Paula: I am curious to have your take on the recent incident in which Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor of African-American Studies, was arrested by the Cambridge police as he tried to push open the door of his home, which was stuck, after returning from a business trip. I am unsure as to whether he was arrested because he was suspected of breaking into the home or whether he became disorderly when he thought he was being accused of doing this.
Whatever actually happened, the police officer involved clearly pushed Gates’s buttons. [Read more →]
Paula: We’ve talked about how the election of Barack Obama has changed the temper of race relations in this country. You’ve said you felt it. So have I. Obviously, the iconic value of the presidency means a lot. But I also think that much of our capacity to incorporate change in this country comes from our devotion to movies, which have taught us to see life in terms of simple dramatic narratives of change.
The dramatic narrative of Obama’s election is in the tradition of a Hollywood movie. [Read more →]
Robert: I have to say, Paula, the public outcry over the ridiculous bonuses to AIG executives strikes me as long, long overdue. I think Americans have reacted to brutal business practices sort of the way some women react to abusive men: They can’t help it. It goes with the territory. [Read more →]
Paula: I want to discuss the quality of student writing. Since both of us have taught for a long time, it seems to me something we can address. I have to say that I’m confused when I hear people as diverse as merchants in the stores I frequent and women at the gym I go to gripe about how badly kids write nowadays. I happen to think that they write better, in certain respects at least, than they ever have before. Yes, they don’t always understand comma usage, but they do seem capable of writing, when they want to, with fluency and verve. You’ve taught your share of writing courses, Robert — what do you think?
Robert: The gripes you mention are definitely a pet peeve of mine. I think society is ignorant about the nature of writing and what it means to write well. There is a widespread belief that good writing is all about knowing where to place a comma, knowing the various parts of a sentence. This misconception comes on top of a recurrent and strange tendency each generation has of insisting that the writing of the successive generation has deteriorated.
I remember talking with my optometrist a while back (he’s just one of many examples), and he asked me what I did for a living. I said I teach freshman writing in college, at Drexel. “Oh, that must be a really difficult job.” I may have laughed nervously or something, but I wanted to say, “Not for the reasons you think, buddy.” The reason my job is hard is because grading papers (I teach four courses a term) is exhausting. It’s not hard because student writing “is bad.” [Read more →]
Robert: One subject not much talked about in these days of Presidential transition is the role of Michelle Obama. She was one of the reasons for Obama’s strong appeal to black people. Black women really like her and the idea of her. They love that Barack “did not marry white,” and “did not marry light.”
I’m hoping that the black community, with all of our family problems, draws some inspiration from Michelle and Barack Obama and their children. There are kids in tough city neighborhoods who basically don’t know anyone who has a father, particularly a married father, living at home with his wife and children. Symbolism cannot overcome entrenched social trends and problems, but I’m hoping black people find a way to build upon the fact that we have some black “Cleavers” in the white house. (I’m also hoping that Obama’s tenure will help black people feel more OK about being self-critical. One of the worst aspects of having an administration in power that seems hostile is that it leads people to be so defensive. I’m also hoping that Obama’s election leads to people recalibrating expectations, such that they aspire for more, for higher positions, better positions in the work place and in public office.)
Paula: I agree that the Obamas represent a seemingly exemplary model of family life, not just for black people but for all people. The relationship of the parents (so well matched and mutually respectful), the feisty but essentially obedient children, the sense of a loving, supportive, structured home — all this appears to be there and is what we, who have families, aspire to. But I have to admit to occasionally feeling that the Obamas look too good to be true — like the Cosbys or, going back in time, like the Cleavers. [Read more →]
Paula: All this fuss over this Governor of Illinois’s corruption. Just indict the guy and be done with it; it’s not the first time we’ve seen some corruption in high places and won’t be the last. What really gets me is how in the same breath we’re told respectfully that Caroline Kennedy has thrown in her hat for Hillary Clinton’s seat and will probably get it. Now there’s a level of entitlement, given she has no political experience and doesn’t even think she should need to run, that I find pretty unsettling.
Robert: I did not have a negative reaction to Caroline Kennedy wanting to be Senator. I figure a certain amount of celebrity and royalty is par for the course. I may be one of those folks simply dazzled by the celebrity, but the fact is that I “like” her. I have the sense that a person like her is the type of person who could make a great senator. She’ll use her celebrity for good causes.
