A Very Merry Birthday to Walt Whitman, American

May 31, which is still Today on the American west coast, is Walt Whitman’s birthday. Born in 1819, he would be almost 200 years old today if science would hurry up and cure aging. Right now we only have poetry.

Walt Whitman

Along with Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, Whitman invented American poetry. In the man’s honor—as thanks for what he wrote—here is a short poem from the 1860s that is usually named by its first line. You will almost certainly like it if you enjoy the English language and are human. The text below is from Michael Moon’s superb Norton Critical edition of Whitman’s work.

Come for the erotic politics, stay for the ecological sensibility, that’s the Whitman way here.

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the 
         branches; 
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous 
         leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think 
         of myself; 
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves
         standing alone there without its friend its 
         lover near, for I knew I could not, 
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of 
         leaves upon it, and twined around it a little 
         moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in 
         my room, 
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear 
         friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of 
         them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me 
         think of manly love; 
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there 
         in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a 
         lover near,
I know very well I could not.
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Weekend Links: Stocks, Bonds, America on Loan

The weekend just pulled into your driveway. Let’s eeease the seat back, as the man says. Here are some links to help you be as intelligent and dynamic as you can be, however chill things might get between now and Sunday. Call us whenever you want.

  • When he wasn’t curating his open-necked-shirt game, economist Thomas Piketty was writing what sounds like a mind-bending study of wealth stratification in the West since the late 1700s. You should buy Capital in the Twenty-First Century book right now, dear reader, as these two reviews (John Cassidy in the New Yorker and Paul Krugman for the NY Review of Books) advise; but don’t try to use Amazon, because it is sold out there. Harvard UP’s Belknap label is scrambling to print more. Let’s hope their scrappy operation can pull through! In the meantime, ruminate on the fact that a work of academic scholarship that is still in hardcover sold this much this fast (it was released only five weeks ago). You can also download the homie’s Technical Appendix for free if you want to wade into some Excel spreadsheets, wizard-math modeling, deep-cover historical footnotes, and other academic flora.
  • America, meet yourself. Sarah Kendzior has written a cool-eyed but harrowing narrative (“The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”) on the efforts of Midwestern fast-food employees to organize for a living wage. Built almost lyrically around the accounts of individual witnesses, this ethnography of labor will remind you that economic collapses are usually also moral catastrophes. Millionaire stockholders and billionaire capital managers exist thanks to workers who, thanks to millionaires and billionaires, don’t make enough to buy a bus pass. If the United States really were an Enlightenment democracy, if the twenty-first century hadn’t become a grim rewind of the late 1800s, Kendzior wouldn’t have needed to write anything. Her work here is so bracing, I don’t mind that the title’s phrasal adjective is missing a hyphen. (Should be “Minimum-Wage,” unless it’s a very subtle pun. I know, I’m a pedant.) Read SK’s work wherever you can—Al Jazeera America publishes a lot of it—because she’s fantastic. Her Twitter feed is also lively. Oh, and she has a PhD in anthropology. Amazing how those useless degrees turn out to be useful.
  • Welfare for humans, bad! Welfare for corporations, very good! (But keep it quiet.) WalMart is on food stamps, y’all, and the company is just about the only food-stamp recipient who deserves your scorn. Add this to your purple-rage-inducing knowledge that ExxonMobil gets federal subsidies and Apple stashes money in Irish shell companies and et fucking cetera.
  • Science is finally catching up with literature: Research published last October in Science indicates that “literary” reading (basically, immersion in fictional narratives that compel aesthetic and philosophical attention while also entertaining the reader) makes you better at recognizing that other people are autonomous subjects, not merely actors in your personal movie. Humanists have been making this argument for centuries. In a recent essay titled “Why Fiction Does It Better,” Lisa Zunshine (whose scholarship draws on narrative art as well as neuroscience) updates the case. No doubt President Obama will mention this in his UC Irvine commencement address.
  • Working within the Population Dynamics Research Group at USC, Dowell Myers and Joel Pitkin have assembled a fascinating report with a deeply academic title, “The Generational Future of Los Angeles: Projections to 2030 and Comparisons to Recent Decades.” Partial preview: The city’s population is not growing quickly, far fewer immigrants are arriving anymore (contra paleocons like Pat “CULTURE WAR MEXIFORNIA” Buchanan), and we need to spend smarter on our educational infrastructure immediately. Angelenos, I promise the report is quite readable, so read it.
  • More on John Keats, language wonder, in the coming weeks; for now, here is a poom by Emily Dickinson—for my money, the purest practitioner of lyric in English not named Shakespeare. The odd punctuation, syntax, and capitalization is all hers. Snakes in a backyard!

