Friday, November 20, 2009

Puns and us

Question: What do you call a college graduate who stays at a house that's the butt of a joke?
Answer: Alumn in a foil

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Poison trees

Residents of Chicago are by now well aware that its school board president, Michael Scott, died a couple days ago, apparently of a suicide, although the police department is still investigating the matter. It is quite touching to see the accolades and what appears to be the true and sincere sadness expressed by the elected officials who claimed Mr. Scott as a friend.

Before the death, I knew very little about Mr. Scott, save for some accusations last summer that he might have been trying to profit from the Chicago Olympics search through some real estate deal. I bring up this accusation not to speak ill of the dead; in fact, I have no idea whether the accusation is true.

Rather, I bring it up to examine more closely a disturbing tendency that I, and perhaps almost everybody else, am guilty of: feeding our own enmity toward others. In the past months, if I had thought of Mr. Scott at all, it was that he was a member of the "Richard M. Daley machine," which ever since I moved to Chicago has progressively disgusted me. So I think the "machine" is corrupt and represents part of what is wrong with Chicago. Fine. I'm entitled to my opinion as much as anyone else is.

The point is, though, the objects of my dislike--Mr. Daley, Mr. Stroger, et al.--are humans and have the right to life, liberty and happiness as much as anyone. (I used the word "dislike" because I hope "enmity" is too strong a word. But the simplest and most honestly held emotions can escalate into something not so simple and honest.)

In the hustle and bustle of politics, of charges and counter charges, of political "crusades" against our "enemies," it's easy to go too far and forget what is important in life.

We--or at least I--should remember that. There are people, some of whom used to be close friends and others who I have never been friends with, who I dislike very strongly. It is important to resist the tendency to enmity, and if the tendency cannot be easily resisted, at least it must be acknowledged for what it is: something dangerous. If anything bad were to happen to the people I claim to dislike, I would--at least I hope I would--be saddened at that person's suffering.

The evil of enmity is that it blinds us to others' suffering. In its less pure form, it merely blinds us to the possibility of suffering. Therefore a tragic event like the death of Mr. Scott--as a result of which Mayor Daley started tearing up during a news interview--brings me back to my senses. In its purer form, enmity blinds us to suffering itself, or leads us the wrathful to rejoice in the suffering of others. That is something I would like to work against.

It is helpful to remember what William Blake wrote a couple hundred years ago:
A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
UPDATE(11-19-09): I edited this post today to clarify some things. I have also changed the title of the post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Plausible misinterpretations

In a post a while back (here), I suggested that a student who misinterprets A. E. Houseman's poem, "Is My Team Plowing"--by saying that it suggests Houseman's belief in immortality--might have indulged in a "plausible misinterpretation." In that post, I pointed out how a student might have arrived at that interpretation. I'd like to generalize on that and suggest that instead of dismissing students' misinterpretations outright, it is helpful to find out ("interrogate") why and how students arrived at that misinterpretation.

(I am, of course, assuming that it is possible to misinterpret a poem or piece of literature--or any other "text," for that matter. I am not one of those who believes that "all interpretations are valid." To be honest, I'm not sure I know a whole lot (or even half a lot) of post-modernists or post-structuralists who really believe that, either. Even if one believes that all interpretations are valid, one ought to at least acknowledge that certain interpretations jive better than others with what is written.)

Let's take a misinterpretation that I was once guilty of. In a course on US Constitutional Law I took as an undergraduate, the professor challenged us to find any place in the document that stated that the President and Vice President must be of the same party. As there is no such statement anywhere in the document to that effect, the professor was speaking more or less rhetorically.

However, that didn't stop me from raising my hand. He called 0n me and I claimed the twelfth amendment made such a provision. The professor made me read the entire amendment aloud and told me to stop when I came across the provision that so required the President and Vice President to be of the same party. (FYI, the 12th amendment is one of the longer ones.) When I got to
...and they [electors] shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President...
I stopped, believing I had "proved" my point. Yet the professor told me to keep reading, and I had to read the whole darned thing aloud. Afterward, he challenged me where the provision was. Being a bit intimidated, I withdrew my contention that the 12th provided that the Pres and VP be of the same party.

