A Forum for Vigorous Debate, Cornerstone of Democracy

[For the journal (guidelines, focus, etc.), go to www.theamericandissident.org ].
Encouraged censorship and self-censorship seem to have become popular in America today. Those who censor others, not just self, tend to favor the term "moderate," as opposed to "censor" and "moderation" to "censorship." But that doesn't change what they do. They still act as Little Caesars or Big Brother protectors of the thin-skinned. Democracy, however, demands a tough populace, not so easily offended. On this blog, and to buck the trend of censorship, banning, and ostracizing, comments are NEVER "moderated." Rarely (almost NEVER) do the targets of these blog entries respond in an effort to defend themselves with cogent counter-argumentation. This blog is testimony to how little academics, poets, critics, newspaper editors, cartoonists, political hacks, cultural council apparatchiks, librarians et al appreciate VIGOROUS DEBATE, cornerstone of democracy. Clearly, far too many of them could likely prosper just fine in places like communist China and Cuba or Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Russia.

More P. Maudit cartoons (and essays) at Global Free Press: http://www.globalfreepress.org

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kevin Larimer

There is little need for literary censors these days. The writers have learnt to do a proficient job of censoring themselves.
—Ma Jian

"Daring to stand alone" is ideologically criminal as well as practically dangerous. The independence of the writer and the artist is eaten away by vague economic forces, and at the same time it is undermined by those who should be its defenders.
—George Orwell

This morning I was pissed off, well, slightly. It was yet another gloomy, overcast, and cold New England day. On the floor by the front door lay a copy of the latest issue of Poets & Writers magazine. After microwaving a cup of yesterday’s coffee, I picked the magazine up, brought it into the tiny alcove where I dwelled, put on my glasses, checked the mail ticker on the cover, and discovered it was addressed to Jeanne. What pissed me off was that I’d mentioned P&W’s URL to her several weeks before, suggesting she look through the classifieds, find a couple of pertinent ones, then send out a chapter or two of her unfinished novel. She rarely ever sent her writing out. So, what pissed me off was that she bought a subscription, instead of simply consulting the online version. In other words, because of me, P&W had another subscriber and P&W was as established order business as it got.

An article, listed on the front page, attracted my attention and inspired this blog entry: “Nerd Alert: Where Are All the Badly Behaved Writers” by Amy Shearn. Immediately aftr reading that title, I thought, hell, I was a “badly behaved" writer and was hardly hiding out! But for Shearn—proud, self-professed nerd woman—"badly behaved" did not indicate the fury, the anger felt and incorporated into the writing provoked by the intellectual corruption and cowardice inherent in so many citizen-writers. For her, "badly behaved" did not mean bucking the academic/literary established-order, of which she was evidently striving to become an integral part., if she hadn't already become one. For her, “badly behaved” meant booze and screwing a la Bukowski, whom she didn’t mention. Instead, she noted Mailer, Thompson, Hemingway, Burroughs and Fitzgerald, amongst others. She was proficient in the art of name dropping! What she described about herself was sad, though I assumed it wasn’t meant to be taken that way at all, but rather as a kind of witty rationalization of a very sad state of mind:

“I have a particular memory of graduate school that has come to define for me the new Life of the Writer. It involved neither drunken carousing by moonlight nor frisky bedroom escapades, but rather sitting in the computer lab alongside a few of my MFA classmates and peering down the row only to realize that our wrists were all armored in similar carpal tunnel syndrome-preventing braces. Clearly we were spending too much time in front of our keyboards. Here is the mystery I've been chewing on ever since: Why don't writers get to be barely functional, substance-abusing eccentrics anymore?”

The answer to Shearn’s question was egregiously evident: the mass of MFA writers were simply not taught, let alone encouraged, to stand up as individuals in contradiction, if need be, to their very colleagues, friends, and family. Instead, they were being taught to beggar for letters of recommendation and the favor of literary influence peddlers, which would enable them to climb the literary ladder of dubious “success” and likely take a spin on the ole tenure track. So what the hell was the big “mystery”?

To say the least, Shearn’s article was an irritant. Evidently, that wasn’t such a bad thing for if it hadn’t irritated, I wouldn’t have written this and sent it to her (mail@amyshearn.com). Few things were more satisfying for a rude-truth writer than shoving criticism under the snouts of self-vaunting established-order poets, writers, editors, academics, and artistes.

