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Eric’s book on the Depression and New Deal is the subject of this week’s book club at TPM café. So if you don’t see enough of him here, or you want to learn how FDR actually caused the Depression, you might want to stop by over there.

Clutching Pearls

Stanley Fish’s latest warning about the dangers of academic freedom is a work of surpassing nonsense. As usual, Fish would have his readers forget that academic freedom is threatened by the accelerating pace at which temporary lecturers are replacing tenure-line faculty at American colleges and universities. And he’d be grateful if onlookers would also ignore the fact that academic freedom isn’t guaranteed, that many scholars — sometimes even those who are dedicated to their jobs — are fired because their colleagues don’t believe they merit tenure. Instead, Fish focuses on the bad apples who hide behind the shield of academic freedom, getting away with all manner of misdeeds. Which, sure, does sometimes happen, though far less frequently than consumers of Fish’s drippings likely believe.

In this instance, Fish writes about Denis Rancourt, a physicist at the University of Ottawa. Rancourt, it should be said, sounds like buffoon:

Rancourt is a self-described anarchist and an advocate of “critical pedagogy,” a style of teaching derived from the assumption (these are Rancourt’s words) “that our societal structures . . . represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet”…

It turns out that another tool of coercion is the requirement that professors actually teach the course described in the college catalogue, the course students think they are signing up for. Rancourt battles against this form of coercion by employing a strategy he calls “squatting” – “where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.” That is, you take a currently unoccupied structure, move in and make it the home for whatever activities you wish to engage in. “Academic squatting is needed,” he says, “because universities are dictatorships . . . run by self-appointed executives who serve capital interests.”

Rancourt first practiced squatting when he decided that he “had to do something more than give a ‘better’ physics course.” Accordingly, he took the Physics and Environment course that had been assigned to him and transformed it into a course on political activism, not a course about political activism, but a course in which political activism is urged — “an activism course about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.”

So gosh, yes, Fish must be right: if academic freedom protects a miscreant like Rancourt, it must be a terrible thing. But wait! Administrators at the University of Ottawa are now “recommend[ing] to the Board of Governors the dismissal with cause of Professor Denis Rancourt from his faculty position.” Which is to say, he may be fired. So Fish’s claim that someone like Rancourt, so long as he’s working in the halls of academe, will be “celebrated as a brave nonconformist, a tilter against orthodoxies, a pedagogical visionary and an exemplar of academic freedom” is drivel. In his conclusion Fish admits as much, allowing that Rancourt isn’t resting comfortably under the parasol of academic freedom. So the first several hundred words of the column were just a misunderstanding, then? And academic freedom functions properly after all, Professor Fish? “But only till next time,” he answers. That sound you hear, readers, is the clutching of pearls.

Luckily for Fish, he’s a regular contributor to the New York Times, which means that he’ll keep his bully pulpit even though he’s clearly incompetent.

This sounds about right.

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Seriously, don’t watch this. Scott McLemee sent it along so of course I watched it and now it’s going to give me bad dreams.

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Some doofus, of course.


Having recently paid less attention to the situation in Afghanistan than to most other things, I didn’t realize that Karzai was no longer in our favor. (Sorry, “our”.) Also, I find the Times style of printing Vice President Biden’s FULL name irritating. Though I suppose I should count my blessings: at least they don’t spell out Robinette. And finally, the penultimate paragraph of this review reads:

The central plot mechanism of “Slumdog Millionaire”—Jamal (Dev Patel), a poor kid from Mumbai, overcomes his ragamuffin past and achieves fame, wealth, and selfhood by answering questions on a high-stakes game show—feels both cheesy and rigid. The movie is a Dickensian fable, but didn’t David Copperfield have to work his way up the ladder? As Jamal thinks over the questions put to him on the show, moments from his early life float through his mind, and some wrenching event delivers the right answer to him. Apart from a nagging implausibility—how could every question link up with an old memory?—I object to the way that the director, Danny Boyle, orchestrates Jamal’s life. Everything is seen in a flash—the boy’s mother is beaten to death, a man is set on fire, tiny goddesses appear out of nowhere—and nothing is prepared, explained, or understood. As slum children, Jamal and his friends are enchantingly beautiful, but the supersaturated color makes not just the kids but every surface and texture shine glamorously, including the piles of garbage that Jamal and his brother live among. Boyle has created what looks like a jumpy, hyper-edited commercial for poverty—he uses the squalor and violence touristically, as an aspect of the fabulous.

