The Square Circuit

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

Monday, October 31, 2005

up or down

Funny how, now that they got rid of Harriet Miers, the Republicans have again pulled out that old "up or down vote" rhetoric they used back in May about the Federal court nominees. Nobody there was spoiling for an "up or down vote" once Harriet showed up! The Note makes some fearless predictions about this fight—he sees it culminating at State of the Union time. If they've grown a little more spine over the last few months (and I'm thinking they may have, now that Bush is so much weaker), I think this is a fight the Dems might be able to win. Viva Borking—let's make clear just what kind of a nation these people want, just how determined they are to rescind ordinary peoples' right to use the law to protect them from being abused by the wealthy and the powerful.


Spent the weekend in Las Vegas with grad-school friends. I'm not a Vegas person; I don't really gamble except (rarely) on sports and horses. (This disappoints the wife, who is an enthusiastic and more than competent gambler.) Good time nonetheless. The timing was good, because the boy has reverted to old habits and started waking before 5:30am. It's not often that one goes to Las Vegas and gets MORE sleep than he would have at home, but that was the case for me. Leaving again this weekend for a professional conference. I hope the boy starts sleeping later.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Fitzmas Coming Late This Year?

It's beginning to feel like the year there almost wasn't a Fitzmas. As you wait, though, you can sing carols, play party games, and purify yourself.

Monday, October 24, 2005


I had originally intended this blog to focus largely on reading—my reading, in particular. I got through a lot of books this summer and was able to write about most of them. But since this semester started—no way. Up until this week I hadn't been able to get through any pleasure-reading books so far this term (I'd started a few—PICKWICK PAPERS, HERZOG), but finally plowed through Emile Zola's GERMINAL. I'm sure that the novel doesn't need my endorsement, but I'll happily give it: it's a great book. Living here in western Pennsylvania, where a group of miners were trapped underground for three days and where we had to sign a mining-subsidence waiver before buying our house, I had a special interest in this coal-mining novel, which concludes with a catastrophic, sabotage-caused flood in a northern French coal mine. GERMINAL was seen as a left-wing novel, and of course today it still would be (anything that suggests that corporations aren't devoted to their employees' welfare tends to be characterized as left-wing), but its politics are fairly innocuous. Zola is a fantastic writer; his command of detail, of scene-setting, and of tone are brilliant. I read the Penguin Classics edition, translated in 1954 by Leonard Taycock, and was a little surprised by how raw it was—both the actual story (Zola wanted to capture the acceptance of casual and even sordid sex among these destitute miners) and the language. It's 1954 British raw, but it's raw. I didn't find the translation particularly dated, but Penguin is now using a new one in the Classics series.

I picked up about 10 Zola novels in various used bookstore trips this summer and decided to start with GERMINAL. It was a good choice. Now, maybe I'll be able to get through another one over spring break.

Also read James Berlin's RHETORIC AND REALITY (a history of college writing classes) and Dwight Macdonald's THE FORD FOUNDATION: THE MEN AND THE MILLIONS (a 1956 profile of the FordFound, begun as a NEW YORKER profile). Both good and interesting. Next up on this research project: Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s THE VITAL CENTER and the anthology THE GOD THAT FAILED, both non-communist leftist books from 1949.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

public diplomacy and the "reality-based community"

Karen Hughes, the local TV reporter turned undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, inexplicably picked to persuade Arab nations that the U.S. really is a good guy, has been visibly reaching the limits of her competence. In a recent meeting with Indonesian students, Hughes made a mistake that would seem minor only if it didn't so clearly exemplify some of the most significant problems with the Bush administration's way of communicating with the world--and, in fact, its very ability to understand the world outside of its own boardrooms and conference calls.

The NEW YORK TIMES reported Saturday that Hughes told this group of students that Saddam Hussein killed "hundreds of thousands" of his own citizens with chemical weapons, and it was that kind of behavior that justifies the war. Unfortunately for Hughes, her claim just isn't true. Hussein's chemical attacks killed more like 5000; 300,000 is the generally accepted figure for Iraqis that Hussein killed overall.

Now, this seems pretty minor. Hussein was a butcher, and he did use chemical weapons. But it was Hughes' response that is most interesting. As she said,

---"It's something that our U.S. government has said a number of times in the past. It's information that was used very widely after his attack on the Kurds. I believe it was close to 300,000," Hughes said when questioned the first time. She added, "That's something I said every day in the course of the campaign. That's information that we talked about a great deal in America."

When asked again several minutes later, she said, "I think it was almost 300,000. It's my recollection. They were put in mass graves."---

Her spokesperson "clarified" her responses later in the day.

