Friday, November 09, 2018

We need to talk about the value of liberal studies



from @meakoopa
Honestly, I was about to write about the NRA telling doctors to "stay in their lane" on gun violence because... I mean do I even have to explain?
But I've written about the erosion of the public's faith in experts here before, and while drafting a new version of that, I stumbled across something that is more fun, and it approaches the same issue from a very different angle: The value of an education that develops students who "read critically, write cogently and think broadly."
from HattertheThird

It started with a meme, of course.

The image and the commentary made the "most viral" page for a lot of reasons, nudity certainly being one of them. But something like this does not get to that spot on Imgur without being a commentary on the times.

And that is phenomenal because just a little digging turns this meme into powerful evidence for an argument on the value of the liberal arts.


  • Art history 
  • European history
  • Political science
  • Cultural studies
  • Media Studies
  • Classical studies
  • Philosophy
  • Mechanical Engineering
Those are some of the disciplines that contribute to just how much this meme has to say. 

The painting Truth Coming Out of Her Well was painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Art historians suggest that the painting not only represents Gérôme's hostility towards Impressionism, they have also noted that it was likely a comment on the Dreyfus affair

The Dreyfus affair revolved around trials for spying and espionage. It fueled an intense political division within France that gave rise to both nationalism and antisemitism. 

The man who was falsely accused of spying for the Germans and then sentenced to life in prison was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a man of Jewish descent. Two years later the French found evidence that it was actually a man named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy who had leaked secrets to the Germans. Esterhazy (a descendant born out of wedlock to the prominent Hungarian noble family) was tried behind closed doors and acquitted before he was secreted off to the United Kingdom where he wrote for anti-semitic newspapers until his death in 1923. 

The coverup was revealed via an open letter titled J'Accuse…! which was published in L'Aurore, a French newspaper. 

The country of France was split by this scandal in profound ways that played out in media outlets with political agendas. 

The painting gets its title from the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who said, "Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well."

And all of this started because someone (probably Esterhazy) passed secret military plans to the Germans - plans discovered by a counter-intelligence agent working as a cleaner in the German embassy. This woman found, among other things, the torn-up plans for the new French artillery gun, the 120mm howitzer. 

Which is interesting; that fact led some to theorize that Esterhazy was actually a double agent. At the time of the leak, you see, it seems the French had already scrapped the 120mm for the famous French 75 - an artillery weapon widely regarded as the first piece of modern artillery.

And I'm sorry, but if that web of facts from across several disciplines doesn't draw you in and inform your understanding of current events, then you are missing out big time. 

It is interdisciplinary knowledge that allows us to interact with the world in a modern way - a way that helps us understand what art means, what history tells us, what political leaders should do, what racism looks like, what corruption can lead to, what we should expect from the media, what truth means, what kinds of secrets need to be kept, and what the tools we build can do. 


Thursday, September 27, 2018

If My Memory Serves

In the hearing today, Senators felt comfortable asserting that Ford might be misremembering events from 1982, but they were reluctant to suggest Kavanaugh might be misremembering those events.

Seems the committee members believe Kavanaugh's either
A) telling the truth or
B) lying.
His memory is somehow infallible.

I find that odd.

Based on both testimonies I heard, the memory I have doubts about belongs to Kavanaugh. And not because of his drinking.

Sounds like attending a rowdy party was a common enough occurrence for Kavanaugh. He sure seems to like beer. So, I can understand how one party might blend into the next.

I spent high school in a predominately white and privileged suburb as well; I'm familiar with those parentless get-togethers in the houses with "the good room we don't use." Those parties all look and feel pretty much the same.

I can also imagine the assault being completely forgettable for a young man.

I know. That sounds bad. 

But I believe Kavanaugh didn't think anything of the event. He saw it as horsing around with a girl he didn't know very well at a fun little party. If you had asked him about it a month later, I could understand if he didn't recall it ever happening. It was, for him, just a moment of rowdy fun. He probably thought Ford was having fun too.

For Ford, however, it was a terrifying assault.

