The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Compared to Tim Neverett's broadcasts of the Pirates, Bob Uecker's "Just... a little bit outside" (from MAJOR LEAGUE) is gritty realism.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gen. Michael V. Hayden Boulevard

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
Thanks, Mayor Ravenstahl! Perhaps we could rename Stanwix St. "Fredo Gonzalez Place"? The Mexican War streets could be renamed Addington, Yoo, Feith, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice!

Hey, Luke: No Honors for Torturers, Please

It's not a great week for Luke Ravenstahl, probably. During the worst snowstorm in recent memory he's absent, skiing in the Laurel Highlands. And the snow removal in the city is abysmal. My East Side neighborhood is envying Wilkinsburg and Swissvale for, well, pretty much the first time ever, and South Siders are about to take up arms and storm Grant St. Because of the city's absolute failure to provide adequate snow removal, the public schools were out all week, causing countless parents to miss work. But while I'm enraged at Ravenstahl about the snow, that's not what's really got me going about him right now.

General Michael V. Hayden—a graduate of North Catholic High School and Duquesne University—reached the highest ranks of the American national-security establishment, heading the National Security Agency under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. In 2006, Pres. Bush elevated him to direct the Central Intelligence Agency. In 2008, to honor Hayden’s accomplishments, Mayor Ravenstahl posted a “name blade” honoring Hayden at North Shore Drive and Allegheny Avenue--home of Hayden's favorite team,, the Ironers or something like that.

Unfortunately, in so honoring Gen. Hayden, Mayor Ravenstahl has given our city’s approval to some of the most illegal and immoral governmental actions in living memory. General Hayden was one of the leading enablers of President Bush’s campaign to undermine Americans’ civil liberties. At NSA, Gen. Hayden ran Bush’s illegal warrantless-wiretapping program, and at CIA Hayden oversaw illegal kidnapping, detention, and torture. What’s more, Hayden continues to publicly defend such horrific actions. Because of this, the city should rescind this honor given to Hayden and take down his honorary “name blade.”

In 2006 the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration was illegally wiretapping Americans’ phone calls without warrants, and several subsequent investigations have uncovered the full and dramatic extent of Bush’s unlawful domestic spying. Hayden’s NSA ran the program.

In his position at CIA, Hayden presided over treatment of detainees that groups from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the U.S. Army have called torture. While he can’t be held responsible for the CIA’s notorious “waterboarding” of terrorist suspects, he has defended this torture method as effective and necessary.

Hayden also oversaw the “extraordinary rendition” program of kidnapping terrorist suspects, and the network of “black site” prisons where prisoners were held incommunicado for years and tortured, in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture signed by President Reagan.

One might argue that only “the worst of the worst,” the most hardened terrorists, were subject to this illegal spying, detention, and torture. However, even a casual examination of the evidence disproves this. Tens of thousands of Americans had their phonecalls tapped and taped, in violation of Fourth Amendment protections, and countless hundreds of thousands (including many Pittsburghers) were subject to other domestic-spying programs: is there anyone, even the most conspiratorial, who thinks that many terrorists lurk among us?

Hundreds of prisoners have been released from Guantanamo, Bagram, and the “black sites” by both the Bush and Obama administrations in recognition of the fact they had been captured, held, and tortured without cause for years. Even the “rendition” program has swept up the innocent: Canadian citizen Maher Arar was taken by the CIA and tortured, then transferred to the Syrian government for more torture before the CIA finally admitted they had the wrong man. Arar is by no means alone.

The public honor that Mayor Ravenstahl gave to Hayden should be about inspiring and motivating us, representing the values we hold as a city. And while the general certainly deserves our thanks for his long service to the nation, this very rare honor should be reserved for those with accomplishments we can all admire. It’s particularly ironic that we bill ourselves as a “City of Asylum,” a city where writers persecuted by their government and exiled from their homes can go for safe haven. In honoring Hayden, we tell these political refugees that in truth we side with the secret police.

Andrew Sullivan, the conservative writer, has argued that our gradual acceptance of kidnapping, perpetual detention, and torture is not just damaging our nation’s image abroad, but chipping away at our very souls. When we honor Hayden, we tacitly give our blessing to our government’s desire to kidnap and torture in the shadows. We tell ourselves that it only happens to “them,” the “terrorists,” the less-than-human, and we refuse to confront the evidence that not only have we kidnapped and tortured human beings, we have done so to innocent human beings. We let fear tell us that we must cede our liberties to the state, and we deny the humanity of those whom the government tells us are our enemies.

I know that’s not what Pittsburghers really want to honor, no matter what Mayor Ravenstahl may think. If you agree, please stand with me and register to speak at City Council’s hearing on this matter, which will take place Monday, March 1 at 9am.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


English and foreign-language faculty positions are at their lowest level in 35 years.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

the future of books

New York Public Radio's fun show ON THE MEDIA on the future of books.


I've been waiting, in one sense, for twenty years to read Claude Levi-Strauss' TRISTES TROPIQUES, since I was one of the few people (it seemed) in my class at college not taking Anthro 100 and reading it. In actuality, I've been really wanting to read it for a few months, ever since I realized that I'm very interested (in a dilettantey way) in ethnography and anthropology and have been assigning English students ethnographies to read. When he died last month I really wanted to get to it, and finally I was able to because of a long car trip for Thanksgiving.

I don't know what I was expecting. I knew that it wasn't a traditional anthropological monograph and that it verged into autobiography and even belles lettres at times. I've also dipped into Levi-Strauss in the past--some of the structural analysis of myth stuff--and found it very tough going for an amateur. This, though, was utterly engrossing.