“After a while it became clear that the writers who were going to make it—the ones who were getting the grants and publications and cushy fellowships—were those who buckled down and worked hard,” wrote Shearn, “the nerds in the wrist braces who filled out paperwork with the diligence of accountants. As for me, I forced myself to stay on a prudent schedule and wrote a few hours every day before heading to my day job.”

Rather than “make it," why not instead flip burgers, drive a cab, or teach adjunct courses on Navy destroyers and, at the same time, keep ones DIGNITY as a writer and human being. DIGNITY meant not groveling, not writing for an audience, not writing to get published, not writing to make a fucking living, but writing, as Orwell once stated “because there is some lie [...]to expose.” Yet how could someone so indoctrinated like Shearn ever understand? How not to vomit upon such a shadow of a human being? When was the last time she’d ever taken a RISK, even just a RISK of upsetting or offending someone… with a good dose of truth? Perhaps, if not probably, NEVER!

How to make those like Shearn realize they were becoming, if they hadn’t already become, an integral part of the problem (i.e., the writer as co-opted entity of the Great Business Machine). While they wrote their cutesy horseshit AND got published (whoopee!), the nation continued spiraling down the toilet bowl of tie-and-jacketed corruption, censorship, professorial speech codes, multicultural inanity, war, greed, massive self-censorship and, especially, citizen worship of fame and wealth, as opposed to democracy. “It wasn't sexy, but it worked,” wrote Shearn about her writing career as a literary beaver. “My first novel was published last summer.” Yes, whoopee. And this summer, buy it for $.01 on Amazon.

Shearn probably got paid $500 or more for her innocuous article, since P&W received thousands of dollars in public grants from, amongst others, the National Endowment for the Arts (http://www.theamericandissident.org/NEA.htm). It also must have been making thousands of dollars from its classified ads. P&W was a business and its writers of the “accountant” mentality. What Shearn succeeded in doing in her article was further propagate the myth of the writer and poet as godlike and, in that sense in a most perverted way, bolstered her self. In America, self-vaunting had become far more pervasive amongst writers than truth telling. The websites of Shearn (www.amyshearn.com/checkindesk.html) and most every other writer in the country proved the point. They were as unoriginal as it got. Where were the ideas on those websites?

How to make those like Shearn realize that “so well behaved” meant a hell of a lot more than simply not boozing and not screwing. What it really had come to mean was not bucking the system. And when a nation’s mob of writers chose not to buck the system, then that nation was surely in trouble. “This carefree denial of the meaningful role of an artist in society is a blight that inflicts great numbers of China's unofficial cultural elite,” had noted writer Ma Jian. Well, the same goes for America’s cultural elite, official or unofficial.

In an effort to rationalize her lame behavior as writer-nerd, Shearn quoted Cornell University creative writing professor J. Robert Lennon: “It's getting harder to make a living writing, so many of us now have jobs teaching, and you can't go around getting drunk if you're trying to get tenure.”

Of course, what Lennon should have written, in a much more honest vein, was "you can't go around speaking truth if you're trying to get tenure." But that would have implicated him as someone not encouraging freedom of expression. Lennon was likely making $100,000 or more per year teaching students that acquiring proper bourgeois tastes and manifesting proper bourgeois behavior were far more important than, to paraphrase Emerson, going upright and vital, and speaking the rude truth in all ways, especially with regards Cornell, the creative writing department, and its cocooned professors. Evidently, if Lennon had followed Emerson's advice and been a really good role model to students, he wouldn’t be feeding so nicely at Cornell or at any other institution of higher education, where truth telling was the last thing a professor, tenured or not, would be apt to do. Unsurprisingly, the others Shearn had interviewed concurred with Lennon. “I basically work four jobs.... There's little time for me to indulge in any­thing rehabworthy," noted Ed Park, editor of Believer. What crap! If he had had any guts, Park would have rather said “indulge in anything truth telling.” Let him at least stand up and declare his cowardice!

"I think that the shrinking opportuni­ties for publishing—print publishing, I mean—have something to do with the new, super fit, goody-goodness of writers,” suggested Uni­versity of California (Santa Cruz) professor/writer Noria Jablonski. “Unless we are the especially attractive author of ‘Special Topics in a Heartbreaking Work of White Teeth,’ we need to become adept at marketing and self-promotion (writing articles such as this one, and saying 'Yes, feel free to quote me' in articles such as this one)."

