The Square Circuit

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

Thursday, April 17, 2008

John Yoo and tenure

Who are these leftists and lawyers calling for Berkeley to fire John Yoo? What are they thinking? This logic appears to come from the same place as did Hillary’s vote on the Iraq war—“I’ll give them this authority, and I’m CERTAIN it’ll never come back to bite me in the ass.” To recap: John Yoo, the Justice Department functionary who wrote what have become known as the “torture memos," now has returned to his “happily” (this sneering adjective tends to accompany calls for his dismissal) tenured teaching post at Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school. While working at Justice, Yoo sketched out, in what is both repugnant and faulty reasoning, an argument that the Bush administration has since used to try and immunize themselves from legal punishment for torturing prisoners. It’s the old “in a time of war, no law applies to the commander-in-chief” argument that the administration has been using since 2002, and basically Addington and others in the OVP wanted someone in Justice to provide them with an ostensibly “outside” legal opinion sanctioning what they wanted to do. Yoo, providing a model of independence that would later be taken up by Fredo Gonzalez, was pleased to serve.

I’m not a legal expert and thus I rely on the good work of those, such as Glenn Greenwald, who have pointed out that Yoo’s actual scholarship is pretty shoddy; he was acting entirely as an enabler to policies that were going to be pursued anyway. (If anyone’s a “little Eichmann” here, it’s Yoo.) I’m happy to hear that Yoo is back at Berkeley, in fact; he’ll do less damage there. Notwithstanding my disgust at Yoo’s puppy-dog enthusiasm to provide legal justification for the President’s right to crush a small boy’s testicles, I have been quite surprised by the vehement calls by many on the left for Yoo’s job. Their argument, as I understand it, relies on two claims: 1) Yoo has the right to make whatever arguments he wants, but his legal advice has led directly to a “culture of torture” perpetuated by the Administration, and this—ideas leading to objectively repugnant acts—transcends the latitude of “academic freedom”; 2) (and this is Ezra Klein of THE AMERICAN PROSPECT speaking)
“tenure doesn't protect those with unpopular ideas, it just makes them harder to fire, and thus raises how unpopular an idea has to be before it merits termination. So on the one hand, firing someone with crackpot notions about tax cuts paying for themselves isn't really worth the trouble. On the other hand, if, say, Greg Mankiw called for the extermination of the Jews tomorrow, Harvard and MIT would direct their physics departments to come together and create a time machine in order to help them fire Mankiw last week. The question with Yoo isn't whether he's protected by tenure, but whether his claims are so self-evidently unconstitutional, and so morally odious, as to make firing him worth the trouble.”

I’m not sure what Klein is arguing, besides “Yoo’s ideas are REALLY awful, and this should override his guarantees of academic freedom.” Klein appears not to understand either what tenure is or the history of threats to tenure in this country. (The National Lawyers Guild have a different, and I think slightly better argument, which is that Yoo should be disbarred, which I believe would then exclude him from teaching law.) Boalt Hall Dean Christopher Edley posted a good statement on the issue, pointing out that
“Assuming one believes as I do that Professor Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service, that judgment alone would not warrant dismissal or even a potentially chilling inquiry. As a legal matter, the test here is the relevant excerpt from the "General University Policy Regarding Academic Appointees," adopted for the 10-campus University of California by both the system-wide Academic Senate and the Board of Regents:
Types of unacceptable conduct: … Commission of a criminal act which has led to conviction in a court of law and which clearly demonstrates unfitness to continue as a member of the faculty. [Academic Personnel Manual sec. 015].”


But what’s particularly disturbing to me is the scary blindness shown by any leftist who wants a tenured professor fired because of his or her beliefs. Just two years ago, David Horowitz was peddling his “Academic Bill of Rights” here in Pennsylvania, a smokescreen for ideological tests for profs (which would result in the exclusion and firing of most professors who tended to the left). The primary argument that the right makes about academia is that its faculty is out of the mainstream, that its ideas don’t reflect general societal consensus in America today, and that it is a haven of lefty ideas. Ward Churchill was a wonderful figure for them—scary, loudmouthed, insufficiently respectful of a national wound—but it is very clear that people like Horowitz would be happy to clean the leftists out of universities, using criteria based on the political views of the faculty. Use these criteria to fire Yoo, open this door, and I foresee a time when every last Marxist in every last English department at every last state university will be looking for a new job.

I graduated from two schools that ran leftist professors out during the McCarthy years, so I’m sensitive to this. And I am as furious at Yoo, and as hopeful that the Bush administration will face war-crimes charges, as anyone. But attempting to accomplish this by undermining academic freedom is a gravely misled way to show our revulsion at what Yoo helped create.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


After hearing his interview with Terry Gross on FRESH AIR, I immediately put in a request for Scott Spencer's WILLING. I knew nothing about Spencer, and I only learned from the radio program that Spencer had written the novel ENDLESS LOVE (on which the Brooke Shields film was based--but Gross was quick to say that the novel was SO MUCH BETTER than the film) and also A SHIP MADE OF PAPER, which I'd heard of but never read. The novel is a first-person narrative from the point of view of a 37-year-old freelance writer/loser whose girlfriend cheats on him and who "lucks" into, through a magical uncle, an all-expenses-paid, $135,000 two-week "sex tour" of Nordic countries. Avery Jankowsky, the narrator, is a self-pitying, self-deluding creep, and the majority of the meat of the novel consists of the nerdy, nebbishy Jankowsky's interactions with the hypermasculine members of the sex tour. Jankowsky lucks into a very lucrative contract to write a book on this tour, and so he spends most of the tour telling himself that he's just there to stealthily take notes for his book and NOT to take part in the sex aspects of the tour, but of course his resolve crumbles. It's a short book, and Spencer utilizes several pretty seriously contrived plot devices to move the story along (some of which don't really go anywhere). I found the novel pretty disappointing, in the end. The prose is magnificent: Spencer is an effective stylist, but in constructing Jankowsky's voice Spencer really shows his talent: Jankowsky is a writer, and judging from the narration of the novel and one excerpt of his writing a pretty good one, and I ended up surprised that Jankowsky wasn't more successful given the really sharp observations he makes. This, of course, plays back into character construction, underscoring the fact that Jankowsky's failures aren't due to lack of talent but rather to character flaws (which are on full display in the novel). As a character sketch it's great. But as a novel that one is drawn to because of its sensationalistic plot and setting, it's kind of a failure. We want more: Spencer must have done his research into this sordid world, and into the vilest kinds of testosterone-fueled behavior that capitalism can enable, and we just end up wanting more of this.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead

How long have they been having shows there? It seems like I'd never heard of the place, and now I've been to two shows there in a week. Monday last I saw Spoon, a band I used to see when I lived in Austin and when they were a very different sort of combo--a kind of Pixies-influenced, spiky, nonmelodic band. Good, but very different. They're slick and successful now, with their songs on TV shows and ads (and Britt Daniel, Spoon's frontman and leader, did the music for the film STRANGER THAN FICTION), and their show was a little less than spot-on. They are tight, very tight, but there wasn't the energy I remember from their Hole in the Wall and Electric Lounge days. Last night the wife and I went to Homestead to see the New Pornographers and Okkervil River, the last of which is, oddly, another Austin band. The show was a nice mix. We came a bit late and missed Okkervil's opening song, but the next three or four were a bit lifeless and pretentious at the same time, with singing that seemed inspired by the Cure's Robert Smith. Wailing. I was unimpressed. But they then played "John Allyn Smith Sails," with its outro from "Sloop John B," and all of a sudden they were a rock band. Melody is a good thing to include in your songs. From that point they were truly on. A Sonic Youth-style noise/feedback freakout followed, and the rest of the show was energetic, urgent, and connected to the audience. New Pornographers followed; my wife, who isn't all that familiar with them but likes them, remarked that they were a "bit NPR" (she was referring to their "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" stage banter but it's not a bad description for the music in general); I retorted that they were Canadian, which them forced us to think about the fuzzy difference between the two cultural categories. They were really tight, much like Spoon, but at the same time more relaxed, more willing to try to make a connection with the audience. For me, what made their show so much better was the low end: the drums and bass were way out front and powerful, while Okkervil's low end was weak. They played all of their great little power-pop songs, including "Sing Me Spanish Techno," which I think is one of the best singles of the last ten years.

The hall, though. It's a beautiful room with lots of period details, and the stage is small and intimate (both bands looked to be playing on a high-school stage), but it's not a great place to see a rock show. The seats are wooden and very uncomfortable, and the rows narrow. And, you might say, who sits and listens to a rock show? Well, a Pittsburgh audience, or at least some of them. And us. We sat in the front row of the balcony and were strenuously forbidden to stand up (because of the low railing, we assumed). The acoustics aren't good, either. Pros: small and intimate; good sight lines; a beautiful building in an interesting and historical town; a good booking agent, apparently, because the lineup of shows is impressive. Cons: uncomfortable; bad acoustics; sedate.

My favorite venue in town remains Club Cafe. That's a fantastic room. And for larger bands, Mr. Small's Theater in Millvale.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

give me twenty

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
The baby just wanted to try pushups on the plaza ground.


Frida Kahlo: Ninja

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
A couple of weeks ago we took a family trip to Philadelphia, in the process getting coveted tickets to the Frida Kahlo retrospective (great--crowded--best not experienced with squirmy small boys). But the boys enjoyed the magnificent plaza in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art much more than anything inside (even though I did try to tell the baby about the greatness of Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even").


Saturday, April 05, 2008


Reading memoirs about addiction, I was telling my wife, feels in some sense like watching reruns: most of them have pretty much the same elements, told in the same order. Horrifying tales of degradation and desperation; hitting bottom; false starts at recovery; resistance to the 12-step program; acceptance and a recognition that sobriety is tenuous. This doesn't in any way invalidate those stories, or make them trite; they continue to be moving and fascinating. (I watch A&E's Intervention weekly.) So I found Nic Sheff's TWEAK pretty much a replay of James Frey's famous A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (yes, yes, I know, "except that it's true," or at least we think, until the time we find that Sheff altered some things...). One difference is that Sheff, for all of his false modesty, really isn't much of a writer. He's certainly not much of a stylist, and apparently Ginee Seo Books isn't spending much money on copyediting, given the grammatical errors in the prose. Sheff's story is, predictably, shocking and horrifying, sad and pathetic, and in the end hopeful.

His father's much more famous (and well promoted) memoir, BEAUTIFUL BOY, is a different matter. It's the father's point of view on Nic's story, prefaced by long stories of Nic's upbringing, his parents' divorce, and the dad's perspective on what drove Nic to drugs. It was much tougher to deal with, just because the prospect of seeing either one of my boys in Nic's situation is terrifying.

The third memoir I read, Shalom Auslander's FORESKIN'S LAMENT, was by far my favorite. Auslander is a frequent contributor to THIS AMERICAN LIFE, and I love his pieces on that show, but his memoir is a tour de force. It's hilarious (and the fact that I listened to it as an audiobook, and it was read by Auslander himself, really helped--although his voice doesn't rise to Sedaris level in terms of really adding a dimension to the prose, it's on that scale).