Archive for the ‘Intellectuals’ Category
For the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned a superb essay on Barack Obama as Black president. Coates argues that Obama, by not talking about race while sitting as president, has taken an accommodationist stance against white racism. You should read the whole thing, because it really is a spectacular piece of writing. Indeed, it’s an essay that is much better than this blog post in response to it, an essay that so impressed me that I will likely assign it to my “Race and Identity in Judaism” class.
And yet, it’s an essay that I have some problems with, on historical grounds.
As Coates correctly notes, “Obama is not simply America’s first black president–he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” In short Barack Obama is an intellectual. America has long been uncomfortable with intellectuals, as can be evidenced by the cult of anti-intellectualism surrounding Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right. I think Black intellectuals make this sector of white America even angrier than than the poor black underclass does, because they want to feel superior to Barack Obama, but they can’t.
Obama’s status as intellectual makes me wary of lumping him in the same accommodationist category as Booker T. Washington, as Coates does. For Washington displayed an anti-intellectualism of his own, as he preached industrial education, economic self-development, and acceptance of segregation for the black community of the South. Washington’s antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, argued in favor of integration, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, to be led by a “talented tenth.”
So is Obama an accomodationist in the vein of Booker T. Washington? As president, when he has dealt with race, it has been to engage in the “time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates is most angry about Obama’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from the US Department of Agriculture after the late Andrew Breitbart aired selective moments of an interview with her to make it appear as if she harbored anti-white sentiments. By failing to stand up for Sherrod, Obama followed in Washington’s footsteps by backing down in the face of white racism.
And yet I think there might be another way to understand Obama here.
First, there are important differences between Obama and Booker T. Washington beyond the purely intellectual. The latter preached a doctrine of group uplift through industry and agriculture. His was a separatist, if not segregationist schema. It’s no wonder that Marcus Garvey, who led an even more radically separatist group in his “Back to Africa” movement, looked to Washington for inspiration. Washington, Garvey, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, these leaders and movements rejected integration. Obama, whether he discusses race or not, is an apostle of integration.
Obama’s story, then, is not one of accommodation and separation, but of accommodation and integration. In order for this integration to occur, Obama has had to avoid the perception of succumbing to “black rage,” of being an “angry black man.” And in that way, the black leader he most resembles is baseball player Jackie Robinson.
When Jackie Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, he made a promise to Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, the man most responsable for signing him in the first place. Robinson promised Rickey that no matter how many taunts he received from players and fans and teammates, no matter how many baserunners slid into him spikes high or pitchers who threw at his head, he could not fight back. He had to take it, grit his teeth, and remain silent. Robinson promised to do this for three years. Rickey knew that if Robinson retaliated, he would be labeled an angry black man, other owners would refuse to sign African Americans, and the great experiment at integrating America’s national pastime would be rendered a failure.
Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of the white house. He has effectively integrated the presidency. But in his first term in office he has behaved like Jackie Robinson did in his first three years in the majors. After those first three years, Robinson was free to retaliate, to yell and fight back, and he did so vociferously. The metaphorical gloves came off. He succeeded in integrating baseball, and could then assert himself, as a black man, and as an individual.
Obama has not faced the degree of racism that Robinson did, but he has faced racism, both overt and subtle, in large part coming white resentment in the face of a changing national makeup. He is living in the post-Civil Rights era, indeed, HE IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. One would think he would have the ability, the power, to speak his mind more forcefully on racial questions.
Or maybe it’s precisely because he is president, because he is blazing a trail, that he needs to keep a low profile on race issues. The question remains: will Obama, if elected for a second term, take the gloves off? Will he be the tough-as-nails player that Jackie Robinson was his whole career, while still putting up Hall of Fame numbers?
This question may be related to the left’s criticism of Obama, that he promised change but then governed from the center. If a re-elected Obama changes course on race, will he change course and veer left on other policy arenas?
Yesterday, I finished a first draft of my dissertation. This is not to brag or invite people to congratulate me (although, to be honest, I did briefly consider posting something about my finishing on Facebook, primarily to receive congratulations). What I want to discuss here is the deep ambivalence I felt/feel upon finishing. If six (!) years ago, you had told me that my dissertation’s first stage would end with a whimper, not a bang, I would’ve been surprised if not shocked. No matter what, I would certainly not have expected to feel, frankly, so ambivalent.