Again, how not to barf? “We abide by deadlines and focus on self-promotion,” concurred Kate Torgovnick, author of 'Cheer! Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders'. No, I didn’t make that title up! Clearly, two kinds of writers existed: the generally safe established-order types accorded public monies and prizes and given voice in articles like Shearn’s and those against the established-order and normally not given voice or money. The latter, of course, existed as a tiny minority. They would never achieve accountant-like “success” with their writing because they chose, unlike Shearn, to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson) and indeed to let our lives “be a counterfriction to stop the machine” (Thoreau).

Shearn summed herself up quite accurately, quite deplorably. After all, the article was really about her and her generation of bourgeois-kowtow writers. It was an unabashed confession in the same light as the coward who always dismisses herself by openly, if not eagerly, declaring she's a coward, as if somehow that excused her cowardice. “I’m a nerd, and thus easy to work with. I re­spect authority. I aim to please. I fol­low rules. I don't drink to excess—not even coffee. I can be trusted to behave, if at times awkwardly, at least never salaciously in public, which is a salient new requirement of the writer. My personal life is pleasant but probably boring to the outsider, and (thank­fully, for me) in today's literary climate no one cares very much either way.”

Again, how not to spit in the face of this MFA product! “These are lean times, for literature and everything else,” noted Shearn. “The public isn't interested, and no one has money to throw around. And thus we writers are pretty much left alone to the eerie light of our computer screens, to our too-many commitments, to our fin­gers tingling with the friendly hum of tendinitis.”

Yet clearly these were not "lean times" at all for Poets & Writers magazine, the recipient of its $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize, or for the MacArthur $500,000 poet grant recipients, or for the MFA professor-writers with their $50,000-$100,000 salaries and life-time job security, or for the NEA poet and publication grant recipients, or for the Pinskys, Snyders, Angelous, and Giovannis with their $100,000+ salaries and $10,000+ speaking fees, or for Poetry magazine with its $175 million endowment, or for the censoring Academy of American Poets (www.theamericandissident.org/AcademyAmericanPoets.htm). They were only “lean times” for those few of us who dared go against the grain that Shearn had so willingly been sucked into. Shearn was nothing more than another Good-Housekeeping marm with a pen. Sure, she possessed an MFA, three glowing letters of recommendation, and was cutesy, witty, and in-vogue nerdy and even published in Poets & Writers, but she was a failure as a writer.

Finally, the title for this essay was inspired by Ma Jian’s observation that under Mao’s rule, intellectuals had been branded “The Stinking Ninth”—the last and the worst category of class enemy. In America, intellectuals (writers et al) tended to be quite the opposite, that is, humble friends of the ruling class, thus The Fragrant Ninth.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Education of Oronte Chum or How to Feed at the Academic Trough

Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and will always be the last resort of the boob and the bigot.
—Eugene O’Neill

He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper. This amicable conflict with difficulty helps us to an intimate acquaintance with our object, and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial.
—Edmund Burke

The cartoon above was inspired by a minor encounter with a minor academic, John Griswald, on InsideHigherEd.com, which I received via email several times per week. Upon one occasion, I was actually censored by IHE for a comment I’d made on a rather lame poem by Laurence Musgrove, associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago:

On the first page just after the required novels
And before the list of learning outcomes
I’d paste a photo of me from ‘73
Scraggly hair and wire-rimmed glasses
And then torn from my long gone journal
Some half poem or worry on the day
So they might see me and not me
Who could be their dad or worse
With these handouts and so much to read
How jealous I am I am almost crying
How much I love them.

My commentary was the following. Sure, I suppose, I could have been politer, more bourgeois in tone, more collegial, as they liked to say, but should the comment have been censored in a democracy? You decide.

“Why publish such a lame poem? Well, it is indicative of the general state of professors in higher education today, where few have the courage to openly question and challenge the various hands that feed and otherwise fatten them into submissiveness. Democracy is at stake in America today, so let's write a poem about the syllabus! For poems et al decrying the state of higher ed that Inside Higher Ed would likely never publish, see www.theamericandissident.org. Vigorous debate is the cornerstone of democracy... but not in higher ed, where speech codes, collegiality, and cutesy wit rule!”

In any case, I’d since written perhaps harsher comments, which were not censored. Perhaps my email to the editor in protest of his censorship actually served to sensitize him to the proliferation and harmful effects of censorship in Academe vis-à-vis Democracy. Apropos, in the ivory tower, the censor was not referred to as a censor, but rather as a moderator.

In actuality, my grievance was really not with Griswold, but rather with self-proclaimed tenured radical Cary Nelson, president of the established-order Association of American University Professors. Griswold had written a hagiographic piece, “Cary Nelson, Provocateur.” Thus, I challenged him on it. Also, I mentioned the incident of censorship to him. He was of course, as a pup at the InsideHigherEd trough, entirely indifferent to it and did not respond with its regard.

