Saturday, April 26, 2008

What is Wrong with Arizona?

Republicans in the Arizona legislature are at war with the state’s universities. Last year the legislature attempted to limit professors’ ability to assign texts that might make students “uncomfortable.” Basically, the end result of that measure would have meant that students could opt out of having to read anything at all. It also included a provision that would have forbidden professors from taking any action that might “endorse, support or oppose any pending, proposed or enacted local, state or federal legislation, regulation or rule.” Yeah, because why would we want universities to be places where people think and discuss legislation? Apparently Arizona Republicans have taken a look at higher education in their state and said to themselves, “You know, I would really like higher education to be less educational.”

This year, the Republican legislature has proposed an even more insidious bill. SB 1108 would forbid students from participating in groups organized around racial solidarity. So, for instance, students could not join the Black Business Students Association, Native Americans United or MEChA (Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán). Whether one agrees with these groups or not, one would have thought they would be protected by freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Arizona Republicans say "No!" You can sign a petition against this measure here.

Moreover, the measure would also forbid courses to be organized around race. Latino/a Studies, African American studies, and Asian American studies would all be illegal. Note to self: Never take an academic job in Arizona. Note to current Arizona Professors: Get out, if you can.

Republicans have called this measure part of “Homeland Security.” They promise to cut state funding to Arizona schools whose courses “denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization.” SB 1108 also would bar teachers from “overtly encouraging dissent” from those values, including democracy, capitalism, pluralism and religious toleration. All teaching materials would have to be approved by the school superintendent for review.

We can set aside the stuff that is just plain confusing or nonsensical (How exactly has Mexico not participated in “Western Civilization?” Why is participating in the Black Business Students Association against capitalism?). We can focus, instead, on the ways that this measure combines Republicans' favorite forms of disinformation.

First, of course, it upholds the myth that we live in a “color-blind” society. It ignores that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately poor, excluded from higher education, and earn less than their white counterparts. Whites remain the majority of university students (even in states (like Texas) with a non-white majority) at most flagship institutions. Yet, these measures place the blame for racist institutional practices onto minorities. MEChA emerged forty years ago to combat racism in the United States. In a classic Orwellian move, however, Rep. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) and other supporters of the bill have declared that it is groups like MEChA that are “real” racists.

Republicans and other conservatives get testy when notions of race move beyond their control. Clearly MEChA doesn’t understand that racial categories are only supposed to be used to oppress people. Using race as a means to organize for social justice is so missing the point.

This isn’t to say, obviously, that every member of MEChA or similar left-leaning organizations is automatically a saint. Both individually and collectively, they make mistakes. A few members of the left on university campuses, for instance, have wrongly tried to silence people on the right. They must also be educated about the importance of universities being sites of free speech and intellectual engagement.

Don’t be fooled, though. People on the right are not interested in “academic freedom.” They are interested in crushing any person who dares to say they are wrong.

For over a decade, members of the right have been attacking universities and attempting to control their curriculum. A former - liberal - turned - neoconservative named David Horowitz led the charge starting in the 1990s. In essence, Horowitz claimed that university-level humanities departments had become secret havens for Democrats. He put forward (without any real evidence) the outlandish claim that these same faculty keep conservatives out, deprive them of funding, and openly indoctrinate their students to blindly vote Democrat. In an unexpected twist, Horowitz and crew claim that their own Academic Freedom is being impinged.

The notion that college humanities departments are hotbeds of radicalism seems fairly laughable. From my vantage point, these departments are pretty darn conservative. The faculty is not racially diverse (not even coming close to representing the general population of the nation); they loathe change; and they maintain the status quo more than they rock the ship of state.

Moreover, Republicans give faculty way too much credit while giving university students none at all. If, as a professor, I had the power to “indoctrinate” my students, do you think that Bush would still be sitting in the White House? I have no special power to brainwash my students into being radicals. Heck, I can’t even convince my students to use the spell checker on their wordprocessor before submitting a paper. Just imagine how little power I have to foment revolution.

This is not to say that my politics don’t inform my research and my research doesn’t inform my politics. It would be impossible for me, as a Latino historian, to disentangle those two components. I own and make explicit my political perspective to my students and suggest that it does, indeed, influence my teaching.

Being explicit about my perspective does not mean that I am trying to dazzle or trick students into sharing my political ideas. Instead, I believe that students are smart enough to grapple with the information presented in my class. They always decide what to think on their own (as they should). Trust me, students can be asked to question social relations of power, government authority, imperialism, and resistance without having a single one fly off to Cuba the next morning.

Unlike those on the right, moreover, my own political ideology is not threatened knowing that other professors express viewpoints counter to mine in their classrooms. Students should hear as many ideas as possible.

Universities are supposed to be places where students encounter a wide-range of ideas and perspectives. Students learn how to reconcile those ideas for themselves – that is the point of an education – Learning to think independently and stuff.

What the right wants to do with these measures is silence dissent. The right’s vision of “not indoctrinating” really means that we should never hear or learn from people different from themselves. Apparently people on the right imagine that their own intellectual positions are so fragile that they won’t survive a confrontation with alternative epistemologies. Ironically, by shutting down university professors who propose radical ideas about the nation, the right implies that those ideas are more attractive than the status quo.