Now that I’m done, what do I have? A 600-page tome that needs to be cut down by at least one-third, if not one-half; a sneaking suspicion that few people will ever read this thing; and nagging questions about whether it was worth the time and investment, given the abysmal academic job market. This is not to say that I don’t love what I do, or that I regret spending my 20s studying a relatively arcane subject. It’s just to say that, surprisingly, I do not feel the sense of accomplishment I expected to upon starting this endeavor.
Perhaps this is just the nature of completing a project that you’ve worked on for so long that it becomes a part of you. (Though one would expect feelings of sadness, rather than ambivalence, if this were the case.) I mean, I’m impressed with what I’ve done, certainly, and think that I did produce some relatively worthwhile new knowledge. But I think the major cause of my ambivalence is the deep difficulty that I have/will have communicating my dissertation’s argument to non-academics. And this leads me to a question that has been talked and blogged about a lot in the past decade: the relationship between academia and the non-academic world.
This past weekend, I returned to my graduate school for the first time in over a year. It was a typical visit; I met with my advisors, said hello to colleagues, and stayed with my little sister, who—hilariously and weirdly—is now a first-year in the same program and department as myself. It was great to be back, see the old haunts, and walk around the (soon-to-be) alma mater. Thankfully, I’m very close to finishing my dissertation, and the questions I received mostly concerned the project. In speaking to younger years, I realized that the dissertation is a largely mystical product. It is spoken about as something tangible yet unknowable.
For this reason, I figured I’d post a short list of tips that I’ve learned while writing my dissertation. I don’t mean to imply that everyone will find these tips useful, and I’m well aware that people have very different writing processes. But, I think any advice on the issue can perhaps help those who are beginning this arduous task. Some of these tips relate to picking a topic, some relate to research, and some relate to writing. I hope they might be useful to my colleagues in earlier years. In no particular order, here they are:
If you can, take courses related to your topic.
This is a semi-controversial tip, as one of the joys of graduate school is taking classes on topics with which you are unfamiliar and expanding your intellectual horizons. I very much support this. However, graduate school is also about pre-professional training, and getting a jumpstart on your dissertation by taking classes in topics broadly related to your interests is important for completing your dissertation in 5-6 years. Reading the secondary literature in your field will also help you situate your dissertation, important for both the prospectus and the final product.
Pick a topic in which you are incredibly interested.
You will probably be working on your dissertation for 3-5 years, so it is incredibly important to pick a topic that you can imagine reading, writing, and thinking about for thousands of hours. The last thing you want is to awaken in the middle of your fifth year, as you’re slogging through the Russian state archives, to realize that you don’t really care about the intersections between space travel and class in the 1950s Soviet Union.
Pick a topic that can be researched and written about in a timely manner.
Everyone enters graduate school wanting to write a dissertation like William Cronon’s Changes in the Land. Unfortunately, this is virtually impossible. In my opinion, it is much smarter to choose a topic that you know contributes to the literature, produces new knowledge, and can be written about in 5-6 years. In an era of dwindling funding, where many graduate students are unsure whether they will have funding after their fifth years, this is perhaps the most important rule. Having ambition is important, but it is unlikely you will suddenly revise the way we understand the French Revolution. For a first project, modesty is best.
Know your topic.
This is why taking courses on your topic is important. A dissertation is very time-consuming, and you don’t want it to be your sixth year when you realize that you really aren’t adding very much new information to the corpus of literature with which you are engaged. Having a good, general sense of where your work fits in will very much ease the writing of your dissertation. That being said …
Don’t feel compelled to know everything about your topic.
It is too easy to get distracted by the fact that, as someone who has spent only half a decade ensconced in your research field, in many ways you barely know the literature to which you are contributing. This is an unfortunate fact, and part of the reason why it takes such a long time to transform your dissertation into a book. However, you should be careful not to distract yourself too much with reading all of the secondary literature on every topic upon which your dissertation touches. Be familiar with these literatures, of course, but don’t go down too many rabbit holes. If you do, you’ll never finish.
Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should “save the world on their own time.” Just last week, he reiterated this point in a column about a conference he attended on “originalism,” the contentious legal doctrine that judges should interpret the Constitution as the framers had originally understood it. Despite the subject matter’s obvious implications for hot-button issues like immigration and the health care mandate, Fish happily reported that conference participants stayed focused only on matters of academic concern. They never waded into the territory of political partisanship. As he explained,
It would be an understatement to say that these questions provoke heated discussion in the world at large, but at the conference they were not themselves debated; no one stood up to say that he was for or against the individual mandate, or that citizenship standards should be relaxed or tightened. Instead participants argued (vigorously, but politely and with unfailing generosity) about where and with what methods inquiry into the questions should begin. Actually asking and answering them was left to other arenas (the arenas of the legislature, the courts and the ballot box) where their direct, as opposed to academic, consideration would be appropriate.
