The Square Circuit

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

Friday, March 31, 2006

dada at the national gallery

We keep saying that we've got to cut down on the travelling. We were out of town for half of March, and it's starting to wear on all of us. We're running out of money and we have a baby due in June, so third-trimester travel is especially trying. But we're going to Philly in three weeks, and now I want to go to Washington DC to see the Dada exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Even though Dada is starting to show its age (90, now!), it apparently still retains its intended ability to shock, disgust, perplex, and anger. I showed my students images of famous Dada works--Duchamp's Fountain and the like--and they were annoyed at it. ("That's not art!") It's not just undergrads, either; the National Review is also irritated that Dada just isn't real art, and that the National Gallery would waste resources on it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

independent ethics office

With the brave leadership of Senator Rick Santorum, the Senate killed a move to set up an independent ethics office to monitor Senate corruption. According to the POST-GAZETTE:

"Mr. Santorum said that when outside groups have filed ethics complaints against him with the Senate ethics panel, "they're looked at seriously, we have to respond to them, and in some cases we've had to hire counsel to deal with them." But Mr. Santorum said he opposed the independent office because "to hire somebody who is a hired gun from the outside -- whose job it is to sort of 'get' senators -- I just think is corruption of the process."

Friday, March 24, 2006

kickback or laundering?

The Philadelphia DAILY NEWS reports that

"A faith-based Philadelphia group at the center of a flap over whether tax-exempt religious groups are aiding the re-election campaign of U.S. Sen Rick Santorum has won more than $250,000 in federal grant money pushed for by Santorum over the last three years. The group, the Urban Family Council — founded by well-known local conservative religious activist William Devlin — also has reaped a $10,000 grant from a controversial charity founded by Santorum, the Operation Good Neighbor Foundation. Several watchdog groups on charities or church-and-state issues say the web between the Urban Family Council and Santorum is a tangled one. The overlapping ties raise questions, they said, about a backdoor way to funnel money to political supporters outside of the closely monitored campaign-finance system."

This from the guy who the Republicans have tapped to head their internal housecleaning after the Abramoff scandals.

plagiarism in and out of FYC

I attended an interesting session at the CCCC conference yesterday on plagiarism--not on what to do about it, or how to detect it, but on complicating our ideas about it. Steve Youra of Caltech, using the controversy about the recent Korean stem-cell article (which turned out to have been both faked and unethical), discussed how authority and authorship are different in the sciences. How can we unreflectively talk about authorship as being the product of a single mind, he asks, when so many students will go into professions like medicine, engineering, and the pure sciences where multiple authorship is the norm?

Sometimes, though, things are pretty simple. The WASHINGTON POST has hired a blogger, Ben Domenech, apparently to "balance" out its online presence (conservatives don't like the White House blogger the POST's Dan Froomkin and his White House Briefing). But Domenech is according to's Joe Conanson, just a flat-out plain-old Stephen-Ambrosy plagiarist.

UPDATE: Domenech resigned today.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

south dakota and abortion

Some lefty political blog called "Taegan Goddard's Political Wire" notes that the approval ratings of South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds "plummeted" from 72% to 58% after he signed the bill banning essentially all abortions in SD. Is the 14% drop the story? Or the fact that 58% of the fine folks of SD still approve of him (and only 38% now disapprove)?

Everyone on the Web has already reprinted this, but I think I need to as well. South Dakota Republican State Senator Bill Napoli on what abortions he might potentially countenance: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

Do you think he writes these fantasies down, late at night? Eeeewww.

Those of you who don't attend church, or gave it up before marriage, you're on your own. I hear Minneapolis still has a Planned Parenthood. It's what, six hours from Sioux Falls?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

wax cylinder recordings

I think I've finally been hit by the sublimity--in the Wordsworth/Burke sense--of the power of the web. The TIMES today ran an article about the earliest days of "pop" music recordings--the wax cylinders that preceded gramophone disks, and mentioned that the University of California at Santa Barbara had digitized over 6000 wax cylinder recordings and made them available over the web.