But (as he demonstrated today) Kavanaugh cannot imagine a world in which he has a blind spot.
He cannot understand people opposing his candidacy as anything but a conspiracy.
He could not understand how a young woman would oppose a little horseplay.
To him, it wasn't a big deal.

To Ford, it was.
That event nearly broke a young woman's world.
Tragically, Kavanaugh lives in a world where horseplay that crosses the line is a forgettable occurrence.

For this reason, Ford's memory of that night is the more reliable record.

We are living through a time when people will no longer allow one group's perspective on an event to be "the perspective" on that event.

I'm not surprised Kavanaugh claims it never happened. And I don't think he's lying. I think he committed assault without ever realizing it.




Friday, April 13, 2018

On creating a playlist inspired by The Onion's "My Collection Of Cassingles Is Second To None"

Larry Harroway, Cassingle Collector
On Valentine's Day 2001, The Onion published an opinion piece by Larry Harroway.
The piece is titled "My Collection Of Cassingles Is Second To None."

In his column, Harroway describes a collection of cassingles that inspired me to assemble a Youtube playlist.

This is the most "internet" I have ever been.
I have never been this "internet" before and likely will not be again soon.

It was a profoundly rewarding - if meaningless - experience.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Can't Argue Art

If there is an artist in your life and you support this president, then you are failing that artist.
If there is an artist in your life... a painter, a sculptor, a singer, a dancer...
Today we learned that the President’s FY 2019 budget proposes elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. We are disappointed because we see [that] funding actively making a difference with individuals in thousands of communities...

Even if this part of Trump's proposed budget gets blocked, the proposal itself is an assertion that our nation should not support the work of artists, that creativity is not something our nation should nurture or value, that money is more important than artistic expression.

That is an actual argument we are having in our public discourse right now.
There are people who believe art does not contribute to the common good.
People will work hard to ensure that our government does not support the work of artists.

I know the following reaction plays into some stereotypes about liberal academics, but I am not going to let those ugly caricatures of liberalism blunt my message here:
People who believe our government should not support the arts are ignorant. 

I know. It is hard, perhaps even impossible to engage in a reasonable debate after insulting people who disagree with me.

But I cannot imagine a reasonable debate with a person who holds that belief.

For one thing, that person is too ignorant to argue with. 
Sure, a person might be able to sound intelligent. They might explain that support for the arts can/should come from places other than our government. They might even pull out numbers and charts demonstrating all of the non-government sources of support for art. And all those arguments, no matter how intelligent they may sound, will only confirm the ignorance of those who espouse them. By limiting the role of our government exclusively to the maintaining of our nation's economic health, those arguments show the mental limitations of the people making the arguments. 

For another thing, I know too many artists to maintain my composure while listening to a person spout that kind of nonsense. I have too many personal connections to artists to keep my cool: my brothers, my niece, my aunts, my friends, my students... The list just keeps growing, and then there are my hopes for my own kids...

Yeah... No way I'm letting that argument even start. It is a stupid argument made by ignorant people. 

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

An Unresolved Argument on Cultural Appropriation

There are these two things I geek out over, and I want to mash them up.
But I am concerned about cultural appropriation, and I'm hoping some genorous readers can help me sort this out.

The first part of this proposed mashup is not controversial. I play Dungeons & Dragons.
As hobbies go, it's a tad geeky, but less so today. It is certainly less controversial than it once was.
So, yeah. The D&D stuff is not what I'm concerned about.

Here's where I get into uncertain territory. 
I have been developing a playable D&D world based on ideas, characters, and philosophies presented in the songs and album art of Parliament and Funkadelic.

Some Background
World building is a big thing in D&D. If you're unfamiliar, think of any big fantasy or science fiction world: Lord of the Rings, The Handmaid's Tale, Zelda, Star Wars, Dune, Wheel of Time, Marvel, DC, or Earthsea. All of the stories told in those worlds depend on strong world building.

In D&D, people running a game have an opportunity to engage in world building, giving players a unique place to develop the characters they play.