Was Griswold’s vignette (see www.insidehighered.com/blogs/the_education_of_oronte_churm/cary_nelson_provocateur)
an example of what “provocative” or “provocateur” had come to mean in Academe? If so, the corporate co-optation of the University must surely have become a fait accompli, instead of simply in progress. The castration of terms like “provocative” and “radical” served that co-optation well as an integral part of the rationalization process of far too many Academics.

Regarding Nelson, the question, of course, remained and, of course, was not raised: how did a radical become a tenured, bourgeois, faculty cocktail-party attending president of the established-order Association of American University Professors? Kowtowing ones way up the ladder was how it was normally done in Academe, while truth telling was the normal way straight out the freakin’ door… or rather out the window on to the ledge of chronic unemployment. Did Cary Nelson possess some secret formula to do it otherwise? If so, why hadn’t Griswald even posed the question?

Nelson’s website, Modern American Poetry, was anything but radical or even remotely “provocative,” or even at all necessary. Well, it did have a Soviet-Union looking sketch of a worker holding a sledgehammer on it (www.english.illinois.edu/maps/), but how did that make it different in substance? Nevertheless, I had to give Nelson kudos for being somewhat unusual in academe for his being somewhat open to criticism; he’d actually posted the satirical cartoon I’d done on him on his webpage (see www.cary-nelson.org/nelson/cartoon.html). Just the same, his was really but a rehash of Academe’s canon. Where was the hardcore questioning and challenging of that largely bourgeois canon? How did twisted thinking (discoursing in oxymorons, castration of vocabulary et al) become so seemingly prevalent (the norm!) in Academe? Now, that would have made a great subject for a doctoral thesis! If I hadn’t already done mine, I’d get to work on it right away.
Finally, Griswald aka Churm, scribbler of the dubious Nelson tribute, needed to ask himself how his education (i.e., the Education of Oronte Churm) had failed him so royally. How had it succeeded in blocking the natural flow of his intellect, placed it into a state of paradigmatic paralysis, where politeness and collegiality, not to mention obsequiousness, hagiography, and rampant self-vaunting, were far more pertinent than truth telling, and indeed rendered his intellect utterly incapable of raising the simple—though truth unearthing—questions and points underscored here? The quip and silence were academe’s favorite rhetorical weapons of choice for dealing with uncomfortable truth jams. Perhaps this time, Griswald would simply choose silence.
BTW, Griswald actually prefaced his Churm blog with the above quote by Edmund Burke. It was, at least for me, difficult to comprehend professor/writers like him... and so many there were! Was his simply a matter of some deeply unconscious inability to perceive reality? Clearly, Griswald was not into the "wrestling" Burke rightfully praised; he rejected it outright. For him, "our antagonist" was not our "helper" at all, but rather someone to be ignored and buried. If he really agreed with Burke, he would not have eschewed "wrestling" (i.e., vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy) with me. Granted, he did respond, regarding this blog entry, though not in the comment area. Nevertheless, his brief email was hardly evidence at all of a desire to "wrestle": "Thank you! Where do you teach, Tod?"

Now, why did he wish to know where I taught? Did he want to contact the deans in the hope of getting me ousted for un-business-like (i.e., pro-democracy) behavior? Why else would he want to know? Again, it was difficult to understand such professor/writers.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Nikki Giovanni

It is an easy thing for so-dubbed “internationally acclaimed writers” like Soyinka, Gordimer, and Coetzee, to decry the incarceration of writers abroad, but a very difficult one for them to decry the inherent corruption of the diverse hands feeding them cash, prizes and accolades here in the USA.
—P. Maudit

Dear Pen Staff (Michael Roberts, Executive Director; M. Mark, Editor Pen America; Caro Llewellyn, PEN World Voices Festival Director; Stacy Leigh, Readers & Writers and Open Book Director; Anna Kushner, Freedom to Write Coordinator; Sarah Hoffman, Freedom to Write Associate; David Haglund, Managing Editor, PEN America; Alena Graedon, Executive Assistant; Nick Burd, Literary Awards Program Manager; Linda Morgan, Development Director; Larry Siems, Freedom to Write and International Programs Director; Stefanie Simons, Readers & Writers Associate; Jackson Taylor, Prison Writing Program Director; Elizabeth Weinstein, Public Programs Associate; Michael Welch, Planning and Finance Director):

Having just read an article by Chinese dissident Ma Jian, I thought of you and decided to write in the hope that perhaps one of you would actually respond… and not simply in the polite bureaucratic sense, as in an out of office autoreply. [Of course, not one of them would ever respond!]