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

Baby Steps: Recent Higher-Ed News That Isn’t Entirely Depressing

Among the many trends in higher education that TGR bemoans, perhaps none is more personally galling than the persistent, Joe Biden-endorsed myth that faculty salaries are the reason college costs so much. Those tenured professors in their new Priuses and ivy-coddled homes, with their twenty-hour work weeks. But slowly, slowly, the glacier of ignorance seems to be melting a little around the edges. People besides readers of Inside Higher Ed, alt-academic blogs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education are beginning to embrace the material reality of things at actual schools on the planet Earth in this foul year of our Lord, 2014.

Over at Changing Universities, Robert Samuels reports that Congress (well, the Democratic Party’s House Committee on Education and the Workforce) has awoken to the fact that most American college professors work under conditions that range from Consistently Inadequate to Slough of Despond. And just after that document dropped, along came another study that adds to the Mount Whitney of evidence that administrative bloat, overspending on amenities, and the cheapskatery of state legislatures are why Americans are choking on student-loan debt. The report in question is from the renowned Delta Cost Project, which has been tracking university finances since the 1980s. Allow me to summarize: Blaming teachers for enormous tuition bills is like blaming the price of a new flatscreen TV on the wages of delivery drivers, or faulting the tellers at Wells Fargo for the 2008 financial catastrophe.

Now, given that one of the post-Goldwater conservative movement’s greatest achievements was getting Americans to distrust labor unions; given that anti-intellectualism is a national tradition (“My son had to read about GAY IMMIGRANT BLACK HOMO *SOCIALISTS* in history class!”); given that it is easier for the already powerful (provosts, not profs) to maintain the status quo than it is for the underclasses to change it; and given that Americans have many other distressing things on their plates, like the near-jobless post-Bush recovery; I’m not wildly optimistic that unionization and other forms of activist organizing among faculty are going to achieve much. Still, if anyone has a decent chance at reviving the labor tradition that helped create the twentieth-century middle class, it might be college teachers. Besides having the sort of intellectual capital (superb communication and research skills) that could sustain a broad movement, people with PhDs also tend to have more social capital than their dilapidated cars would suggest. That is, many of us know lots of other smart people who weren’t silly enough to become teachers, and instead ended up in law, government, medicine, and other places of relevant affluence and influence. Our brothers and sisters in unions like SEIU are starting much farther back.

For now, here is what I tell my students: If you have younger siblings who are shopping for schools (and thus parents who are likely worried about family finances), then on every visit to every campus, brother/sister should keep asking “What percentage of your undergraduate courses are taught by full-time faculty?” until they get an answer, then follow up with “And what percentage of your total budget goes directly to undergraduate instruction?” Rebecca Schuman is right: The managers of American schools will begin caring about undergraduate education (as opposed to undergraduate gyms and stadiums) real goddamn fast if their customers start refusing to pay for cynical, rickety, adjunct-dependent bullshit.

Friday Night Links

No rambling original ruminations on literature tonight, only some great links with competent commentary. Stay safe this weekend. Read too much.