Here's the problem. This so clearly demonstrates the divide between what an unnamed Bush admin official, in a NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE article in 2004, called the "reality-based community" and the Bushies. If you didn't read the article, here's the memorable quote:

---The aide said that guys like [Ron Suskind, the writer] were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''---

Back when things were going well for the Bushies, this was true. Postmodernists to the core, they believed that reality WAS what they said it was--that Kerry was a traitor, that Hussein and bin Laden plotted together, and that as long as they could persuade gullible people of those ideas then they would become sufficiently "true." Now that the wheels are coming off the bus, we get incidents like this one. Hughes' version of reality is this: "That's something I said every day in the course of the campaign."

But as they're learning now, even the most committed postmodernist is occasionally confronted by the need to, as Fredric Jameson put it, "always historicize."

Monday, October 17, 2005

goats and sheep

goats and sheep
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
His first petting-zoo experience. Didn't really get the "petting" part. Or the "feed the animals" part. He did enjoy flinging grain onto the backs of his ovine admirers.


Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
On the bright side, the family came to visit this weekend. We took the boy out to Trax Farms, just south of the city, to feed goats and climb on large piles of pumpkins.

Am I wrong in thinking that this kid's got a little Steve McQueen in him? Apart from the demanding a series of kisses when he bumps his forehead, of course.


They both appeared this weekend in Philadelphia, at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. Santorum delivered a football metaphor for his work in Washington: "You didn't elect a senator from Pennsylvania to get out in Washington and sit on the sidelines. You wanted us to suit up with the pads on and take on the big issues that confront us not just in Washington but across the globe." Casey stuck to the economy.

Increasingly, this is looking like the big race in 2006, and Santorum is quickly deserting Bush's sinking ship, questioning him on Harriet Miers and even on Iraq (although on that last topic, Santorum appears to be seeking credit for questioning Bush without ever actually questioning him. It's a simulacrum of critical thinking!).

Santorum: according to the Philadelphia INQUIRER, "one of the finest minds of the 13th century."

vacation in belgrade?

The house is getting painted. Swamped at work. Deadlines. It's enough to make me want to take a vacation in Belgrade. Fortunately, my friend Seth seems to know the best places to go. Who wants to party with Ratko Mladic?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

willful ignorance?

I was somewhat shocked today at the enormous ignorance of an average group of our freshmen. I was sitting in on one of my instructor's classes, just an ordinary FYC class, and the reading was a definitional argument about whether captured terrorists should be treated as POWs. Pretty standard stuff, for the most part, and it was a good essay for what it did. The instructor led the students in a discussion of the form of the argument--does it propose a credible definition of POW, does it lay out criteria for the definition, does it support those criteria with examples and respectable sources, etc. The instructor was trying to get them to wrestle with the complication of whether or not, if the terrorist is NOT a POW, we can torture for ticking-bomb information, but he got nowhere. They just couldn't engage because they just had no idea what he was talking about. They stared blankly and unresponsively at the following questions:

What is the Taliban?
Why are we concerned with the treatment of prisoners?
What country did we attack before Iraq?
What has happened recently about prisoner abuse?
What is Guantanamo Bay?
What is Abu Ghraib?
Has the question of war prisoners been important recently? How?

No comprehension, and no real interest. This is why, according to a Dec. 2003 Gallup poll, 53% of people thought that Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11/01. It's amazing that this group of kids, many of whom certainly have friends and family members serving in Iraq, know little and appear to care even less about what has been going on over there.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

october in academia

I'm absolutely swamped at work, as is everyone else--there's something about October, like about February, that is just brutal for academics. I'm overburdened by committee work, of all things; it's the one aspect of academic life that has never really been a factor for me, but this year I'm on about twelve committees that are all trying to get something done. Teaching, usually the real drag on my time, is flying by this term because I've got two great groups that are involved, interested (for the most part), and well prepared. And the third leg of the triumverate? Research is going s-l-o-w-l-y, although I did manage this week to convince the archivists at the Ford Foundation to release some documents I've been bugging them about for months.

I'll be teaching an advanced writing class in the spring, and I'm musing having the class do a unit on interactive writing and blogging. Do I want to propagate this form?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Santorum poll

Today's Post-Gazette has a story about a Quinnipiac poll that, among other interesting facts, has Bush's approval rating at 37% and also shows Santorum trailing Casey badly. We're way out from the election, of course, and things change, but I do like this:

" In a trial heat against his anticipated opponent next year, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., Mr. Santorum trailed by the daunting margin of 52 to 34 percent." yesterday ran an interesting piece by Sidney Blumenthal (yes, a Democratic operative) arguing that the seams in the formerly seamless Republican operation (judiary-executive-legislative-lobbying-corporations-churches) are coming apart. Blumenthal takes it on faith that Rove is, in fact, the one figure at the center of everything, and that he may be about to go down. I'll believe that when I see it, but it is nice to see the dominoes falling: deLay, the White House procurement chief David Safavian, Abramoff, Frist, Libby, Rove, etc. Let's see if they stay down.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

pickup hoops

I'm a pickup basketball player, and I play in noon games at work and then at a local rec center once a week. I've been a devoted pickup ball player for almost ten years now. Being an aging, not particularly athletic or talented basketball player has its drawbacks, but mostly it's good fun (until the other ACL snaps). A friend of a friend has a great blog chronicling his pickup ball adventures: Setshot. Check it out.