I'm struck most by just how clearly Levi-Strauss' book prefigures so many arguments that have come be be commonplaces in the Euro-American left but that in the 1950s, I suspect, were still obscure. A major theme in the book is humans' tendency--no matter what their culture--to use up their environment and move on, leaving physical devastation of the landscape. He describes this through his experience in Pakistan and India, which he identifies as one of the oldest civilizations on earth; through his discussion of the effect of European settlers on the Brazilian coast; and through his discussion of some of the interior Brazilian tribes with whom he lives. It's a kind of environmental awareness that could not have been widespread before the 1960s, I would imagine.

He also situates himself interestingly between Rousseau's "noble savage" argument--which he actually says has been a misunderstanding of Rousseau--and a more cold-eyed vision of what he continually calls, at least in this English translation, the "savages." His arguments of why "inequality" arises (again, here he obviously draws on Rousseau) are fascinating.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

weirdest national park attraction

My nominee: the underground of the Franklin Court buildings in Philadelphia. Franklin Court is part of the larger, dispersed Independence Park in the old part of Philly. Independence Park has the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and several other pieces to it (including one of those "living history" museums where people dress in period clothes and do period things--I love them, but my wife hates them).

Franklin Court consists of several buildings built by Franklin that housed a print shop/newspaper offices and residences. The print shop is quite cool; the rangers man the handpress and show tourists how newspapers, broadsides, and even books were printed back in the 18th century. (A bindery is in the adjoining room.) But things get just plain weird in the building just south of the newspaper office. One enters a remodeled-in-the-1970s doorway and descends a series of ramps deep underground. At each level, there's an attraction: one landing offers a display of period furniture from Franklin's time and of several items he actually owned. Descending again, visitors end up in a kind of underground control room that looks like nothing so much as a Disney's vision of the future, a kind of Surround-o-rama. On the floor is a matrix of Trimline telephones on slender posts. You quickly notice that of the approximately 40 telephone stands, about half lack phones. Picking up the phones, you realize that of the 20 existent phones, only about half of those offer a dial tone.

Accepting that 25% efficiency is probably acceptable in a federal institution, you pick up the phone and get a dial tone. Nice. Then you notice that on the wall in front of you is a list of historic notables--from John Adams to Immanuel Kant to Andrew Carnegie--and corresponding phone numbers. You seem to be in a kind of off-the-standard-grid telephone exchange, because while many of the numbers make sense (Carnegie and Mellon are reached through Pittsburgh's 412 area code and Adams through Boston's 617), others, such as Kant, have only a five-digit number. British personages you must reach by dialing their country code, though.

Picking up a working phone and dialing the number, you hear the hard "brrrrring" that used to characterize American phones but will be familiar to those who've used European phones. After a few rings, you hear the distinctly familiar (to those of us older than 30) sound of a phone being picked up off a hook, and a recording of the personage you called begins.

It's very weird. Why Trimline phones? Why the accurate area codes? Why not upgrade the place now that everyone walking in carries a cell--the rest of Independence Park offers numbers you can call for a recording describing the attraction. I found this subterranean Franklin-land indescribably charming, and it reminded me of the even then dusty vision of the future that Disneyland in Anaheim showcased when I first visited it, in 1976.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

writing classes should teach writing

Stanley Fish's latest opinion piece is very typical Fish: take a complicated thing that academics talk about in jargon, find an extreme position on it from which you can say "everyone else is fooling themselves," and then use superior powers of argumentation to blast apart the opposition. He's great at it, and reading his stuff, whether it's reader-response theory or arguments against teaching writing by using politically charged subject-matter, always makes me think much harder. He's a very smart guy.

But this piece is a straw-man argument. "My grad students, who teach writing to freshmen, don't write well. Their class syllabi show that they are having their students argue over issues rather than practicing rhetoric and grammar. Therefore, I decreed that they must teach only rhetoric and grammar." I don't understand why we can't teach rhetoric and grammar THROUGH reading and responding to and writing about controversial issues. I grant that grad students in particular aren't expert in balancing the two, in making sure that the WORK students produce for the class and the grounds on which they are evaluated must be writing, not understanding of the issues. But they are learning to teach, to fumble their way through achieving that balance. I don't think Fish is prescribing a 1920s-style writing class consisting of drills, but like I said--he loves to take the extreme position, and it's possible that that's precisely what he mandated.

The real problem is that most grad students--hell, many college English professors!--are not capable of teaching "grammar" as I think Fish means the term. Of the 50 people who work for me, and who do a very good job getting students to write more clearly and more correctly and more effectively for an academic audience, I bet fewer than 10 could identify an appositive or explain a nonrestrictive clause or describe a linking verb. Nobody gets that in the public schools anymore, they don't get it in college or grad school (even in ed schools!), so how can we expect them to teach it? It's impractical and really not possible to train them in the basics of English grammar in three pre-semester days of training, so I suppose that incoming TAs could take a year-long "Structure of the English Language and How to Teach It" class.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


I finally finished Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Wow. As many of you know, I am a sucker for the giant, messy, ultimately failed encyclopedic novel, and I'm pretty sure this is one of them. I'm just hoping it sticks with me--like V or GRAVITY'S RAINBOW--and doesn't fade into obscurity because in the end it isn't all that good--like AGAINST THE DAY. I have a book of photographs at home called something like JUAREZ, THE LABORATORY OF OUR FUTURE. It's one of these dystopian projects in which they take pictures of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and argue that all of its nastiness and violence and exploitation is what we're in for. I certainly hope not. Anyway, 2666 feels a bit like that book of photos is percolating underneath every page.