So, as I'm preparing my lecture on popular music of the 1920s, and searching ITunes and my school's library for relevant music, I decided to check out the site. I really don't know any of the performers of the time, so I just looked up Bert Williams, a vaudeville performer who is fairly well-known because he was extremely popular and also was probably the best-known black blackface performer. I put the search terms in on my Powerbook, and in one minute I've downloaded a 1906 recording of Williams singing "Nobody," a song I've never heard of but can quickly tell is a predecessor or ripoff of "I Ain't Got Nobody." It was like being transported back into 1906, and hearing that things weren't all that different.

How difficult would it have been to hear, much less obtain a personal copy of, this recording five years ago? How much closer does this bring the past to us? I don't know if I can make this clear to my students, who not only aren't really aware of a pre-web world but have only the most rudimentary understanding of history and the difference between 50, 100, and 5000 years ago.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

walk the line

I'm a big Johnny Cash fan... have been ever since I finally got over hating my father's country music tastes, back in high school. Actually, since before then--I decided, self-servingly, that Johnny Cash wasn't "really" country--you know, wasn't like George Jones and them. (Wow. Self-delusion.) But the film WALK THE LINE is just, well, just nothing. It's one of the most clichéd films I've seen in a long time. Every scene is taken from other biopics, pretty much without alteration: the loving woman taking away her addict lover's drugs and him frantically searching; the shot of the abject, begging man coming to his senses and asking the woman for help (shot, as ever, over her shoulder and looking down on him); the stern and joyless father who doesn't understand the visionary son. (This last one was, I think, just spliced in from that KINSEY movie of a couple of years ago, which was essentially the same film.)

It's hard to maintain a positive attitude after returning to the snow and cold from ten days in Guanajuato, I guess. On the bright side, I got a batch of papers from those seniors who're reading David Brock, Rigoberta Menchú, et al., and although most were lacking to some degree, they were all promising and a few were just great. Nice to see.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

the PRI in guanajuato

I'm certainly not conversant in Mexican politics beyond knowing basically what the parties stand for, but returning from a run the other day I stumbled across what appeared to me to be an old-fashioned Mexican political tradition. I'd seen buses bringing people in from the countryside all morning, and then as I passed the PRI headquarters here in town a throng of campesinos and others were outside, and exiting the building was a crew of very urbane, very made-up looking folks. I think it was all for a visit by PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo, although I think I only saw his wife. The PRI headquarters is across the street from a large bust of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI presidential candidate who was murdered--some say on the orders of his party fellow, and then President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The PRI, as I understand it, represent machine politics at its finest, something like if the Tweed Ring ran the U.S. for sixty years.

santuario de cristo, cubilete

santuario de cristo, cubilete
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The boy and I took a long, dusty, precarious bus trip to Cristo Rey, the second-largest statue of Christ in the world. It's at the top of a mountain near Guanajuato. As you can see, it's under restoration, but still pretty impressive. I was even more impressed, though, by the flyers posted around the monument--cartoons illustrating "What Protestants might say to you."

And even in Guanajuato you can't escape the Steelers--as we sat having breakfast this morning, an expat man, hearing we were from Pittsburgh, said, "what a Super Bowl! I hear Bettis is being hired by Fox!" He also got a "Go Steewahs!" out of the boy.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The boy wants to be a singing cowboy, like his buddy Woody... here he poses with famous charro actor Jorge Negrete.

Speaking of Woody, our flight to Dallas from PIT was delayed, and with our tight connection the bags didn't make it. American Airlines did manage to get us the bags about 24 hours later, but one of them had clearly been plundered--a curling iron, a makeup bag, and most irritating, the boy's Woody doll were all missing!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

tiger glasses

tiger glasses
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
One great thing about Mexican markets: two pairs of sunglasses for $4.50.