  • From the LA Review of Books, a concise, perceptive review of the latest volume of Hemingway’s letters. Published by Cambridge University Press, this is Volume 2 (of a projected sixteen!), and according to Joshua Kotin it is beautiful even though it doesn’t “fundamentally alter our understanding of Hemingway or his art or modernism or American literature[.]” These missives “complement, rather than revise, the mythologies cultivated and analyzed by countless artifacts — novels, memoirs, films, biographies, and, of course, Hemingway’s own writing,” he argues, concluding that while “the letters are wonderful; they are not crucial.” My favorite part of the review is the end, where Kotin speculates on the possibility of a database containing all the networks of responses between cultural potentates from the Modernist era, a “complete letters of modern art.” 
  • Historian Jill Lepore once again graces The New Yorker. This time she writes about Roger Ailes (Fox News’ begetter), William Randolph Hearst (the early-twentieth-century jingoist publishing magnate), and American tastes in news. The piece will introduce you to the fantastically named Cora Baggerly Older (Hearst’s official biographer) and her husband Fremont Older. Fremont Older!
  • Do hubcaps serve a purpose? No, they do not. So does my beloved forest-green 1995 Camry need to stop flowing with the mysterious black wheels? No, it does not. Thanks as always, Car Talk, for the clarity: you should have won some Pulitzers.
  • Pacific Standard on the continuing water horror in West Virginia. Turns out that allowing your state regulatory infrastructure to decay is a very bad idea. Read about this right now if you haven’t already done so. America gets her coal from often-incompetent companies that poison Appalachia, one of America’s treasures, and too many Appalachians, especially rich dumbasses with ties to those companies, keep helping. I grew up in a VA/West VA border town called Covington, deep in enormous tracts of National Forest land, and I knew some ghastly water there. The town sits on the Jackson River, which feeds Virginia’s freshwater mainline, the James River; and the Westvaco (now MeadWestvaco) paper mill sits on Covington. As the Commonwealth of Virginia officially puts it, “There is a two mile segment, from the water treatment plant in Covington to City Park in Covington[,] that is legally navigable, but is not recommended for recreation due to heavy industry.” When I lived there in the 1990s, the mill—most people just called it “the mill”—was Covington’s biggest employer, even though it was (and still is) shrinking its workforce, thanks to progressive automation and the willingness of other nations to host paper-pulp facilities that produce incredible amounts of toxic waste. The size of the plant is staggering: as a teenager I would drive up the wide street on the bluffs across from its holding ponds and light towers, and pretend I was sneaking past the Death Star. Above Covington is some of the sweetest fly fishing in the eastern United States. Below the mill, the oily river smells like frog guts. Maybe things have gotten better since I left for college. But probably not, given Virginia’s light-regulation ethos and the fact that the Bush administration had a decade to hollow out the EPA. Please leave a comment if you have some news.
  • Just look at this Miller Lite TV spot from the mid-1990s. In case you miss the subtitle at the beginning, that silver-haired gentleman is Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, a satyr (according to Wikipedia he “was known for studying his playbook by the light of a nightclub jukebox and for his affinity for female fans”) who quarterbacked the Raiders to a Super Bowl win in 1977, and the guy in the comfy shirt is Dan Fouts, the most successful bearded quarterback in NFL history. (He wasn’t all that successful.) A suburban eatery? Bottled swill? Well-compensated passive-aggressive male companionship? Off-camera lady voice? Floppy shirt collars? This one has it all.
  • Amy Clampitt is a solid poet. Not enough people read her work. Here is a link to one of her poems, “Vacant Lot With Pokeweed.” Go there. It is brief and will make your weekend better, I promise.

Sunday Links

Sorry it’s been a little while since I last posted. The eating and lazing about of the holidays were really taxing. If you’re still recovering from that kind of exertion, you can at least exercise your brain by reading some of the following pieces:

  • Many of the pundits on my Twitter feed are still discussing/making fun of David Brooks’ editorial about how his teenage pot use made him wary of the successful movements in Colorado and Washington to at least decriminalize the possession of a plant. This comes not too long after another Brooks piece caused Twitter to get all twitterpated because he frankly trounced Tom Scocca in the snark/smarm debate. His pot piece is evocative, but it’s also nicely illustrative of the blind spot many middle-class white Americans have about weed laws: for one segment of society, marijuana possession has been de facto legal for a long, long time. They take for granted that the worst results of smoking dope are productivity losses and “moral decay” (clutch your pearls, America), ignoring that the poor and non-whites have to worry about doing hard time for getting high. David Brooks is the voice of the people whose biggest concern is embarrassing themselves during a class presentation, and putting that perspective on display is a useful reminder that paternalism is the default political mode of both the rich right and left.
  • Noah Millman, the liberal art and culture critic on the staff of The American Conservative, has done something fun for the start of the new year. Instead of giving us “25 Movies to Look Forward to in 2014,” as so many other publications have done, he’s asking us to look back, and not just at 2013, which was an amazing year for film. His list of films to see again is almost all gems, but more importantly it accords with how most of us consume media now. The new is often too expensive, especially when so much of the old is available at the press of a button and for pennies a view. And art changes as we age. Every year I read The Great Gatsby to understand what my values and priorities are and how they are shifting. It’s a slightly new book each time, because I am a slightly new man with each passing year. One film I intend to revisit this year is Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, which I probably haven’t seen in 10 years. I’ve always been a huge Woody Allen fan, but I remember simultaneously enjoying and not totally understanding this move when I saw it at 21. Maybe now’s the time. What movies will you re-watch in 2014? Tell us in the comments section, or on Twitter!
  • Ryan and I have probably expended too much virtual ink on the subject of what’s wrong with higher ed, but a couple recent pieces are worth noting, as they both compare the bleak future of university education to mass retail culture. Timothy Pratt’s Atlantic article on the ways in which credentialism is fundamentally changing the bachelor’s degree isn’t terribly original, but it contains a money quote from Boston College’s Karen Arnold: “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate.” Not to be outdone, Gabriel Kahn at Slate dubs Southern New Hampshire University “the Amazon of higher education,” where students are customers, and where online degree students prop up what was once a failing brick and mortar college. If you’ve been reading TGR for the past few months, you know what my rather un-PC prescription is for this ailment: we need to radically overhaul K-12 to make it much more rigorous so that going to college isn’t necessary for people who have no interest in doing so. At 18, you should be able to go out in to the “business world” and get a job that will eventually lead you to a comfortable life if you work hard. You shouldn’t have to take online or in-person classes that you don’t care about in order to be middle class. It’s a waste of your money and time, and it takes away resources from people who actually do want to be in college. In a saner, more egalitarian economy, we’d have many fewer colleges, many fewer college professors, many fewer grad students and adjuncts, and many fewer college graduates, because people would have the freedom to pursue what actually interests them. I’m aware that none of this will happen, but I’m sick of watching Silicon Valley, Washington DC, Wall Street, state governments, and university administrators like the guy at SNHU (though he’s hardly unique) destroy traditional education and drive young people deeper and deeper into debt and despair for degrees that aren’t worth the virtual paper they’re not written on.
  • Finally, a bit of shameless plugging. I wrote a review of James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for Southern Spaces. Read it if you like. I am also currently working on a review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave for the same publication, so stay tuned!