In the world I've been building, the moral alignments (typically Good, Evil, Chaotic, Lawful) are inspired by the music of George Clinton's bands. The pantheon of deities is populated by characters like Dr. Funkenstein and Rumpofsteelskin. The names of various dimensions in the world are based on places and settings the bands sing about. 

It's been a labor of love.

I discovered the band Parliament in 1996

This led me to Funkadelic, and then on to The Gap Band, The Commodores, The Ohio Players, Darondo, Sly and the Family Stone, The Bar-Kays, The Meters, Zapp, and so many more.

The groundwork had been laid long before I first heard Flashlight. 
I got into the Talking Heads well before I learned that collaborating with Bernie Worrell had provided the band with so much of their groove. I was a teenager during the Golden Age of hip-hop. James Brown was a fixture in my CD collection in high school, and my folks played a lot of Motown while I was growing up. 

But there was something about Parliament that drew me deeper into the genre of funk. If you've ever listened to the band, no further explanation is needed. If you haven't, I'll just say this much here: The bands' music transports you into an alternate reality where the power of funk is a mystical force that combats boredom and the uptight. There is a wonderful and rich mythology built up in the songs.

The Conflict
I'm a white guy, and Parliament-Funkadelic is a brilliant creative result of African American culture.
Now, I know it is not cultural appropriation for me to enjoy the music of Parliament and Funkadelic.
But what about when I take the ideas from the music and use them for my own creative endeavor?

I'm not going to make any money running this D&D world, and I plan to be completely transparent about the inspiration. It's an homage.

But that doesn't change the fact that I am using ideas that emerged from African American culture to build my own creative setting.

I'm not helped by a certain lack of diversity in Fantasy and role-playing games. For example, that alignment chart I included up above? Pretty white, huh? I went looking for one that included more cultures. Not much luck.

Where does that put my efforts?

I cringe when I hear my inner voice say, "This doesn't feel racist."
That's a thing racist people say.

Nevertheless, playing D&D in a world where Sir Nose D'voidofFunk is in a cosmic battle with Star Child feels right to me.
The Request
Could you help me figure out if my efforts are honoring the work of these artists or if those efforts are trying to claim their work as my own?

I want to be honoring the makers of this music I love, but I'm too close to this project to be an effective judge.

If I am on the wrong side of the line, is there something I can do, or do I drop this?

Any response is welcome.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Why I think he is lying

If I say "the Trump Administration is lying about its support for the Dreamers," like-minded liberal friends nod and agree.

My conservative friends, however, shake their heads and tell me the media and Democrats have duped me again.

I want to build an argument here, as an exercise, showing my conservative friends why I think the Trump Administration is lying and how that belief is rooted in something more substantial than my NPR-saturated media landscape.

Here goes:

Today I read Jeff Sessions describe the Justice Department's efforts to end the DACA program. In response to an injunction from a lower court, he said the Department is "now taking the rare step of requesting direct review [...] by the Supreme Court so that this issue may be resolved quickly and fairly for all the parties involved.”

DACA is an important issue to me.

I work with Dreamers.
I teach Dreamers.
These are my friends we're talking about.

So, I want to believe the President and his supporters when they say the larger goal is to protect the Dreamers.

I want to believe they expect Congress to pass legislation that moves DACA out of the murky realm of executive orders and into federal law.

I want to believe - like Mulder-style "I want to believe."

But if that were the case, why is the Justice Department fighting so hard to end the program?

According to Sessions, the Justice Department is "now taking the rare step" of asking the Supreme Court to step in.
"The rare step," eh?

Why work outside of normal legal procedures to end the protections if the plan is for Congress to protect these people before March?

It's either...
A) The Administration expects DACA to become law, but then that "rare step" seems like a waste of time - a massive waste of effort and time.

Or it's...
B) The Administration does not want to protect the Dreamers. Then the "rare step" makes sense.

It is actions versus words, and the actions tell me the latter is the truth.

That is why I think the Administration is lying about their position on a major policy issue.