“There is little need for literary censors these days,” noted Ma Jian, regarding China. “The writers have learnt to do a proficient job of censoring themselves.” With that regard, how not to think of America and her proficient self-censoring poets and writers? Why did PEN America seem to avoid that egregious reality? By pointing almost always to injustice abroad, it seemed to be acting as a propaganda arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It possessed a Freedom to Write and International Programs Director, but not a Freedom to Write and National Programs Director.

Last August, I wrote Pen New England, which chose not to respond. In vain, I’d brought to its attention the fact that here in Massachusetts, as a highly critical dissident author and publisher, I had been ostracized and was being punished. The Concord Cultural Council, for example, enacted—because of me—a new provision excluding from public funding any proposal it subjectively deemed to be of a “political nature.” The Massachusetts Cultural Council simply refused to respond to my questions. For example, why did it fund Agni, which was published by Boston University, a private institution with over one-billion dollars in its endowment fund, while refusing to accord any monies at all to The American Dissident, the journal I publish?

Also, in America, as I’m sure PEN was aware, writers could indeed be arrested and incarcerated. For example, I was arrested and incarcerated in Concord for a day, yet all I'd done was speak freely (www.theamericandissident.org/WaldenPondStateReservation.htm). Surely, other American writers, not of the "internationaly acclaimed" variety, had much more serious tales to divulge. Sadly, Pen of New England didn’t seem to give a damn about mine. What about PEN America?

On another—though really always the same—matter, as a rare dissident poet at the Festival International de la Poesie de Trois-Rivieres (Quebec) in 2001, I was highly critical of that festival’s management and had not been invited back since. Management oddly, or perhaps not, prohibited debate during the festival, while invited poets, both Canadian and international, lamely acquiesced. In the context of its Pen segment, I was even invited as a known dissident to read a translation of a Kenule Saro-Wiwa poem I’d prepared. Needless to say, I’d end up sending a complaint to Pen Quebec, which simply did not respond. In 2004, I mentioned this to Pen America, which responded with hollow empathy: “In general, we at the PEN America Center have no involvment [sic] with events that take place in Canada. It sounds like your experience has been unfortuanate [sic].”

I’d also asked how I might become a PEN member, so that I could help bring to light the rampant, though often subtle, censorship existent in America, thanks to its army of obsequious writers, academics, and other luminaries. PEN responded thusly: “Regrading [sic] your query about joining PEN, currently membership is by nomination (either internal or external) and is entirely voluntary.” Well, that didn't sound very democratic at all.

Being a harsh critic of poets, writers, editors and academics in America, I now found myself unable to find full-time employment as a professor of English. When employed at American colleges and universities, I tended to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson). For that, I now found myself at the end of the line. On another note, the Academy of American Poets, sponsor of National Poetry Month, censored and banned me from participating in its forums a year and a half ago. With that regard, I’d contacted each of its tenured-professor chancellors, each of whom evidently favored censorship (www.theamericandissident.org/AcademyAmericanPoets.htm). More recently, InsideHigherEd.com censored my comments.

Finally, Ma Jian wrote: “A savvy young Chinese writer who spoke in London recently was asked about his views on the Tiananmen massacre. He said with a self-satisfied smirk that he was asleep in bed when it took place, and that he never joined the marches because he found them exhausting. There is a word in Chinese that describes this attitude: xiaosa. It means imperturbable, detached, nonchalant. This carefree denial of the meaningful role of an artist in society is a blight that inflicts great numbers of China's unofficial cultural elite.”

Again, how not to think of America and her OFFICIAL cultural elite (e.g., multimillionaire Toni Morrison), funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and promoted by, amongst others, the Library of Congress and Academy of American Poets? Hopefully, Ma Jian would become aware of the hypocrisy here in America before some American university ended up purchasing his soul. Indeed, American universites were quite adept at the art of soul purchasing. Think of Beatniks Ginsberg and Snyder, as well as dissident foreigners Yevtushenko, Wole Soyinka, and Dennis Brutis. As for Nikki Giovanni, another PEN-favored writer, she made a blatantly racist statement, though of PC variety, that “Black students will inevitably run into some white classmates who are troubling because they often say stupid things, ask stupid questions and expect an answer.” I challenged her on it. She remained silent.