In the Middle Ages the word was “oligarchy”

When I was a kid, all of us were given to believe that we could grow up to be President (well, the white boys, at any rate). At the very least we knew our single little solitary vote counted in elections. I remember the election of 1966 as vividly as any other in my lifetime. I remember standing on the steps of Watchorn Hall at the University of Redlands talking with two of my favorite people, all of us students in the School of Music

We were going to vote for Governor Brown for reelection, of course, rather than Ronald Reagan. It was the first vote of my life. It counted for very little. I lived in California through the entire reactionary (anti-intellectual, anti-middle class, anti-freedom of expression) eight years of Ronald Reagan’s magisterial term as governor.

Edwin Meese was Reagan’s “chief of staff.” He ran the executive branch of the state government. He told Reagan what to think (or at least what to say).

Then there was the Reagan White House. The same arrangement. That is, until Meese became Attorney General. He was implicated in all of the scandals of the Reagan administration.

Now Edwin Meese is in charge of the shutdown of the federal government.

ol·i·gar·chy
noun

1.       a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.

Meese has never been elected to public office, only anointed to various overlord positions, most of them by Ronald Reagan.

He seems to be the brains behind the power of the new American Oligarchy—those few, the dominant class, the clique who are running our country. The coup d’état is a fait accompli. The takeover of the government is finished. We have let it happen. We have only ourselves to blame.

Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case which is designed to end all constraints on the amount of money a person can contribute to a political campaign. The Court, with its majority led by Antonin Scalia, the Edwin Meese of jurisprudence, will almost certainly throw out fifty years of its own decisions and allow Edwin Meese’s friends to contribute as much as they like to their far right-wing candidates.

We are living in the time of oligarchy. The few.

The few of those who are hiding behind the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision declaring that, in our oligarchy at any rate, corporations are persons and PACs are no more influential or dangerous than your local PTA, but PACs don’t have to reveal the sources of their money.

I want to go back to the days when any (white boy) kid could become President.

Let’s bring sexy back

Bread and sexy?

Bread and sexy?

I’m taking another turn. My turn to be that old fart motherfucker*** you don’t want to bother you with his antiquated ideas and his obviously judgmental attitudes toward what is popular and acceptable.

Five years ago the topic for my classes was “Writing about the Grotesque” (as it will be this semester because, since I’m being put out to pasture, I’d rather have fun my last year at SMU than try to get students to think about something serious, which they just resent). When it came time for the students to propose possible topics for their final research projects, one of the boys (I refuse to call him a man, even though it’s politically incorrect for me not to) presented me with an X-tube video of two obviously “over sixty” men having anal sex.

Rather than appearing shocked or judgmental (which I was), I simply asked him in his conference why he thought it was an appropriate topic for academic writing. His answer was that two people that old having sex was grotesque.

He was not fazed that it was men—he chose men because he knew I was gay and thought I’d be comfortable with it—or that it was pornographic. It was grotesque because they were old. He knew I was gay, but apparently he hadn’t noticed that I was about the age of those two old guys he found so grotesque.

I asked him if he would be comfortable if I wrote a companion essay based on a video of two twenty-year-olds having sex and arguing it was grotesque because they were Latin American, as he was. That made him angry. So I assigned him to write his essay on whether or not it was grotesque that he had presented me with a pornographic video thinking it was an appropriate topic for academic writing by a freshman. Eventually he decided it was but only because it shocked the teacher, not because there was anything inherently grotesque in his thesis. He, by the way, wrote a C+ essay.

The student had been in high school the year Justin Timberlake won a Grammy for bringing sexy back.Justin-Timberlake1

I’m not blaming Justin Timberlake for giving my deluded student crappy ideas (although I think he certainly can be held responsible for giving that kind of thinking a commercial boost—or cashing in on the kind of crudeness in which we are already awash).

During the presidential campaign of 1992, Anne Minton, the dean of the division of Bunker Hill Community College where I taught, and I often commiserated with each other about the sorry state of politics. We agreed that we did not want to support a philandering powerfully wealthy drunk for president, but Ted Kennedy espoused (and, we knew, believed) many of our basic ideas regarding the role of government in the lives of citizens, especially the economically disadvantaged. We also still blamed him (and I do to this day) for Ronald Reagan’s election

—how’s Reagan’s “revolution”
working out for you these days with totally unregulated financial markets and trickle-down economics?—

because he so weakened Jimmy Carter’s campaign for reelection by running against him in the 1980 Democratic primaries.

Now I’m worried that someone has brought sexy back, and it’s not about old men and women. Ted Kennedy went on—because of his loss and then Carter’s—to become the single most effective member of the Senate in decades. And his effectiveness was always on behalf of the disadvantaged and the middle class. Anyone who knows anything about the proper uses of power and prestige knows that Jimmy Carter has been the most influential former President in history, and he has used his influence for good throughout the world.