To continue in the same line — the governor of the State of New Jersey spent $60 million of his own money to run for Senate and won. Does that bother me? No. Why? Because I think Corzine is a good guy. If I thought he were sleazy, then I wouldn’t have liked it. But I support his views and so I do. That’s essentially what goes into the way we tend to feel about these people. If we support their views and like them, we overlook the context; if we don’t, we decry it.
Paula: But that’s what appalls me. The hypocrisy — you’re admitting to it outright. [Read more →]
Robert: Paula, I’ve been afraid to write anything about the election and about the transition for fear that I would be disappointed or made a fool of for praising Barack’s achievements. But I’ll take the leap and say that I think he has handled the process marvelously. I mean, he has picked people who all seem to be really smart and really practical. He’s selected problem solvers — smart people who have “practical creativity,” as David Brooks put it in the Times.
I think the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff was an amazingly smart choice. Emanuel is one of the most energetic and practical people in Washington. Emanuel will be able to help Barack forge great relations with the Congress. He’ll know how to guide Barack through the back and forth over legislation. Emanuel is famously abrasive, but Obama is likely to smooth his edges. And some abrasiveness seems called for in a chief of staff, who has to play the bad cop to the president’s good cop. But what about that other, controversial appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State? It’s a brilliant choice, in my opinion. What do you think?
Paula: I agree with you about Obama’s impressive transition. His judgment and presentation have been so impeccable that one almost feels that he’s bound for a fall. [Read more →]
Paula: Now that the election is over and Obama has won, I wonder how much of his success can be owed to the influence of Jewish grandchildren on their grandparents. You’ve probably seen Sarah Silverman’s famed YouTube piece, The Great Schlep. The fact is, there was plenty of arm-twisting going on — I know because my daughter and her friends were very involved with getting their grandparents to vote for Obama. And he did end up winning Florida.
Robert: The idea that these grandchildren were successful in persuading the older folks to vote for Obama is startling to me. Among African Americans, there is not a sense that young people can or are supposed to persuade older folks of anything. There is a lot of faux praise of the wisdom of the elderly among African Americans. I’m not sure all this respect is “real,” but it is real to the extent that it discourages young black folks from playing this type of role with their parents. Young black folks would just do their thing in opposition to the older folks. But they wouldn’t be invited to an opportunity to sit and persuade.
Paula: On the front page of the New York Times Week in Review yesterday (Sunday, Oct. 19), there’s an article about conservatives who are deserting McCain and endorsing or at least leaning toward Obama.
The article mentions Charles Krauthammer, who criticized McCain for “frenetic improvisation” and praised Obama for his “first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.”
Also mentioned is George Will, who said in a column that McCain is acting like a “flustered rookie playing in a league too high.” And there is the endorsement of Obama by Christopher Buckley, son of the late uber-conservative William F. Buckley, he of the most intellectually effete and unruffleable manner. It seems to me that what these men are objecting to in McCain and responding to in Obama is style. [Read more →]
Paula: I just had a talk with a dear friend of mine who happens to be a Republican. She told me, in tears, that a number of her friends have dropped her because she supports McCain-Palin. They say this is incomprehensible. I seem to be able to accept that she may have another view, even though I don’t share it and can’t understand it particularly. Her gay friend said he saw it as a personal affront and I suppose others have accused her of being racist or plain stupid. Any thoughts on this?
Robert: This is indeed the conundrum of modern bourgeois life, it seems to me. We become close to people with whom we have political and religious differences and yet we’re supposed to get along [Read more →]
Paula: One thing I appreciated about George Bush’s speech last week about the government bailout was the effort to explain the crisis in simple terms. Part of what bothers me so much about the financial crisis is that I don’t understand it, something that I feel particularly insecure about. I don’t even know how to ask the questions required in understanding it.
Robert: As a former newspaper reporter, I can say that reporters live for the challenge of making anything more understandable. I think the science writers sometimes have the hardest time. But this subprime mess has reporters utterly struggling to make sense of it for a general audience. I listen to “market place,” an excellent NPR business show, and they talk about struggling to understand the crisis, not just to explain it. [Read more →]
Paula: Having read the discussion of how teaching evaluations affect tenure in universities in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I was struck by the implicit assumption on the part of the aggrieved teachers and of the reporter that it is fine to air personal political views in class — that this is part of the initiation of students into various viewpoints.
