a few of the essays anatomizing the body of work being committed in the early 1990s decrying what they were calling “political correctness.” It ends with this kicker of a paragraph:

Where did we get the ruinous notion that it is the business, even the bounden duty, of schools to produce sweet-tempered neighbors and politically admirable citizens? There is a connection between the rise of that notion–schools as society’s perfecters–and the decline of schools as producers of graduates who think precisely, write clearly, read complex material and bring historical understanding to today’s conditions. Nice neighbors and virtuous citizens are grand, but first things first, please.

Of course this “ruinous” notion didn’t just rise in the late 1980s–it’s what countless educators and writers on the subject since and before Matthew Arnold have expressly wished education to be. Will and company–Bill Bennett, Lynne Cheney, E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Harold “No Relation” Bloom, &c.–just didn’t like the turn in what educators thought the nation’s young should be learning, about just what “politically admirable” entailed.

What struck me last night about this column was that it reminds that there’s nothing all that new about today’s backlash against teaching about the US that in today’s parlance is described as “woke.” Then it may have been about teaching Toni Morrison alongside Shakespeare; today it’s about the idea that the country might have a history of racism. But it’s always been about painting any impulse to recognize that the official right wing story of the US leaves things out, things it would be good for people to know about, as disloyal.

What’s also striking me as especially “grand” about this column this morning, on rereading it in the car waiting for a high school soccer game to start, is the tone. It’s not just the unexamined notions that helping students gain a fuller picture of America is somehow opposed to good writing and clear thinking and that the behavior that might spring from that knowledge is merely “nice,” producing “sweet-tempered neighbors.” It’s also the disdain that drips from Will’s pen. It’s the same disdain you’ll hear on the right these days as they inveigh against critical race theory, though expressed with fewer four-dollar words and more fake populist folksiness.

So when you hear Josh Hawley or one of the many other fake populists who have been busy mobilizing racism for the good of their careers railing against what they’d like their voters to believe we’re teaching in school these days, think of the early 1990s and its earlier wave of ginned-up outrage against the crimes allegedly being committed around America’s quads, and don’t buy what they’re selling. Think of George Will and the way he mocks the idea that education has the potential to make better citizens–not citizens who will wave the flag and keep quiet but citizens who will try to make the country be a little better. Ask yourself if this is what your want out of your fellow citizens–blind flag-waving–and remember what that can turn into in the right hands. And then give yourself permission to take a break from being a nice neighbor and remember how silly his writing about baseball was.