This is Criminal

Matt Yglesias catches a lot of flack from folks on both the Right and the Left for everything from his faulty prose to his sometimes ill-conceived ideas. I will admit to finding Yglesias’s work occasionally too rich-kiddy Neoliberal for my tastes, but there’s a reason he’s been paid to write about economic policy by many publications for as long as he has: he’s very good at quickly getting to what’s important. His latest piece on unemployment insurance is a perfect example of this. If reading this simple take on what the Ryan-Murray budget will do to the long-term unemployed doesn’t make you want to move to Sweden (or Switzerland), I don’t know what will.

It is especially important for articles like this to make the rounds in the wake of Rand Paul’s odious suggestion that we should cut off unemployment benefits after 28 weeks to light a fire under the lazy 47%ers who are mooching off the system (and voting Democrat). Rand Paul mouthing off like this is not surprising, but given his father’s bizarre appeal to a small segment of young voters, it is worth worrying about. Paul the Younger is a major voice within the GOP and presumptive candidate for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination. In his mind, ending unemployment is really just a question of eliminating the pretty minimally humane incentives we extend to people who happened to get thrown off the electric kool-aid acid bus of capitalism. It’s unemployment insurance that’s preventing these people from bootstrapping themselves into the middle (and may even the upper!) class. This is nonsense, and many smart people have said as much, but it’s important that sites like Slate, which caters to younger readers, put things as bluntly as possible:

Mailing unemployment insurance checks to people who aren’t so much unemployed as unemployable is obviously not an ideal public policy. But simply doing nothing for them is cruel and insane… We’re going to do nothing. We’re going to tell people to go out and look for work, even though employers looking to hire can still afford to be very choosy and generally refuse to even consider the long-term unemployed as job applicants. The country failed these people first by letting the labor market stay so slack for so long that they became unhirable, and now we’re going to fail them again.

Matt Yglesias may not be the prose stylist David Foster Wallace was, but he doesn’t have to be in order to point out the cruel insanity that’s ruling the Republican Party, and that’s apparently infected the Democrats as well. People who can’t find work are simply screwed under this new budget, and if folks like Rand Paul get their way, anyone unlucky enough to be unemployed for even six months (and I know many people who’ve experienced this) will be too.

Snark, Smarm, and Rhetorical Correctness

I’ve been finding it difficult to watch The Daily Show lately. I used to catch it all the time, but now I can’t even get through a half a clip online. It’s not that John Stewart isn’t funny (he is), and it’s not that I disagree with the show’s politics (I’m more or less sympatico with their brand of liberalism). The show just doesn’t do it for me anymore. According to Tom Scocca, this may be evidence that I’m a smarmy, smarmy man.

Let me explain. Scocca’s got a long article up at Gawker that defends “snark” as a legitimate response to “smarm.” Here are his definitions of both terms:

The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what “snark” may be. But it’s an attitude, and a negative attitude—a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of “snark” on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer.

…The decade that followed did little to clear up the trouble; if anything, the identification of “snark” gave people a way to avoid thinking very hard about it. Snark is supposed to be self-evidently and self-explanatorily bad: “nasty,” “low,” and “snide,” to pick a few words from the first page of David Denby’s 2009 tract Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. (I bought the Denby book used for six bucks, to cut him out of the loop on any royalties.)