OK, my thinking about both of those men is simplistic and more favorable than it ought to be. A video of anyone of their generation and ideology—whatever they might be doing—could not be sexy. And they, for goodness’ sake, were cut-throat politicians.

On the other hand, Ted Cruz, who is only 11 years older than Justin Timberlake, might be sexy by a college freshman’s standards. Even Rand Paul, who is only 22 years older than Timberlake might be sexy.

Have I mixed my metaphors to the point of absurdity? Sure. Am I an old fuddy-duddy, a moralistic (obviously, if you think that’s true, you don’t know me at all) anachronism who is hopelessly mired in the past? Of course. I’m 68. By definition, according to a college freshman, I cannot be sexy. I’m grotesque.

It’s possible that I could enjoy in private (although I do not—I can’t hear anything resembling music in it) chanting (it doesn’t require singing) the words

I’m bringing sexy back
Them other fuckers don’t know how to act
Come let me make up for the things you lack
‘Cause you’re burning up I gotta get it fast

tedjimmyHowever, it seems to me, hopeless old fart that I am, when we have come to the place that people (not only college students) pay money to sing these words massed together in public, we’re mighty close to “bread and circuses.”

There is something very strange going on when a college freshman thinks it’s OK to present his professor with a video of two “other fuckers [who] don’t know how to act” not because they’re making pornography but simply because they’re over 60 years old. ______________________

***If you are offended by my use of this word, you obviously do not listen to the music your grandchildren love. I first heard the lyrics of the number one song by Justin Timberlake when a college freshman (we don’t call them that anymore because it’s a sexist word) at the ever-so-proper Southern Methodist University quoted it in an essay.  The first and third verses respectively read

Dirty babe
You see these shackles
Baby I’m your slave
I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave
It’s just that no one makes me feel this way

I’m bringing sexy back
You mother fuckers watch how I attack
If that’s your girl you better watch your back
Cause she’ll burn it up for me and that’s a fact.

You have to be pretty old-fashioned and normal to think that the image of a girl whipping first the singer’s back and then the backs of his rivals (as his surrogate attacker) is sexist or crude or abnormal in any way. But it’s what your granddaughters have absorbed into their unconscious (and even conscious) thinking.

The English language is (as it always has been) up for sale to the highest bidder, and these days that may be Justin Timberlake (it’s instructive that the Wikipedia article about him describes him first as a businessman and then as an “artist”). The language is crude, so the ideas it expresses cannot be other than that. The language is not “just words” to dance to as my students constantly tell me. It’s formative.

Their way—not my way—with words

They have a way with words

They have a way with words

THE BACK STORY

A few days ago Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, hosts and stars of NPR’s “A Way with Words,” were in town. A crowd of us “grammar nerds,” packed the iconic 1938 art deco Lakewood Theater to hear them have fun with words. The program was—from any objective viewpoint—wonderfully odd. Martha and Grant emceed word games in the style of “Jeopardy” with three Dallas personages (including the Mayor) competing. And Martha and Grant each gave fascinating twenty-minute talks about their lives with words.

The event was a fund-raiser for the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas. (Please click the link and learn about the Center.)

If you know the NPR show, you know these two are quick-witted, smart, and funny. Their banter about the origins of words is for “grammar nerds” both entertaining and informative.

Grant Barrett’s lecture/talk/slideshow was about his new understanding of how we use words, based on his observations of his six-year-old son’s evolving use of language.

Martha Barnett told us about her seduction into the love of words through her private tutoring with an retired professor from the University of Tennessee when she was studying ancient Greek. Yes, ancient Greek—which became her college major. Her description of his teaching—throwing away all the grammar books and simply looking at words and asking questions—is my “take-away” for the evening.

THE TAKE-AWAY

This semester the students in the classes I planned wrote essays about three speeches by U.S. Presidents: Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Reagan’s “Challenger Address,” and Roosevelt’s “A Date that Will Live in Infamy” speech. My “Goal” (a sacred word in education) was to accomplish the “Learning Outcomes” (an even more sacred term) of understanding the rhetoric of the speeches themselves and beginning to think about the role of Presidential rhetoric in our nation’s life.

The unstated goal—the education specialists who decide which words are sacred this year would not like to see this in my course description—was, as always, to help students to think well enough to put two ideas together (almost any two ideas will do) and write an essay explaining how the ideas go together, an essay that doesn’t sound as if either a fourth-grader or an academic wrote it.