I think the Administration knows Dreamers have broad support across the country and across political parties, but the Administration also wants to deport Dreamers to countries they've never considered home. So, they are saying one thing and doing another.

There will likely be an effort to convince us that it was in the hands of Congress and they failed, but based on what I have seen this Administration do, the plan is to end DACA and never introduce protections for the Dreamers.

All that will be done behind the thin curtain of a bald-faced lie.

Friday, December 08, 2017

I don't get it.

I've been told I should not admit this:
I have trouble relating to the people who have become increasingly frustrated as a changing world has left them feeling disconnected - even abandoned by their government, the media, science, corporations, and other institutions.

I'm told that is not something a California liberal with a fancy degree should commit to text. It confirms just how out hopelessly of touch I am.

NPR, the Washington Post, J.D. Vance, the New York Times, and countless others have presented strong arguments telling me as much... and those are just the liberal outlets telling me I'm out of touch.

My conservative friends and family use my degree and zip code as a weapon whenever we debate politics. I've been told I'm out of touch by everyone.

And...
Maybe they have a point.

I've spent the last twenty-three years of my life putting personal and professional distance between myself and the people I am out of touch with. It wasn't an accident. It took a lot of work, and I did it with intention. I didn't do it, however, out of some kind of disdain or disrespect.

I did it because I was told to.

My childhood was littered with movies and songs about rust belt towns falling into ruin. I listened to nightly news reports about union jobs leaving my Midwestern home for non-union towns in the South - or other countries. I remember the stellar line up at Farm Aid '85 singing about the plight of the family farmer. The world was telling me that I could not count on a comfortable working-class life.

I listened.

Sure, I rooted for the Goonies as they tried to keep their side of town out of the hands of rich developers hellbent on building a golf course. But the message was loud and clear: Staying ahead of the changes in the country's economic landscape was going to take more than wishing on a penny.

But this isn't some "pulled myself up by the bootstraps" story. I had a lot of help.

My parents moved out of the middle class when I was in high school. They were able to send me, my sister, and my twin brothers to college during the 90s without asking us to take on any debt. My first degree landed me a job in New York City. I met good people who helped me learn and advance (I married one of them). There were bumps and bends in the road, but for the most part, I have walked the fortunate path of a global citizen allowed to seek education and opportunity wherever I can find it. I should also note that I'm a white heterosexual man, which cleared away many of the obstacles through no effort on my part. I'm grateful for the people and circumstances that helped me along the way.

I'm not looking for a pat on the back.

I'm just trying to figure out why politicians, op-eds, and think pieces are expressing shock and surprise that a person like me is out of touch with those whose life experience is so distant from my own.

Being an educated liberal doesn't give me the ability to see into the hearts of people.

I know their views are different than mine, and...
(here's the liberal part)
I do not think my view is better or more important.

When I listen to people express frustration with a changing world that has left them feeling disconnected or even abandoned, I don't dismiss them or demean them. I just...

I don't get it.

That's it. I just don't get it.

I don't understand political movements that insist the country is failing, science is lying, and the sky is falling.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think we live in some kind of utopia. I believe there is a lot we need to work on - some of which is pretty urgent - but for the most part, I trust science, non-partisan research, government programs, universities, and the media.

And sure, I am biased in their favor. I have relied heavily on those institutions to reach the achievements I have reached. And they delivered. So, yeah, it is weird to see people treat them as a kind of enemy. There is something happening there that I can't understand.

It's like when I listen to an old favorite song, "Common People" by Pulp.



I used to think I identified with the singer complaining about the rich student who wanted "to live like common people." But that's never been me. If I belong to any group described in that song, I belong to the 'tourist' group, and "everybody hates a tourist."

The song is a reminder that I can't know another person's experience. So, I shouldn't romanticize the lives of others, nor should I presume to understand what is behind the choices they make.

I have to accept that there are things I cannot know. I won't get it, and that's okay.

This doesn't mean I have to change my view. My lack of understanding doesn't make me wrong, but it doesn't make the other side wrong either.