……………………………………….

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

…Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.

Scocca goes on to give a ton of examples of smarminess in action, and he’s particularly hard on Dave Eggers, David Denby, and conservatives in both major political parties (poor Joe Lieberman gets just roasted–as well he should). In some respects, “On Smarm” is in the tradition of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” DFW’s “Tense Present” and Bromwich’s “Euphemism and American Violence” in that tries to explain problems in our culture by looking at what is happening to our language. But Scocca doesn’t focus on the words and rhetorical devices we use, but rather on what we say to each other about who has the right to say what they say the way they say it. Got all that?

As a denunciation of smarm, the essay is great. Like Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy, “On Smarm” sees the desire for respectability as the impetus for both smarm’s misdirection, and for smarmers’ attacks on snark and the snarky. What the essay fails to really deal with though is the fact that both snark and smarm are forms of irony, though irony employed in very different ways and for very different purposes. Stephen Colbert combines both forms into one character  as he snarks a smarmy game in order to make the smarm of the right apparent to his respectable liberal audience, who already feel the way he wants them to feel, but who enjoy getting to laugh snarkily anyway. Is this joke even funny anymore?

So yes, smarm is fought with snark, which gives birth to more smarm. The snark-smarm cycle ad infinitum. I hate smarm too. Every time someone gets misty-eyed when using words like “liberty,” “freedom,” “equality,” or “democracy” without explaining what they mean, I want to barf. They’re just abstractions masquerading as facts. People should be asked to define their terms, pressed for hard evidence to back up their assertions, and called out when their real motives become clear. Snark is one way of doing this. But it’s evasive and gives the snarker the out of saying that he was “just kidding.” It probably isn’t the most effective way if what you actually want to do is convince the people you’re calling out to be less smarmy. And if you believe that some groups of people are inherently smarmy, and therefore not worth engaging directly, aren’t you making an argument remarkably similar to the one Mitt Romney made about the “47%?”

Near the end of “On Smarm” though, things make more sense. This hasn’t really been a defense of snark or a hit piece on smarm. No, it’s about Scocca’s irritation with people he finds irritating dismissing the “little” people who criticize them. These last few paragraphs are frankly hard to read:

Recall that what set Eggers off, in his exchange with the Advocate, was the letter writer’s impolite reference to “selling out.” Him? Dave Eggers? He was getting the money he needed—deserved—to pursue the brave and thrilling projects he picked out for himself (Tom Peters: “A project-based world is ideal for growing your brand… Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in projects”). He was giving money away to charities. How dare some snotty college kid cast aspersions on the success he had made?

Why, the whole idea of selling out was a terrible, bitter lie, told by “wimps” to justify their wimpiness. That was a peculiar position to take if you had just lived through the ’90s, as Eggers had, a decade that saw Disney eat Miramax and Creed sell more copies of its first two albums than Nirvana had sold of Bleach and Nevermind. But again, Eggers wasn’t making a point. He was taking an attitude. He was naming an enemy…

…Above (or beneath) it all, they are little. Eggers writes of his former critical self, “I was a complete, weaselly little prick.” He asks: “What kind of small-hearted person wants an artist to adhere to a set of rules, to stay forever within a narrow envelope which we’ve created for them?” He answers, and answers, and answers: “the lazy and small … small and embittered … narrow-hearted … the tiny voices of tiny people.”

The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.

Yes, everyone is the same size on their bullshit mattresses, but Dave Eggers is a more successful writer than I (or Scocca) will ever be. More people will read what Eggers has written. He’s made a lot of money off his writing. And even though I teach kids to write clearly for a living, Dave Eggers has probably done more to help kids write through his 826 Valencia projects than I have in teaching composition classes. And that’s fine. I still feel free to critique his work, but I don’t expect him to care, and I wouldn’t expect him to hold his tongue if something particularly dickish I said got back to him. Why should he if we’re just two similarly-sized people?

And you can add “selling out” to that earlier list of vomit-inducing words. (Seriously, what the hell is he talking about with that living through the ’90s stuff?) Scocca’s piece is really a long way of telling us that he would never sell out like the smarmers he snarks on. Which is absolutely perfect given that the kind of snarky negative criticism he would like to see more of (and that I have totally written myself–might even be writing right now) is always more about the critic than the idea, text, or person being criticized. So what have we learned? Tom Scocca is not smarmy and will never sell out. I feel better knowing this. Honestly.