Finally, it is not surprising that this effort would occur around the time that Arizona is projecting a massive budget deficit for 2009. In a classic move, Republicans look to distract Arizona from their economic mismanagement of the state. Instead, they claim that they are in an ideological war with the “left” to “preserve” the nation. If they really want to preserve the nation, they might look into the collapsing value of the U.S. dollar. That will destroy this nation much faster than a prof who dares to suggest that Mexican migrants have basic human rights.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

GayProf Loses His Zen

The semester is rapidly coming to an end. The one good thing about returning to work so early in January is that I had my last final April 17. Now it is just the grading.

Of course, the end also means that I have been (even more) crazy busy over the past few weeks. If I have to attend one more meeting, I might be sentenced to Arkham Asylum. Seriously, if you see GayProf in unflattering clown makeup, head in the other direction.

I think that I underestimated my frazzled nerves until I lost my shit late last week. Normally it takes a great deal for me to lose my temper. Most times I construe anger as a waste of emotion. Trying to cross the street, however, sent me over the edge.

You see, Big Midwestern University merges entirely with Midwestern Funky Town. Major streets bisect the campus. At least one of these roads clearly has too much pedestrian traffic competing with motor traffic. In my mind, it should be closed to cars altogether.

Nobody, alas, has decided to make me a city planner. As a result, I have to play full-scale Frogger to get to my office in the morning. Students drive too fast and refuse to stop at crosswalks (though motorists are legally required to yield to pedestrians or face a $130 fine (I looked it up)).

Most of the time I am merely frustrated by drivers’ lack of civility. Last week went beyond the pale. Some student, driving an oversized gas-guzzler, literally refused to stop at the cross walk that was filled with people. He forced all of us who were already in the middle of the road to get out of his way or be run over. Then he had the nerve to flip us off for being in his way. I might have responded with a less than scholarly vocabulary or intonation.

Being prone to hyperbole, I immediately concluded that he represented everything that was wrong with the United States. Our selfish emphasis on the “individual” encourages Americans to think that they are right all the time, even when they are clearly wrong. Both as individuals and as a nation, we are loathe to consider that our particular needs might not be the most important.

This doesn’t just come out through incidents of near vehicular manslaughter. Take, for example, the tempest that surrounded an Absolut Vodka advertisement. To peddle their booze, the company capitalized on a utopian vision of the world where U.S. imperialism had been checked in the nineteenth century. Though the ad never circulated in the U.S., Absolut was flooded with irate mail from U.S. citizens. One angry writer noted that he had poured all his vodka down the drain (N.B. to protesters: Companies don’t suffer if you dispose of a product after you already paid for it. Whether or not you actually consume your purchase is fairly immaterial to them as long as they got their money in the first place).

Angry letter writers couldn’t entertain the idea that the U.S. might have been wrong to wage war on a neighboring republic for no other reason than an ambition for territory. They were also clearly unprepared to consider that there is a residual anger and resentment towards the United States for that war (which deprived Mexico of half of its territory, left it bankrupt, and opened the door for future invasions from other nations).

Don’t get me wrong. I am not endorsing the ad per se. After all, Absolut created it as a crass capitalistic attempt to profit from Mexico's legitimate frustration with U.S. imperialism. Rather, I am concerned that many (most?) people in this nation are unable or unwilling to admit that the nation’s history is filled with immoral decisions that we should regret. The fact that an ad for a mid-tier vodka can call the nation out on its hubris should concern us.

It is much the same thinking that resulted in the criticism of Barack Obama last weekend. He only spoke the truth (however imperfectly that he delivered it). The white working class has been voting against their own economic interests since the 1980s. Republicans have depended upon messages of fear (You need guns, and lots of them) and hatred (Gays will destroy civilization as we know it. Mexicans are our enemy.). Obama probably didn’t realize that it was a secret that the Republican party had been using the religious right to satisfy their own agendas.

Much of the response to Obama’s comments have centered around his supposed audacity to suggest that these voters were wrong and had the wrong priorities. Indeed, both Clinton and McCain suggested that Obama was “out of touch.”

To my mind, it is the U.S. voters who have been out of touch. From human rights, economics, and environmentalism, the U.S. has been on the wrong side of every issue for the past seven years. This isn’t just the fault of the Bush administration, either. Though only 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 25 percent of its natural resources. How has the U.S. population responded in the face of both an economic and environmental melt down? Shockingly, U.S. citizens have decided that we should have a baby boom. It was something that I had suspected based on first-hand anecdotes, but was confirmed this past fall with statistics. Yes, the U.S. is totally out of step with every other industrial nation. Just how selfish are we? How depraved have we become that we think nothing of compounding the world's overpopulation? Is there any discussion about population control (beyond this blog)? Is anybody willing to entertain the notion that having more than one child is an immoral and selfish decision?

The election of either Obama or Clinton will not magically solve the problems facing this nation. The best that we could hope for from either is that they will not actively impede the reshaping of our society.