Cox's novel is trashy... but David Brock's self-serving, self-pitying apologia pro vita sua BLINDED BY THE RIGHT is just nasty. I'm having my senior students read it in our ethics and writing class because the book is about Brock's career as a "right-wing hit man" and his eventual, some might say disingenuous, awakening to the way his employers at the AMERICAN SPECTATOR, WASHINGTON TIMES, and other right-wing publications and foundations.

Brock was a gay conservative at Berkeley in the early 1980s, and fell in with the hard-partying, obnoxious group of young right-wingers led by the DARTMOUTH REVIEW crowd. They--Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Sousza, Lisa Schifferen, and so on--gravitated to Washington and, in Brock's telling, fully joined the Movement in the failed campaign to seat Robert Bork on the Supreme Court. Brock's book tells of his work as an investigative "journalist" (well, more of an opposition-research bulldog) and author of THE REAL ANITA HILL.

It's not a fun book to read, but it's irresistible. Nobody has forgotten just how ugly the 1990s were, I hope--the Swift Boat lies were a brief reminder of what the 1990s were like all of the time--but Brock was in the middle of all those frothing-at-the-mouth Clinton haters and retells their stories gleefully, if his style leaves something to be desired. (Every new character is introduced with a sentence beginning with an appositive.) Nothing new there. But hearing how "mainstream" conservative intellectuals like Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, and David Frum were happy to spread obvious lies about the Clintons behind behind dozens of murders is a little eye-opening; I had thought they let the "extra chromosome crowd" (as Lee Atwater called them) spread those rumors.

I also enjoy reading Brock's nasty descriptions of such luminaries as Coulter, Richard Mellon Scaife, Ted Olson and his deceased wife Barbara, Pat Buckley, and Clarence Thomas. He says that Christopher Hitchens is filthy (Hitchens rebuts him here), and alleges that Matt Drudge came on to him and giggled when Brock asked about how Drudge fact-checks. I think my favorite stories, though, are about that tireless publicity hound Arianna Huffington, whose role in the Gingrich revolution he details. This is funny.

The problem is with his essential argument: that he was shocked, shocked at the level of bigotry and homophobia and misogyny in the right-wing movement. He tries to get us to believe that he thought the Reagan revolution was about freedom, strength, and classical Lockean liberalism, and that when the ugly bigotry raised its head--both before and after Brock himself came out of the closet--he distanced himself from the movement. This is utterly ludicrous. Reagan's attitude towards gays was probably a little more enlightened than his knuckle-dragging cabinet's; he'd been in Hollywood for years, after all. But he still wouldn't mention AIDS until late in his presidency. And as for bigotry? Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi (location of the MISSISSIPPI BURNING murders) with a call for states' rights. Anyone joining that movement who wasn't aware of its attitude toward women, gays, ethnic and religious minorities, and pretty much anyone who didn't profess--not necessarily live, because the movement's own figures don't live it--utter dedication to God and church and the flag and the monogamous marriage just didn't want to be aware of it.

I asked my students not to buy the book, but rather to get it from the library. I didn't want to get Brock any more money.

Brock now runs Media Matters for America, a lefty media watchdog organization.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Ana Marie Cox's DOG DAYS, which I read yesterday (can you tell I'm on vacation?), got a lot of press when it came out because Cox had successfully made herself the very naughty (and very funny) voice of Washington in her Wonkette blog. It was my favorite thing to read during those disastrous 2004 elections, especially her "Liveblogging the debates" features. Last year she left Wonkette to write this book--and, by the way, the blog has suffered terribly and misses her voice--but the research couldn't have been hard.