I agree in part with the above sentiments. But if you made it to the last sentence of that paragraph, don’t you think Denby should have inverted the final clauses? “Boyle uses the squalor and violence touristically, as an aspect of the fabulous — he has created what looks like a jumpy, hyper-edited commercial for poverty.” It seems like such an obvious improvement that I’m not sure why the change wasn’t made. Probably I spend more time thinking about things like this, and less concentrating on important issues — like, say, Afghanistan — than I should.

From W.A.P. Martin, a minister and participant in the siege of Beijing:

“On reaching New York in the actual costume which I wore during the siege, I called a boy to carry my packages, my son Newell having gone to the wrong station to meet me.

As I was carrying a gun, the lad remarked: ‘You must have been hunting somewhere?’

‘Yes,’ said I, “in Asia, beyond the sea.’

‘What kind of game?’ he inquired.

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All the crying and crowing over the death of Pajamas Media overshadowed the birth of the awesomeness that is Pajamas Television.  Just today I watched Glenn Reynolds, Michelle Malkin, and the Artisan Formerly Known as Joe the Plumber discuss the first weeks of the Obama administration.  They showed behind-the-scenes footage of the Daschle debacle:


They laughed ha ha while the tape ran.  Then Reynolds showed it again ha ha.  Malkin said it was distracting ha ha.  Reynolds asked how that got in there again ha ha.  Is that the Obama administration or a car full of clowns ha ha. Who can tell ha ha.

Because being on the cutting edge of political commentary entails airing footage of a clown car while the contemporary equivalent of “Bag of Rags” blares.  I couldn’t watch much more than the first five minutes—I kept waiting for Reynolds to pull a full Saget and show Obama getting beaned in the privates by a baseball.  But I saw enough to capture the new face of serious journalism in all its seriousness:


Pajamas Television: where you can watch a middle-aged man put every ounce of the fiber of his being into nailing a lick on his air guitar.  Serious journalism for serious people ha ha.

It seems that Obama did the reading for the audio version of his book, Dreams from My Father. And there are passages contained therein that are, um, colorful. Which is to say, I know that Obama usually gets compared to Lincoln and FDR, but LBJ might be more apt. It’s all enough to make Rahm Emanuel blush.

Seriously, it’s worth clicking through and listening.

Salon has a slideshow of New Deal public works titled (hrm) “Greatest Achievements of American Socialism”. Is it too late to get an amendment in the stimulus bill stipulating that projects have to be cool-lookin’?

I’ve no doubt many of you have already received a variation on this theme, but for those of you who have not: Ben & Jerry’s now have Obama-flavored “Yes, Pecan!” But what about a flavor for the 43d president?

Grape Depression
The Housing Crunch
Abu Grape
Cluster Fudge
Nut’n Accomplished
Iraqi Road
Chock ’n Awe
Heck of a Job, Brownie!
Neocon Politan
Cookie D’oh!
Nougalar Proliferation
I broke the law and am responsible for the deaths of thousands . . . with nuts

Me, I’d go for Rumsfeld Raisin: it’s not really ice cream, it’s broken glass and styrofoam, but you eat the dessert you have, not the dessert you’d like.

The China on display in late January 1900 had two faces. It was a country wracked by “internal convulsions” and political intrigue, and yet the “greatest potential market of the world.” The New York Times wrote of both Chinas in the ten days to the end of January. To the Times both Chinas were mysterious and unknowable and the paper wrote in a way that made its feeling palpably clear. Stories were full of hedges, that revealed the editorial confusion: it was “almost safe to predict” something about China, or “members of the imperial household…are practically unknown.”[1]

One of the results of this was a certain credulity on the part of the paper, a willingness to accept or write things that were self-evidently silly without thinking through them. Thus, the Times wrote that in 1898 the rumors of the Emperor of China’s death had been proven “unfounded” but immediately the paper wrote that “it has been stated on good authority that [The Emperor] was cruelly used, and even imprisoned and half-starved.” [2] There was no apparent realization of the irony of discounting one (past) rumor while instantaneously propagating another one. Even more egregiously was the article which confidently “reported that a French naval force has already reached Peking.” [3] This would have been an impressive feat, given that Beijing was land-locked. One can only imagine the sight of French battleships puffing smoke over the north China plain.