While Fish’s insistence on the stark distinction between partisanship and scholarship might strike some as unrealistic, it comes out of his broader view on the nature of academic freedom. From his perspective, academic freedom differs fundamentally from the free speech rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most workplaces, colleges and universities don’t have the right to fire their academic staff because of their opinions. More accurately, they don’t have the right to do so if they operate under the academic freedom guidelines established nearly a century ago by the American Association of University Professors.
How did faculty members gain these special protections? In the United States, academic freedom began to gain institutional support during the Progressive Era, a period in which many placed a high value on the ability of disinterested expertise to solve social problems. Academic freedom was originally designed to advance such expert knowledge. The AAUP argued that faculty members needed professional autonomy in order to remain free of the corrupting influence of business interests, religious groups, political parties, and labor unions. To advance knowledge, only accredited specialists could judge the merit of academic work: this explains the necessity of peer review.
By politicizing their work, Fish argues, faculty members weaken these philosophical justifications that protect academic freedom. If the broader public believes that professors at the universities they support promote a political agenda—rather than disinterested scholarship—the public will then have reasonable grounds to insert itself into decisions about research and teaching that had once been reserved for academic experts. The rationale for academic autonomy crumbles.
Not long after reading Fish’s recent column, I happened to come across a speech on academic freedom written by the militant historian, Howard Zinn. As anyone at all familiar with Zinn’s work will have probably guessed, the speech promoted a vision of the academic enterprise diametrically opposed to the one articulated by Fish. Delivered to an audience of South African academics in 1982, the speech implored all scholars to fight against the temptations of political complacency. For Zinn, academic freedom had
always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic –that the university, because of its special claim to be a place for the pursuit of truth be a place where we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions, the practices of society, measuring them against millennia-old ideals of equality and justice.
From Zinn’s standpoint, any understanding of academic freedom that urged scholars to remain aloof from contemporary social struggles remained hollow to the core. Professional autonomy might have its place, but at what cost?
American higher education, Zinn insisted, had historically served the interests of wealthy elites that dominated the worlds of big business and the state. As long as faculty members quietly went along their business—training the middle managers and professionals that would keep the deeply unequal society running smoothly—the powers that be would grant them a degree of autonomy and prestige. Should scholars really be content with this state of affairs?
Zinn also maintained that in attempting to remain apolitical, academics actually performed a disservice to scholarship. Under the guise of objectivity, academic standards often masked support for the status quo. These standards encouraged social scientists to put on blinders when they examined issues of racial, sexual, and class inequality. In the name of supposed neutrality, professional disciplines such as engineering and finance often eschewed questions of values all together. This kind of thinking, he believed, helped encourage the mindset that led American academics to play important roles developing weapons and providing expertise for the Vietnam War.
Zinn used his own experience teaching courses at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s to illuminate the limitations of a narrow view of academic freedom. The Spelman campus, he remembered, was beautiful. Ideas were openly discussed within college walls. However, faculty and students were expected to publicly remain silent on segregation. If they had publicly expressed themselves on this issue, it would have caused a scandal and threatened the college’s vaunted autonomy. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn explains, a critical mass of students and faculty stopped self-censoring themselves. They had realized that a measure of academic freedom within the college meant little if it was not accompanied by the right to fight for justice and equality on the outside too. In stark contrast, to Fish, Zinn concludes,
I did not think I could talk about politics and history in the classroom, deal with war and peace, discuss the question of obligation to the state versus obligation to one’s brothers and sisters throughout the world, unless I demonstrated by my actions that these were not academic questions to be decided by scholarly disputation, but real ones to be decided in social struggle.
Zinn practiced what he preached. He served as a faculty advisor to SNCC in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he engaged in sit-down strikes with campus workers at Boston University. In 1980, he produced one of the most famous and contentious works of revisionist scholarship in American history. Throughout his career, he devoted his writing and public life to exposing injustice. Due to his outspoken activism, he was trailed for decades by the FBI and at least one high-ranking member of his university tried to have him fired.