Although it's not brilliant, and Cox probably won't ever rise to the "literary" (whatever that means) what's good about the book is its up-to-the-second understanding of how information circulates in Washington. She focuses both on the technology and on the interpersonal gamesmanship among the 10,000 or so involved parties that determine how the other 300 million or so of us hear what's important in Washington and what we should think about it. In this, she's very sharp, largely because she's lived in that world for years. There's a saying that "Washington is a Hollywood for ugly people", and this is the unspoken epigraph of the book: it's a relentlessly status-focused place, with so much determined by high-school level rivalries and jealousies. The book is also plotted well, which is important because as a satire of today's Washington it needs to be. It's no PRIMARY COLORS, but it's clever, although slight.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Zadie Smith's new novel is fantastic. I've read both of her previous books; WHITE TEETH was just a great first novel and THE AUTOGRAPH MAN embodied sophomore slump. But this new one really shows what people were talking about after WHITE TEETH. At first glance, the novel looks like it could just be too damn mannered: its title is pretentious, it is explicitly indebted to E.M. Forster, it deals with competing views of Rembrandt, and in the acknowledgements Smith nods to Elaine Scarry, the "Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University." (Well, Smith doesn't actually use her title. I just like it. Harvard--you just can't satirize them, because they do it too well themselves.)

Basically, the novel tells the story of two families who are both at odds and intertwined, and it being Smith's writing, complicated ethnic stories are everywhere--the black woman from Florida who marries the British intellectual who forsook Britain for America, their 16-year-old boy who adopts a "Brooklyn accent" (one of Smith's errors--more on that below) and hip-hop life to the extent he claims he's from Roxbury, Boston, until a Haitian calls him on it, the black Trinidadian conservative intellectual with the hot daughter who sleeps (spoiler alert) with two of the men of the OTHER family, etc. Smith isn't a master of plotting; in all of her books, WHITE TEETH especially, the plots feel like she pulled them together because she had to hang her brilliant character sketches on something. But her characters are just great, complicated, intelligent, sympathetic, and Forsterian, truly. Smith is also becoming a master of the sentence-level image, the quick simile or metaphor we haven't heard before. I'm incredibly impressed.

Besides the plot (which is, I'll grant, superior to the silly Rube Goldberg machine she created in WHITE TEETH), my only complaint with ON BEAUTY is with the editing. Specifically, at least twenty times Smith has her American characters use typically British terms that, even with a British father, they wouldn't use. Example: the 16 year old, the one who wanted to adopt the "Brooklyn accent"...

--and what does that mean? Linguists have determined that there is no difference between Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Jersey, etc., when dealing with that accent, but that isn't what Smith even wanted to denote--it was the urban African American accent, East Coast variety, which as far as I know isn't called a "Brooklyn accent" anywhere in America-- angry at his family because he can't find a five-dollar bill in the house, and says "I put it on the sideboard." I don't know any American who uses the term "sideboard"--I learned it from Dickens and Monty Python--certainly not one self-consciously trying to adopt black street slang.

But that's a small quibble. It's just a superior book. Read it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

public squares

boy plaza s. fernando
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Plazuela San Fernando is probably my favorite place in Guanajuato. Here, the boy reacquaints himself with the pleasure of running around public squares like a madman (as he did a year ago in San Francisco's Union Square, last summer in Tompkins Square Park in NYC, and any number of other times in any number of other places).

We left Pittsburgh in a freezing rain, were late getting to Dallas because of de-icing, and almost missed the flight to Leon/Guanajuato (our luggage did miss it). But an 80 degree day and the jacarandas in brilliant purple pretty much make you forget all of that.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

14 characteristics of fascism

On a recent visit to the Warhol Museum, we saw an interesting exhibition of very large Warhol prints--five, six feet high. This, to me, is not so fascinating; I'm not a Warhol fan. But on the wall, clearly put there by a curator who was trying to draw some not-very-subtle parallels, was a placard listing the "Fourteen Characteristics of Fascism" as defined by British scholar Lawrence Britt. His article, which originally appeared in the magazine Free Inquiry (which is published by the Council for Secular Humanism), was amazing. I think it's been making its way around the web a lot recently, so many of you may have seen it--but it's worth taking a look at. Because of my scholarly interests, I'm pretty familiar with the ideology, imagery, and practices of Mussolini's Partito Fascista Italiano, who not only created modern fascism but coined the word, and Britt has got them pretty much nailed.