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Dave’s post earlier today got me thinking, because it captures a series of ideas that are bouncing around the blogosphere: that Obama, for one reason or another, is getting played by the Republican minority in Congress; that he’s squandering his mandate for real and lasting change because of his rhetoric of bipartisanship; and that, in the end, the Obama administration may be captive to special interests and plutocrats. Let me note that, to some extent at least, I share these concerns.

But I’m equally worried that some people — not Dave, mind you — believe Obama should recapitulate the entire New Deal in one stimulus bill. Actually, that would be so totally awesome I can’t believe it. President Obama should crisscross the country atop a magical redistributionist ponycorn that will crap infrastructure projects here, there, and everywhere, while rejiggering the tax code by whinnying its sweet ponycorn breath on recalcitrant legislators. The president’s and his ponycorn’s every move should be documented by a team of the nation’s finest photographers and memorialized by collectives of state-sponsored folk singers and playwrights. And in their wake should come a phalanx of America’s youth, scattering seeds for grand forests that will provide shade for future generations of Democratic voters. Also, beer should be free. Sadly, I’m pretty sure none of that’s going to happen.

Being slightly more serious for a moment, I recently read this excellent — and very short — introduction to the Great Depression and the New Deal. (I mean, it’s not as good as Amity Shlaes’s masterpiece, but it’s not really fair to hold Eric to such a high standard, right?) And it seems that FDR did save the banks pretty much overnight. But from there, implementing the New Deal programs was a long, hard slog, a matter of incremental progress based on trial-and-error. Also, when FDR took office, the Depression was years old and the banks were already stone dead.

None of which is to say the current stimulus package couldn’t be better. Like the next coastal elite, I rely on Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong for their considered opinions of all things économique. And they seem to think that there are problems of size, scope, and tactics when it comes to Obama’s stimulus package (That sounds like pr0n, doesn’t it? Well then this pdf should almost certainly be labeled nsfw.).

Instead, my point is that this likely isn’t the last piece of legislation that will come out of the Obama administration. And given that, it seems possible that the real issue isn’t that Obama and the Democratic majority are getting slapped around by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, nor that the president has hamstrung himself in service of bipartisanship. Maybe what’s really happening is that during the campaign Obama created a set of unrealistic expectations among his constituents — including me — by talking so often about change. Change, it turns out, takes time in our political system. Remember, too, that Obama always plays a long game. His strategies, then, require even more time to unspool. So although in this case time may be short because so many people are hurting, perhaps we could give him his standard 100 days before we rush to judgment. And in the meantime, it might make sense to read up on the New Deal. It turns out that it wasn’t built in a day.

Very important update: Ponycorn. And not.

Brad DeLong answers questions from a high school student, who asks what the University of California at Berkeley should do about John Yoo.

… I think the BLS [Berkeley/Boalt Law School] faculty should have a debate that the rest of us can watch. Do John Yoo’s memos at the OLC exhibit such a shoddy grasp of legal doctrines and arguments that he is not capable of being a qualified teacher and researcher? Will the accrediting authorities take action if BLS graduates make arguments of similar quality in their professional careers, taking John Yoo as a model? Or is the BLS faculty happy with the quality of the argument–and happy to turn out students who take the quality of Yoo’s arguments as a model for their own future work?

And I think that the Berkeley Faculty Senate should have a debate: Given that John Yoo’s “beliefs” about the extent of the president’s commander-in-chief power spin about like a weathervane depending on the direction of the prevailing Republican wind, does academic freedom extend to cover his “beliefs”–or does academic freedom only cover you when you advocate positions that you sincerely believe?

Brad still thinks procedural liberalism can save the day.