Is there a middle road between the radical commitment demanded by Zinn and the academic formalism celebrated by Fish? It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates. Just in the past year or two, this appears to be the case in books as varied as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, and, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The authors of these books have all received praise (and criticism) from their peers in academia, while also making important and pointed contributions to debates of major public significance.
Fish is right to the degree that the academy shouldn’t be a place that promotes political propaganda. On the other hand, it would be a sad state indeed if at least some academics didn’t also heed Zinn’s advice. We need more, not less, rigorous works of scholarship that deepen an often shallow public discourse on issues of crucial concern.
Africa’s having a bit of a renaissance moment in the news lately. Between the Economist‘s retraction of it’s claim that Africa is doomed, the Guardian’s report on Africa’s middle class, and a new EU-funded project that highlights Africa’s other class, it seems that people are waking up to the fact that there’s more to Africa than the grim war-torn, famine-stricken, refugee-filled images of the 1990s and early 2000s. But most of the attention so far has been on the growing material wealth of Africans (or at least, Eur-Americans’ growing recognition of the material wealth of Africans). The Africa Report and the FT’s This is Africa are both focused on convincing the business world that Africa is a sound investment.
In a different vein, this past weekend’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper’s column featured a promising new angle that looks beyond ‘hey, Africans can buy things’ to ‘hey, Africa has a thriving intellectual culture too.’ (Again, in the mainstream media. Africa is a Country has been doing this for a long time.) As my own research is on middle class West African diaspora contributions to Atlantic intellectual and social developments in the nineteenth century, and I spend a lot of time convincing my students that much of Africa has a long history of a thriving business class and a thriving scholarly tradition, this shift can only be good for furthering my case.
The focus of Simon Kuper’s article is Chimurenga, a magazine published in Cape Town and founded by Ntone Edjabe (pictured) in 2002. Chimurenga bills itself as ‘a pan African publication of writing, art and politics’. It’s also published in Nairobi with Kenya’s literary magazine Kwani and Lagos with Nigeria’s independent publisher Cassava Republic Press. In fact it’s a little McSweeney’s-esque, with different formats and conceits for each issue. The writing, however, tends to be more non-fiction: hard-hitting journalism; book and art criticism; interviews; and a variety of other forms. Beyond the magazine itself, Chimurenganyana is the book publishing arm of the project. They are ‘ a pavement literature project consisting of low cost serialized monographs culled from the print journal’ and have published 6 books to date. They also collaborate with academia, putting out a biennual publication on Africa’s cities with University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities. All of this is very cool, and certainly does its part to show Eur-America that the Africa we think we know is just an Africa of our imagination.
But what I find the most exciting about this is that it’s not for Eur-Americans. Sure, I can subscribe and can see articles on their Read the rest of this entry »
Do you own dog-eared copies of David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition? Do you get into heated arguments with your philosopher friends about the continued relevance of the pragmatist tradition? Did you consider a career in finance, but instead opt for the much more sensible life choice of writing academic articles about the social history of ideas? If you answered yes to any of these questions, there’s a good possibility that you might be interested in putting together a panel for the Fifth Annual United States Intellectual History Conference next November in New York City. The Call for Papers has just been posted here. This year’s theme is “Communities of Discourse.”
Speaking of intellectual networks, and in the interest of full disclosure, three out of the five of us here at PhD Octopus have presented papers at this conference in the past. There’s no doubt that our own communities of discourse have expanded as a result. Since I began attending the meetings four years ago, I’ve always come away impressed with the conference’s sustained growth, the quality of scholarship on the panels, and its organizers’ tendency to highlight innovative historical work that also has obvious contemporary relevance. Besides all that, it’s nice to attend a meeting where the participants actually seem happy to be there, rather than nervous about the anxiety-inducing job interview to come.
I suppose it’s fitting that Christopher Hitchens has passed away just as the American involvement in the recent Iraq War is coming to a close. To his critics, waiting less than 24 hours from his death to heap their scorn, the eloquent English-American essayists’ career should be defined largely, perhaps entirely by his last, and greatest monumental error, his support for the George W. Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
This conclusion is unfortunate. After all, Hitchens was not alone among liberal hawks who misguidedly supported Operation Iraqi Freedom: David Remnick, Salman Rushdie, Peter Beinart, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, the list goes on. If we were to include people outside the public eye, well then I’d have count myself among the guilty. And I sure as hell hope that my error there won’t define whatever career I may have.