The only textbook I had the students buy is a (tiny by college standards) book, Slipping the Surly Bonds, by Mary E. Stuckey, a study of Reagan’s “Challenger Address.” I chose the book for Stuckey’s discussion of “epideictic” versus “deliberative” rhetoric. Most presidential speaking these days is, by Stuckey’s definition, “epideictic,” that is, ceremonial and (perhaps) eloquent, rather than “deliberative,” that is, explanatory and (perhaps) logical.

He had a way with Peggy Noonan's words

He had a way with Peggy Noonan’s words

For three months we talked about epideictic oratory (Stuckey takes her definition from Aristotle). The  ceremonial occasions for it. The writing that makes it eloquent (sic) as opposed to thought-provoking. We found epideictic passages in the three speeches. We talked about how Reagan (more precisely, Peggy Noonan, his speech writer) wove epideictic speech together with deliberative speech in the “Challenger Address” in order to remember and praise the astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster and at the same time to defend and promote the nation’s space program.

I design classes so the students talk among themselves, write for themselves and each other, and critique each other’s ideas. I pretty much stay out of the process except to discuss their ideas and their proposals for presenting their ideas after they have struggled with them. Last week I discovered the failure of my approach.

The final assignment this semester was to write a personal statement why it’s important that Americans discern what’s going on in presidential rhetoric, a statement without my input, their only “solo flight” of the semester. One student’s essay included the following sentences:
Because presidential speeches all have a purpose, whether it is an epidemic or deliberative, the speech is not effective if the audience does not distinguish between the two. . . An epidemic is a way to affect or tend to affect a large number of individuals within a nation all at once. . . When you connect with the American people, then an epidemic starts to go in effect. Once an epidemic of a speech has started, you can tell. The attitude, the audience, and atmosphere change rapidly.

Stay away from Greek words

Stay away from Greek words

When you stop laughing and cringe (as I am, still), answer for me a couple of questions. How on earth does one teach? Is it possible to teach? How did Martha’s tutor do it—throw away the textbooks and inspire her? What is education anyway, a process, an outcome, something else that I haven’t even thought of yet? Forty years I’ve been doing this, and I don’t know.

Ah, sweet mysteries (read certainties) of life

My dad used to say that Democratic presidents start wars. In his experience that was (at least marginally) true. Woodrow Wilson presided over the US entry into WWI, FDR presided over the US response to Pearl Harbor, and Harry Truman was responsible for the still-ongoing hostilities in Korea. JFK and LBJ got us into the quagmire of Viet Nam from which Nixon took so long to extract us.

Infamy

Infamy

I’m sure I’m forgetting some US wars/invasions/”police actions” in my lifetime, but “Operation Urgent Fury” (Grenada), “Operation Just Cause” (Panama), and “Operation Desert Storm” (Iraq I) were the brainchildren of Republican presidents. And the current quagmire of Afghanistan, with its collateral damage in Iraq, was Dick Cheney’s idea (oh, he wasn’t president, was he?).

My guess is that until he was 90 or so (2004)—and this seems to be some sort of insult to or criticism of him, but it certainly is not—my dad would have said, if asked, that Democratic presidents start wars and Republican Presidents are men of peace. I don’t mean to say that as any negative reflection on my dad’s beliefs or intellectual abilities. This was one of very few over-simplified ideas he ever expressed.

In two weeks the SMU campus will host Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama as the most honored guests at the opening of the “shrine” (yes, that’s how WFAA TV referred to it the other day) to George W. Bush, his Presidential Library on the SMU campus. Five Presidents at one occasion. Funny thing, that. Of the five only two presided over wars/invasions/police actions, and both of them are named Bush.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some military action Carter and/or Clinton trumped up, and Obama has yet to extract the US from the Afghanistan swamp, so my characterization is probably not true.

The first-year writing course I teach is titled “Discovery & Discourse.”  I’m supposed to try to get students to discover interesting ideas and write comprehensible discourse about those ideas. My assumption is that’s an impossible goal. Discovering ideas may be possible. Teaching a student to write coherently about them is not.

The reason is simple. They already know too much that may or may not be correct. Like my dad’s certainty that Democratic presidents start wars.

I have a favorite example. Students are taught (and I use passive voice purposefully here—note it’s the only passive verb in this piece) to begin an essay with a general idea and move to the specific (with some sort of “hook” for the reader at the point of the specific). I can’t remember if that’s inductive or deductive reasoning, but whichever, it makes for ridiculous student writing:  “In the history of the world. . . “

My students write in one semester about the rhetorical means used in three presidential speeches. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Conceived in Liberty

Conceived in Liberty

begins, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That seems pretty specific to me.

Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Address (written mostly by Peggy Noonan) begins, “Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger.” That one’s pretty specific, too.

And Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech asking Congress to declare that, because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a state of war existed between the US and Japan (note, he did not ask Congress to declare war) begins with one of the most famously specific sentences in all of political discourse, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Shock and awe

Shock and awe

As an example of writing, the last is my favorite, not because it’s the best writing, but because the most famous word in the speech was a revision (oh, to get students to understand that good writing is re-writing). Roosevelt’s first draft was, “a date which will live in world history.” If he had not changed “world history” to “infamy,” how famous would the speech be?

I’m not saying high school instruction in writing is wrong, but that it’s inadequate just as simplistic ideas about politics and history are not necessarily wrong although they often are—Democrats are not more likely to start wars than Republicans.

The gathering of Presidents in Dallas in two weeks, it seems to me, is designed to enshrine a simplistic idea that a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday. The entire presidency of George W. Bush is legitimized in many Americans’ minds by saying, “I learned all I need to know about Islam on September 11, 2001.”

The modern computer is (or is not) Beelzebub. This is NOT a rant against technology by an old fart who does not understand it.

What's keeping you alive?

What’s keeping you alive?

About a month ago I had reason to give an old college friend  a book. He had made a wise crack (although he was dead serious) implying university departments such as Queer Studies are simply “fluff” courses and keeping college students from real scholarly pursuits, thus dumbing down education.

He’s right that some college departments are dumbing-down education. Business schools. At Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, for example, no class is offered in economic theory that includes a study of Marxism. That’s not academic discipline, it’s indoctrination (the Cox students go from there with one understanding of the way economics works; that understanding is certainly serving you well, isn’t it? How’s your retirement fund holding up?).  But, as usual, I digress.

I told my friend I’d ordered a book to be delivered to him, one I know has been used in some Queer Theory departments. I thought little else about it.

This evening I noticed the ads gracing the Yahoo page when I opened my email are for Barnes and Noble, using as samples four books by the author of the book I ordered for my friend. I don’t get it.

NO, I DON’T MEAN NOT UNDERSTANDING HOW THIS HAPPENS. That’s the given. We old folks do not understand this modern technology.

But neither do my very modern, sophisticated, au courant (they have no idea what that means) students at SMU. They don’t “understand” it. They don’t have any better idea , than I do how their precious electronic gadgets work. They simply (I mean “simple-mindedly”) use them and use them to build what they think is a life.

My students were bored with/ surprised by/ confused by my telling them in class yesterday that the first working computer was built in my lifetime. That isn’t quite true—I had forgotten the exact year. (I was born in 1945, and—depending on what you consider to be a “computer”—the first one was either 1941 or 1943**.)

My students will write their next essay on Ronald Reagan’s  Challenger Speech. For the old folks reading this, I need not explain. In the speech, Reagan says (Peggy Noonan says through the Great Communicator),

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that.

I was merely trying to help my students understand the “wonders in this century. . . dazzl[ing] us.” They cannot comprehend that there were no computers available to ordinary people until I was already what they would consider “old” (I bought my first primitive affair in 1987 to write my dissertation). And when Reagan made his speech, the cell phone as we know it did not exist.

The Good Ole Days.

The Good Ole Days.

If my students were smart instead of smart-ass, at this juncture in my rant they would ask, “What’s the point?”

The point is that it does not matter one whit whether or not I (or they) understand the technology on which they are constructing their lives. It does not matter an iota whether or not Yahoo is paid by Barnes and Noble to place an ad on my computer tailored just for me.

What matters is the why. Why are we so enslaved to this technology that we are no more enlightened or spiritually evolved than the people who  three or four thousand years ago were enslaved to Beelzebub (whom people of my generation know as “The Lord of the Flies”)?

But it isn’t even the technology we are enslaved to. It, in turn, is enslaved to rampant, personhood-devouring Capitalism. Everything is for sale. Even your thoughts as you read this. What are you thinking about? The fact that you are mortal or the amount you have to pay for “organic” groceries that won’t harm your health? The reality that your time here is limited or the amount you’re going to have to pay your new personal trainer to get healthy so you won’t die so soon? What about the chic clothes you bought the other day attempting to look young?

You and I know I could go on and on and on and on and on and on. The problem is not the technology. The problem is that for all of us—yes, us old folks who rail about not understanding it, too—the technology is the latest tool in our frantic attempt to ward off our fear of death.

That’s all.

** “Computer.” Wikipedia. Web. 5 Mar. 2013. (I know, I know, Wikipedia is not a “source” for research. In this case, it’s good enough. If you want to check it out, go ahead. It says:
The first programmable electronic computer was the Colossus, built in 1943 by Tommy Flowers. . . Konrad Zuse’s electromechanical “Z machines”.  . . The Z3 (1941) was the first working machine featuring binary arithmetic, including floating point arithmetic and a measure of programmability. In 1998 the Z3 was proved to be Turing complete, therefore being the world’s first operational computer.

Fluff or academics?

Fluff or academics?