But it has always been my assumption that the role of the teacher is to hold back — at least to some degree — on personal views so as to give the students a chance to explore more objectively. I suppose this is the conventional, traditional view, though as some profs point out, the seemingly “objective” view can also be implicitly politicized.
Still, I see objectivity — or nonalignment (perhaps a better way of putting it) — as the ideal. I do think that so-called “enthusiasm” is sometimes a euphemism for zealotry. When enthusiasm is linked to a particular political position it is not a positive value in a teacher and can instead be a form of bullying and coercion — and students can rightfully resent it.
Robert: I want to challenge the premise of your statement above. [Read more →]
Robert: We have got to do another round on the use of first names in politics — whether it’s demeaning or intimate to refer to candidates that way (see first round here).
Paula: I tend to think that some degree of consistency makes sense. If you call Obama, Barack, you should call McCain, John. Since that won’t work — John is just too common a name (though for some reason that didn’t get in the way of the occasonal references to “Bill”) — then I think they both need to go by their last names.
Robert: Why does it have to be symmetrical? [Read more →]
Paula: What do you think about the tendency to label someone racist based on a particular comment or singular behavior? Is one slip of the tongue enough to make someone a racist?
Robert: I do not think it’s fair to label someone racist based on a particular comment. In fact, I see a racial gap over the meaning of allegations of racism. Not just a gap in what blacks label racist and what whites label racist (that gap is understandable). But a gap between what it means when a black person calls someone else’s speech or act “racist” vs. what white liberals and others think that means. [Read more →]
Robert: I’ve been thinking about the amazing number of online sites and magazines out there. Do you think people who write for these sites actually read the work of others on those sites? I’m sensing we’re in the “I write for it but don’t read it” era of writing and publishing. Perhaps it has always been thus. I don’t know if most contributors to academic publications read most of the work in the publications they write for … am I wrong? Yet now the proliferation of sites makes the imbalance between writing and reading more pronounced. And of course there is the question of whether there is anything wrong with this emphasis on production and writing as opposed to reading? As a teacher, I too am emphasizing writing more than reading, trying to get my students to write their way into engaging a subject. Any thoughts on this?
Paula: You raise a point that does have application to myself. I write for lots of journals, both print and online, and I certainly don’t read everything in those journals. [Read more →]
(Warning: Plot spoilers ahead)
Paula: The movie Hancock, starring Will Smith, recently opened in theaters to excellent reviews. Smith plays a surly superhero who gets “reformed” through the intervention of a good-hearted PR guy played by Jason Bateman. Bateman is married to preternaturally blonde Charlize Theron, who it turns out has been keeping under wraps the fact that she is a superhero, too. Most of the hype and resulting reviews claim the movie is no ordinary superhero movie but a kind of allegory about the problem of being human. I’m frankly puzzled. The movie struck me as an unsettling and unsatisfying amalgam of possibly racist motifs. [Read more →]
Robert: I tell you, this election season has been fun. I cannot remember having anything like this amount of fun four years ago when John Kerry was challenging George W. Bush. Was it that Kerry was boring? That Bush was also boring? Is it that the Hillary-Obama contest made following this race so interesting? Or is it fun because I’m a Democrat and the Democrats are clearly on the upswing in the polls with a Republican president at a 20-percent approval rating? The media environment is changing at warp-speed and I wonder if the further advance of the Internet has added to the fun of following campaigns.
Paula: I suppose it depends upon what your definition of fun is, to borrow some phrasing from the master of fun. Yes, I have been more stimulated to talk about this campaign than in the past, and it’s true that lunch and dinner conversations have been a lot more lively. But I wonder if there isn’t something sort of macabre, creepy really, about having so much fun parsing, comparing, teasing out meanings as they pertain to the candidates. [Read more →]
Paula: The July 15 New Yorker has as its cover a satirical sketch of Barack Obama dressed in Muslim garb beside his wife in battle fatigues, rifle, and Afro hair, reminiscent of a ’60s-style Black Panther. New Yorker editor David Remnick and cartoonist Barry Blitt say their goal was to parody the way the couple is portrayed by the right wing press. But the cartoon has upset Obama supporters who feel it reinforces prejudicial views about their candidate.
Robert: I like the New Yorker. And I don’t want to accuse them of astonishing misjudgment, but my sense is that this is an instance of astonishing misjudgment. [Read more →]