Instead of celebrating the cult of personality around these two figures, we need to alter the conversation in this nation. Rather than a nation driven by self-centered individualism, we need to start thinking as a community. We need to take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship, not just the rights of citizenship. We also have to be willing to acknowledge that just because we made a decision doesn't mean that it was the right one. Don’t run me over, man.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

For What It's Worth

This past weekend I hosted my long-threatened charity cocktail party for the Midwestern Funky Town queer youth center. The attendance was a bit smaller than I anticipated (some of my extended entourage were out of town at an academic conference), but it still generated a reasonable sum of money for the group.

To be honest, that is the type of volunteer work that I can really get behind. More public service should revolve around drinking (though I am contemplating joining VUBOQ’s liver-resting April).

Even without the drinking, it gave me opportunity to break out my fabled Bewitched-style warming tray. What self-respecting host(ess) doesn’t have one?

Given that I am in charitable mood, I decided that it was time for me to solve many of the nation’s other problems. I am generous like that – a giver, if you will. Here are the simple solutions to many of our greatest challenges:

    The Housing Crisis: The value of houses is falling dramatically across the nation. This might be a crazy first idea, but how about a moratorium on building new shit? Throughout the Midwest, there are tons of empty homes and even giant skyscrapers. Driving through Detroit is much like journeying to a future dystopia. Amazing twenty-story buildings (with stunning Beaux-Arts architecture) sit empty. One expects to see the Ωmega Man lurking about.

    In the meantime, wild building is occurring in areas of the nation that literally lack the natural resources to support the population growth. People who are moving to Phoenix, you realize that it is a desert, right? By desert, I mean there is no water -- Like, not at all. Shouldn't that be a sign that a city of 1.5 million is a bad, bad idea? (Stay out of New Mexico – It’s not for you).

    Let’s treat the nation like the spoiled child that it is – No new toys until you finish playing with the ones that you already got. No new homes, office building, hotels, or other buildings until we have 100 percent occupancy on the stuff that we already got. If people need a house or an office, they can pay to remodel existing properties in the Midwest. This will keep the construction industry busy for years to come.

    The Tumbling Value of the U.S. Dollar: The value of the dollar (or, as I like to refer to it, the U.S. peso) has fallen to all time lows compared to the euro, British pound, the yen, and even the Canadian dollar (!). It’s just another thing that Republican voters (and those who stayed home) created in 2004.

    I ain’t no economist, but it seems like the Federal Reserve’s one-step catch-all solution of lowering interest rates is nothing but crap. Lowering interest is flooding the market with money, which leads to inflation, which leads to making the problem worse and devaluing the dollar even more. Where did Ben Bernanke get his degree in economics? An on-line course? A cereal box?

    Desperate times call for desperate measures. I think the U.S. dollar could use some product re-branding. It did wonders for Kentucky Fried Chicken when they renamed themselves KFC. It’s the same old grease and slaw, but people clearly don’t think about the “fried” bit anymore (or the blocked aortas).

    Let’s relaunch the U.S. Dollar under a new name, like the U.S. Slammer. That will make our currency more hip and at least sound powerful. Imagine a sales clerk telling you that your total was “three slammers” rather than three dollars.

    Of course, the re-branding would also require a redesign of our currency. Aren’t we tired of dead, straight white men on the face of our money? I have always been in favor of this:

    The United States’s Difficult Relationship with Iran: According to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there are no gays in Iran. Well, no wonder Iran is so angry with the U.S.! We thought that it had to do with our blanket imperialism and unilateral military actions in the region. It turns out that the real problem is that we have been hoarding all the gays for ourselves. That’s awfully selfish of the U.S. Why, West Hollywood has a bumper crop of gays this year. Clearly it’s time to send some of them into Iran and brighten up the place. Gay sex, after all, makes everybody happy.

    The Democratic Nomination: Obama or Clinton? To listen to the followers of each candidate, one would think that the choice was between eternal salvation or a new definition of pain and suffering as we are slowly digested over a thousand years. For my part, I really don’t see all that dramatic of a difference between the candidates (Though Obama’s speech on race plus his endorsement by Bill Richardson has nudged me toward his corner in recent weeks).

    Wake up, people. Neither is great on gay issues, immigration, or even basic economic policies (All of my favorite issues). The best we can hope for is that they will be quasi-reasonable and work with those of us who are interested in actual social-justice issues (rather than the aforementioned hyperbole and rhetoric).

    In my mind, either one is vastly preferably to McCain and a huge improvement over the incompetent moron in office today. Hell, my cat is more competent than the moron in office today (and darn cute).

    All the same, the Democratic Party is divided. Even some of my own family members are threatening to boycott the 2008 election if their chosen candidate doesn’t win the primary. That’s just crazy talk.

    I am tired of the hyperbole that has been flying around from both sides of this election. People who fall for the cult of personality in politics make me nervous. It also distracts them from worshiping their true savior: Me.

    There is only one solution to this mess: Appoint Laura Roslin to be president in 2008. I mean, she doesn’t feel the need to be elected (always coming into office through the back door), but she does a hell of a job all the same. Trust me, fighting off Cylons is going to be a piece of cake compared to repairing the damage created by eight years of Bush and Cheney.

    The Current Administration: Jail time for everybody.