Cast off the chains of humorlessness by looking at postbourgie’s series for Black History Month, “Know Your History.” I’m still partial to the post on Franklin:

Franklin N’desi Babatunde, known to the entertainment world simply as Franklin, was a member of the first black family to settle in Springslight, Michigan, the famous home of the Peanuts gang. Franklin’s integration of the school divided the Peanuts gang, pitting Lucy against Charlie Brown, Schroeder against Lucy, and Linus against Sally. After a torrid affair with Peppermint Patty, Franklin moved to New York, where he joined the Nation of Gods and Earths under the name ‘Divine God Father Equality.’

Know Your History.

But your mileage may vary. Regardless, don’t let the man keep you down.

As Eric urged last fall, I’m officially disappointed by someone new.

I don’t have television, which I’m gathering is quite a good thing these days; I’m having a difficult time imagining how precisely the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats managed to squander what should have been an obvious objective advantage on the stimulus bill. I haven’t read anyone who’s utterly thrilled with the package — and I’m one of those people who would prefer it to be twice as large — but neither have I read anything even remotely supportive an example of “galactic,” wasteful boondoggling (as NPR’s Marketplace allowed the never-interesting David Frum to claim in one of his unseriously “serious” commentaries this evening.*) Instead, it seems to me that people with demonstrably bad economic beliefs — people who, as Angry Bear pithily described it, “hates spending any tax money on public goods” — are in the process of handing the President’s own ass to him on the very issue that got that ass elected in the first place.

And with that, I’d like to welcome that familiar “We Are So Fucked” feeling back into my life. Hello there, old friend!

* Frum’s utterly disingenuous suggestion was that Obama appoint a panel of economic experts — including the six previous chairs of the Council on Economic Advisers (all Bush people, BTW) as well as some Nobel winners and colobus monkeys — who would “grade” various dimensions of the stimulus bill so that it might be rewritten. This, Frum explains, would be a good way for Obama to prove that his commitment to “science” was genuine. This from the guy who coined the notably scientific idea that an “Axis of Evil” is coming to get us.

We rightly complain when Google and company generate inappropriate ads—be they on a video of the recent BART tragedy; a firsthand account of the the US Airways crash; a search for certain keywords; an LGBTQ site; or a report of a gruesome death.  Happens all the time.  So often, in fact, you almost miss it when someone’s being deliberately crass.  To wit:

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Slate has a funny piece up about negative reviews of great composers. Viz:

This din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter with wood sticks and ear-cutting scalping knives … [t]his reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury in the orchestra, this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music … the darling of feeble-minded royalty, …of the court flunkeys covered with reptilian slime, and of the blasé hysterical female court parasites … inflated, in an insanely destructive self-aggrandizement, by Mephistopheles’ mephitic and most venomous hellish miasma, into Beelzebub’s Court Composer and General Director of Hell’s Music—Wagner!

I wish I could get away with that sort of thing in the review I’m currently writing.

I suppose the editors at Newsweek should be credited with acknowledging that “the analogy isn’t exact,” but I still find myself thinking they would have done better by not going there at all. Although, if I squint and cock my head just so, maybe they’re right: images of flag-draped coffins coming off planes on the evening news, an anti-war movement pressuring a president inextricably tied to a failed conflict of his own making, endless discussions of body counts and increasingly well-lit tunnels, and the looming menace of international communism. Check, check, check, and check. Okay, not so much.

For me, the most disheartening part of this kind of nonsense is that I thought Obama’s victory meant we could finally move beyond framing all of our foreign policy debates with inapt references to Vietnam. That said, at least Iraq isn’t being likened to Obama’s Munich. Wait just a second…

Liberty League

“… Odd, this neurotic tendency in the American business man. Can you account for it? No? I can. Too much coffee.”


“That and the New Deal. Over in America, it appears, life for the business man is one long series of large cups of coffee, punctuated with shocks from the New Deal. He drinks a quart of coffee, and gets a nasty surprise from the New Deal. To pull himself together, he drinks another quart of coffee, and along comes another nasty surprise from the New Deal. He staggers off, calling feebly for more coffee, and…. Well, you see what I mean. Vicious circle. No nervous system could stand it.”

Bertie Wooster’s Uncle Percy (with a brief assist from Bertie), in P. G. Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning. Which, I arbitrarily assert, is the best of the Jeeves/Wooster novels.

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