Monday, October 03, 2005

legislating from the bench

It's been interesting to see how the Bush Administration and its Congressional apologists have been using language to prepare for the next Supreme Court confirmation battle. Three key terms—"strict constructionist," "judicial activist," and "not legislating from the bench"—are already recurring here in a way we didn't see with Roberts, who had much more impressive credentials than Miers. These terms were originally popularized during the battle over segregation, when Southern politicians were infuriated by the Warren court's Brown v. Board of Ed decision and then by its consistent upholding of desegregation orders. Their opposition was largely based on the calculus of racism, of course, and came cloaked in the term "states' rights." But as the Republicans developed their "Southern strategy" of winning over Southern Democrats by appealing to their racial animus, they found it useful to come up with a term for the kind of jurisprudence they disliked that didn't have the racist inflection of "states' rights."

Ronald Dworkin, the legal scholar, points out in a 1972 article that Nixon endorsed "strict constructionism," a term that meant essentially anything the speaker wanted it to, but generally has been used by the Republicans to indicate never deviating from the "proper" meaning of the Constitution—"proper" of course meaning squaring with Republican policy desires.

"Judicial activism," probably the most popular and enduring of these terms, suggests that judges—who we feel should be properly cloistered at the bench, allowed only to judge and never to act—are making law themselves. Of course, the nature of "activism" is in the eye of the beholder. Many conservatives point to the overruling of precedents and the invalidation of laws as "activism," pointing to Roe v. Wade (abortion) and Griswold v. Connecticut (birth control) and neglecting to mention that condemnation of "activist judges" really began in earnest with Southern resistance to desegregation. However, the New York Times pointed out that Clarence Thomas has proven more likely than any other Justice to overrule laws. In the view of those who use this popular but misleading term, it's only when one overrules a law that one LIKES that one becomes an "activist."

Finally, the term "legislate from the bench" is essentially synonymous with "judicial activist," just in verb form. When it is employed, we are supposed to nod in agreement that it is not the judicial branch's job to make laws. Again, this starts with Brown v. Board of Ed and gets really heated with Roe and Griswold and now with Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled 6-3 that states cannot outlaw sodomy.

Bush today:
And a justice must strictly apply the Constitution and laws of the United States and not legislate from the bench.
In its consideration of Chief Justice Roberts' nomination, the Senate made it clear that a well-qualified nominee committed to strictly interpret the law can be confirmed promptly and by a large, bipartisan majority.

If confirmed, I recognize that I will have a tremendous responsibility to keep our judicial system strong and help ensure that the courts meet their obligation to strictly apply the law and the Constitution.

Texas Senator John Cornyn (about the Solomon Amendment):
I’m asking you to ensure we have judges who understand the role of a judge, who believe in judicial restraint, and will act as fair, impartial referees – not legislators in robes.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

covert propaganda

Buried in the press on Friday--underneath Judith Miller's testimony, Katrina and Rita recovery news, Tom DeLay's indictment, and the Yanks-Sox showdown--was news that the Government Accountability Office ruled that the Bush administration's undercover payments to columnist Armstrong Williams to pimp their "No Child Left Behind" act were illegal and constitute "covert propaganda."

Basically, this effort (which neither began nor ended with Williams) was meant to plant favorable stories about NCLB in the press without alerting the public to the fact that these "stories" were in fact PR. They used "video news releases," prepackaged 90-second stories prepared by a PR firm (in this case, Ketchum) that look like local-news features and are sold to local news channels, to push their agenda, knowing that local station news directors often buy these stories rather than paying for reporters to conduct investigations. (The Bushies learned this from industry, especially the drug industry, who frequently sell prepackaged "news reports" about their latest discoveries: Vioxx, the miracle drug! Phen-Fen, the cure-all!) In its story, CNN put it this way:

"'Because the department's role in the production and distribution of the prepackaged news story is not revealed to the target audience, the prepackaged news story constitutes covert propaganda,' the investigators wrote."

The authors of the relevant laws felt that the government should not engage in "covert propaganda"--efforts, in which the government's own role is hidden, to control information provided to citizens in order to advance a political agenda.

They aren't always so covert about marketing NCLB, either.