Accepting that is crucial. If I am going to listen better, I have to know there is stuff I do not understand. It's not a character flaw. It is what happens while living in a diverse and liberal society.


Friday, November 03, 2017

What colors the way we listen?

This opinion piece by Austin McCoy opens by noting the left's positive and enthusiastic response to last month's freestyle political rant from Eminem.

McCoy goes on to ask?
But why did it take [...] until 2017 to afford rap music the respect [...] long given to other forms of artistic protest? 
It part, it is stylistic. Eminem’s caustic tone, vulgarity and angry delivery meshes with the angry white male style of political punditry [...]. 
But it is also substantive. For the past 30 years, black rappers have made controversial critiques of law-and-order politics in ways that made white liberals uncomfortable. 
My relationship to hip-hop is different than what McCoy describes, but I still learned a lot from the read. I came to understand how my appreciation of hip-hop in the past few years is connected to my whiteness, my politics, and my life experience - all in ways I hadn't considered.

See, I've always liked the Native Tongues Collective style from the early 90s, but I had trouble connecting to so much other hip-hop - stuff like Public Enemy, NWA, Biggie, 2Pac, Mos Def, Nas. Those seemed out of reach, until recently.

The stuff I've always liked has an idealistic take on the world. It typically portrays the hardships of being black in America as obstacles that can be overcome with positivity and a recognition of the value of blackness. I liked that message. I still like that message. It is one that should be shared.

But it is an easier message for a white guy from Wisconsin to wrap his head around.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think The Jungle Brothers were asking themselves, "How can we reach the Midwestern kids playing D&D in their parents' suburban basements?"

Nevertheless, I was able to make something of a connection because the message was about pride, skill, and bravery as tools for overcoming challenges.
The tools that the Native Tongues Collective described were familiar, and that reached across a divide.

The divide, however, was something I didn't understand.
Because those tools were being used to overcome challenges I had never even considered.

For the past several years I've been hearing hip-hop differently, and McCoy's piece helped me understand why.

When Black Lives Matter came along around 2013, the group prompted me to examine how race impacts my life - like my everyday life, not just those times when race is the in-your-face issue.

I remember being shaken by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.
Each case was an in-my-face example of how race shapes public safety, the perception of the police, and (as became clear in the aftermath time and time again) how we argue about these things.

But the Black Lives Matter movement asked me to consider these events more deeply.

I was aware of racial profiling. I knew it was wrong.
But I had never thought about how angry it would make me to be subjected to such treatment.
I hadn't considered what it would be like to teach my kids about how their race was going to impact what happened when they walked into a store, started at a new school, walked the streets, or asked a police officer for help.

And when I thought back to how upset I got when Martin, Brown, and Garner were killed, I realized I had never thought to myself, "That could've been me."

I knew - without thinking about it - the chances of that happening to me were reduced because I am a white guy from Wisconsin.

That is unjust in ways I had never dealt with.
And I know why I've never dealt with it. It is profoundly uncomfortable to acknowledge that I benefit from an injustice.

You rarely hear anyone celebrate a lack of justice, but you know this: Whereever there is an unjust situation, someone gained an unfair upper hand. They "won."
You'd think that person might be happy to be on the favored side of an injustice.

But I claim to value justice.
I want to believe my success was earned fairly.
So, to preserve that belief, I did not consider the challenges others face.
Now... I didn't intentionallly deny the existence of those challenges.
I just didn't think about them.

When the Black Lives Matter movement asked me to consider those challenges, however, hip-hop changed for me (so did other stuff, but focus).
Opening my eyes to those challenges helped hip-hop make more sense to me.

Descriptions of lives and lifestyles from Biggie, 2Pac, Nas and (more recently) Kendrick Lamar help me understand the challenges I have failed to consider.
The joy and anger and fear and love in the music are all put into a context I can wrap my head around; even if I can never experience that context, those artists - artists I once had trouble understanding - are now helping me see a bigger and more interesting world.

I'm better for it.
Even if I have to own some injustice, “I open my eyes and realizing I changed. Not the same deranged child stuck up in the game.”