I was, of course, wrong. There is nothing in the 12th, or any other amendment, that even recognizes the existence of political parties, let alone explicitly requires the President and Vice President to be members of the same party. But why did I say what I did?

It wasn't ignorance of the actual wording of the Constitution. I was a bit of a geek as an undergrad and had read the Constitution several times. I was also a history major and had at least a serviceable grasp of the history of the early republic era of the US.

In fact, it was my knowledge of US history that led me to believe the 12th "required" that the President and VP be of the same party. I knew that the amendment was passed and ratified in large part to avoid the spectacle of having a Vice President serve under a President he had run against in the election. In the prior way of doing things, the winner of the majority of electoral votes gained the presidency and the runner-up gained the vice presidency. Yet in 1796, the winner (John Adams) and runner-up (Thomas Jefferson) were bitter enemies. And Thomas Jefferson, whatever his virtues, did a lot to purposefully undermine the administration of his superior.

One result of the enactment of the 12th amendment was to make the election of partisan rivals to the Presidency and Vice Presidency much less likely. Once the "second party system" arose in the late 1820s and early 1830s, would-be presidents could run on what amounted to a ticket with a fellow member of the same party.

I was, I repeat, wrong in saying that the 12th required the President and VP to be of the same party. And my reasoning was faulty. But it was not wholly faulty. It was wrong to say that the 12th "required" that outcome. It was probably also wrong to say that that outcome was necessarily the result of the 12th (the idea of a party system and the actual formation of political parties were much more complicated and even antedated the 12th amendment). But I was not wholly wrong.

This particular situation was probably good for me. Anyone who knew me as an undergrad probably would know that I needed to be humbled. So I don't particularly begrudge this incident.

However, students often have reasons for arriving at the conclusions that they do, even when the conclusions are clearly wrong. Instead of dismissing those conclusions out of hand, it might be helpful to explore with the student and the class why the student arrived at the conclusion he or she did.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Irrationality and health care reform

It is probably no secret to the very small number of people who read my blog that I support the Democratic health care reforms being bandied about. Yet I sometimes fear my desire to see the reform approved clouds me from some serious objections to the plan.

I realize that the major criticisms of the plan I'm aware of--1) a mandate is somewhat problematic and 2) the plan would not really address costs--have some validity. At the same time, I refuse to listen to these criticisms, or I brush them aside in my enthusiasm to see something done that would result in most people getting insurance.

One might not know it from the quality of my writings, but I am, I believe, a very rational, systematic thinker. Yet on this issue I have a hard time being rational.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is The Sun Also Rises antisemitc?....some preliminary thoughts

One of my all-time favorite novels is Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. But one of the main characters of the novel, Robert Cohn, is built around an antisemitic stereotype, and most of the other characters indulge in antisemitic assaults against Cohn. (Hollywood's version politely excised most of the antisemitic references.) For a cataloguing of the antisemitic instances, see this website (it's not comprehensive, but it at least gives an overview).

Is it accurate to call this novel "antisemitic"? I really don't have a firm answer.

It seems to me that the antisemitism of the novel is more than just incidental. In other words, I think the story depends on the antisemitic tropes and that the characters' antisemitism is integral to who they are. The story wouldn't be the same story without the antisemitism. (In contrast, there is a little bit of anti-black racism as well. The narrator and main character, Jake Barnes, uses the "n" word several times to describe black people. In my view, those instances could probably be excised from the book without changing the main flow of the story while excising all the antisemitic references would substantially change the story.)

One of the arguments against calling the novel antisemitic--and an argument which I've read somewhere, but cannot right now find the citation for--is that Hemingway was merely detailing a group of wasp-ish people for whom antisemitism was a matter of course. By this argument, the antisemitism of the novel would be comparable to the racism in any novel about racists. If an author's characters are racist, he or she has to portray them saying racist things. And, of course, The Sun Also Rises is written in the first person, so it's hard, if not impossible to tease the racism of the narrator (Jake Barnes) from the racist message, if any, of the novel.

Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that the antisemitism in the novel is more than just a character representation. I, however, cannot put my finger on it.