True, Hitchens was less repentant than some of the above liberals, never really admitting his mistake. But to call Hitchens a warmonger, as Corey Robin effectively does here, is to badly misinterpret the man’s words and legacy, and distort the complicated record of one of our generation’s greatest prose stylists.
Glenn Greenwald, like Robin, has joined in the Hitchens excoriation. Greenwald is certainly right that public figures should not get the benefit of societal etiquette that asks us not to speak ill of the dead. Their lives had a substantial impact on the world around them, and they should be be judged honestly and objectively, whether living or dead.
Cracow I remembered. My memories of Warsaw from 12 years ago were much dimmer, but Cracow stood out in my mind. I remembered the old synagogues, the oldest built into the ground so as to avoid being taller than churches. I remembered hassidim scurrying about. I remember standing by the Wawel Castle, though all our guide told us was that Nazis set up their Polish General Government there and placed a swastika flag atop one of its towers.
A lot has changed in 12 years. Despite the old buildings, Cracow feels like a new city, the economy revitalized, tourists heading from shop to shop. The place is almost painfully charming, and pardon the pun, you get the feeling that hanging out in city’s medieval central square never gets old.
Of course, I’ve changed a lot too. When I came to Cracow in 1999, I was a boy of 16. I didn’t know any history at all, especially non-Jewish history. Since then, I’ve been privileged to attend Dawson College’s Liberal Arts program, where I received a steady grounding in European history, reinforced by my bachelor’s degree at Harvard. At NYU, my focus shifted to the United States, but I took a couple of courses, in eastern European history and eastern European Jewish history, that gave me the knowledge, if not the languages, to understand the region. Frankly, I think both me and the city have changed for the better.
This time around, I made a point of not limiting myself to the Jewish sites. I actually entered Wawel Castle, explored its state rooms, and stood in awe of its beautiful cathedral. I hit all the major churches listed in Cracow’s In Your Pocket guide. I don’t think I went to a single church in 1999, and what a shame that was. But I doubt I would have appreciated them then anyway. I’d have been amazed by their beauty, but without any understanding of the role Catholicism has played in Polish history. Wawel Castle was so much more meaningful now that I know something about the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, and about the three partions of the battered nation in the late 18th century.
I know more Polish Jewish history now too. I understand the role that antisemitism played in revitalizing Polish nationalism, particularly in Galicia, in the late 19th century. From David Engel, I learned that Jews had been invited into the Polish kingdom, but the population expected them to behave like guests, not citizens, placing them a good distant apart even when citizenship was finally granted to them. I’m no expert, but apart from knowing whether to spell Cracow with a “c” or a “k,” I think I have a decent handle on the place.
And this time around, going to those synagogues was more meaningful. Instead of focusing on the death and destruction, I imagined that my grandfather and great aunt may have prayed at any one of them while they attended the Jagiellonian University in the 1920s.
Walking around the Jewish neighbourhood of Kazimierz, I saw life rather than death. The place had certainly changed since 1999. It was somber then. Now, tourists, Polish and foreign, populate the streets. The hassids are still there, but they seem more comfortable. And the kitsch has exploded. One Jewish history professor I know compared it to Disneyland. I see it more like Colonial Williamsburg, except without the tacky costumes and with a death camp an hour away.
This didn’t entirely bother me though. Sure, tour go-courts whizzed past us advertising trips to Schindler’s Factory (unopened in 1999) and visits to nearby Auschwitz. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry comes to mind, except I see no need for that degree of cynicism. Tourists should see the death camps. And seeing death camps costs money. And that money is lining some businessman’s pockets, not advancing the Zionist cause. If capitalism helps people learn, in the most vivid way possible, about the defining tragedy of the 20th century, then so be it.
If you haven’t already read Marcia Angell’s two review essays on the state of psychiatry in the New York Review of Books, I urge you to do so now. They are absolutely devastating. Angell, the former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, provides so much evidence of systematic corruption at the heart of the profession that it might just give you a newfound respect for the Church of Scientology. (Okay, maybe not.)
Others have documented the growing number of seemingly common forms of behavior that psychiatrists describe as mental illness, the increasing prevalence of drugs over talk therapy as a preferred method of treatment, and the vast sums of cash that pharmaceutical companies spend marketing their wares. Angell ties these phenomena together. She also raises serious questions about the quality of research that justifies the prescription of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.
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