A Forum for Vigorous Debate, Cornerstone of Democracy

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A FORUM FOR FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND VIGOROUS DEBATE, CORNERSTONES OF DEMOCRACY
[For the journal--guidelines, focus, etc.--go to www.theamericandissident.org. If you have questions, please contact me at todslone@hotmail.com. Comments are NOT moderated (i.e., CENSORED)!]
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, not to mention Sweden, England, and Austria.
ISSUE #45 PUBLISHED MAY 2023. NOW SEEKING SUBMISSIONS FOR ISSUE #46.

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

Friday, December 19, 2008

On the Ad Hominid

[N.B.: Interestingly, a journal distributed to libraries will be publishing my previous blog account, which is embedded in a much longer essay on my experiences with librarians. When published, I shall mention here what journal published it.]

He [man] has invented a complete catalogue of vile and scabrous epithets which he is ever ready to sling at those who think and act differently, that is, think and act as he himself would like to, if he had the courage.
—Henry Miller, "When I Reach for My Revolver”

Often, an ad hominem insinuates that there is a connection between the character traits of a person and the ideas or arguments that the person is putting forward; it is an attempt to discredit a proposition by discrediting the person who articulates it. It involves pointing out characteristics of the person being attacked that the audience, real or assumed, will tend to perceive negatively, and then concluding that because of these negative traits, the person's arguments and ideas, especially those which were the object of discussion, are also toxic. [...] When an ad hominem is committed, this pertinent link [between the person and his ideas] does not exist.
—Normand Baillargeon, A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense

To those in power, all whistle-blowers, dissenters and boat-rockers are obnoxious, at least while they remain lone rebels... The ideas that rebels expound tend not to be attacked by those in power. The latter are inclined rather to kill the messenger by character assassination. For example, one rebel was said to be a womanizer... bitter... disloyal... and even, in the words of one accuser, dangerously mentally ill.
—C. Tarvis

What makes me different from most of those trying to “succeed” in the academic/literary established-order milieu is that I've tended to put “success” on the backburner, while truth telling in the forefront. Unfortunately, in academe, that makes for a disastrous carreer. Today, I am essentially unemployable because of it.

Thus, I am not only highly critical of that order, but also do not make it a habit of arguing via ad hominem, a widespread form of vacuous rhetoric, once the argumentation of predilection of children, but today that of so many, many “educated” adults.

Logic is my weapon of choice, while ad hominem seems to have become that of the established-order milieu and those seeking to become part of it. After all, how can such persons possibly explain themselves and the corrupt order they so admire with logic? In fact, Mather Schneider, a poet autodidact, recently argued he didn’t “give a damn about logic!” Now, that’s honesty, a rarity indeed!

Certainly, I succumb, from time to time, to the common modus operandi, for is it not so much easier to simply dismiss a person and his arguments by calling him a “fucking moron,” as that fellow who didn’t give a damn about logic called me? Nevertheless, I’ll readily admit my errors in judgment—my weak moments—and rectify them. After all, ad hominem is a knee-jerk reaction. I do have such reactions but, unlike most, I am quite aware of them and consciously attempt to replace them with logical argumentation. Indeed, a certain amount of intellectual energy is required. The lazy prefer not to expend it.

Miller was partially right that the ad hominid tends to lack courage. However, I disagree with him that ad hominids would like to think and act as I do or he did, that is, as brazen critics of society. Likely, it is the shock of sudden, unexpected, and in-habitual criticism that overwhelms the ad hominid’s ability to reason with clarity. Fragile ego is another factor, for the ad hominid tends to be bathed in positive feedback. That is what the milieu does. It seeks to spread false happy-face positivism and ignore anyone or anything poking holes in that shiny veneer, or at best dismiss the criticism with ad hominem. The sudden shock of unexpected negativity thus provokes knee-jerk anger and subsequent childish name calling.

Nearly all of the criticism I’ve received over the past several decades has been of the ad hominem variety. Sadly, such rhetoric is commonly used by academics, editors, and poets, amongst others, too intellectually indolent or incompetent to counter-argue with convincing logic. In fact, it is so common that one ought to be disturbed by the trend and wonder how and why both higher and lower education have managed to fail so egregiously with regards the inculcation of the importance of logical thinking and argumentation. Evidently, logic is not the friend of corrupt systems, including and especially the educational one.

Very few literary journals publish negative critique. Instead, they tend to publish self-congratulatory commentary. In that sense, The American Dissident is quite different. In each issue, the editor publishes the harshest comments directed at the journal and/or editor. By the way, the editor has never stated nor implied that he is a revolutionary, a great writer, or a brilliant poet. It is amazing the things ad hominids will say when a citizen simply stands up and speaks his mind against the herd. As for egotistical, any writer who puts up a website, publishes a literary journal, or sends out his or her writing could easily be accused of it. That epithet is as vacuous as the rest. Indeed, when the fellow who “didn’t give a damn about logic” stated I had an “enlarged ego,” I argued: “If you were not an egotist, you would have a purpose besides simply getting published.” His response deflected the point made: “I never said I wasn't an egotist, I said that you were an egotist. It's not the same thing.” Yet, isn’t it? Deflection is what ad hominids do best.

Another aspect of the ad hominem phenomenon is to call the argument itself names, as in "rant" and "diatribe." Again, that rhetorical tactic avoids dealing with the argument. The editor of Journal of Information Ethics, for example, wrote the following regarding an essay I’d submitted on librarians: “it is a personal diatribe based on a limited experience at a limited institution. It is not publishable.” When I brought to his attention the ad hominem phenomenon, he argued: “A diatribe is an aggressive talk or lecture or essay that insists very vehemently on a point caring little about counter-arguments or even fairness. For me it is not a pejorative term.” Websters.com defines it as “a bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism.” How can an intelligent person possibly argue that “diatribe” is not a pejorative term? By the way, one of the arguments in the librarian essay was clear and entirely avoided by that editor: the free speech of a citizen was truncated on the whim of a librarian in a public space without due process. To any responsible citizen in a democracy, that fact ought to be pertinent. To that editor, however, it was simply a diatribe. Besides, reality is based on single such experiences and, more importantly, never did I even remotely suggest all librarians behaved thusly. Just the same, rotten eggs, like that librarian, should be exposed, not condoned via indifference. Later, I discovered that editor had been a careerist academic librarian!

Finally, one might easily fall into the trap of thinking that if so many people have dismissed my arguments, then maybe they're right and I’m wrong. Such people are urged to read Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” Indeed, Ibsen argued "The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that constitute the majority population of a country? Is it the clever folk or the stupid? I don’t imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over."

Monday, December 1, 2008

Local Journalists as Paladins of the Chamber of Commerce

"The wall of sep­aration between American news and the business interests is being systemati­cally dismantled at institutional levels of journalism. The practice of selecting news in order to make advertising more effective is becoming so common that it has achieved the status of scientific precision and publishing wisdom."
—Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California in Berkeley
One must wonder how journalism got so corrupted in America today—so fixated on famous airhead personalities and diversionary fait divers. Mass Communications programs in the nation’s universities and colleges likely play an important role. After all, what can one expect from Mass Comm professors who don’t even have the courage to report corruption in their own respective institutions? Spinelessness seems to have become a defining trait of the professorial herd. I’ve witnessed it over and again. If not courageous truth seeking and truth telling, therefore, what might professors be instilling in their journalism students, many of whom end up at the helm of local community newspapers? For one thing, journalism students seem to have been learning that bending over backwards in order to avoid offending the thin skinned is far more important than truth telling. Democracy, however, demands citizens with tough skin.

Over the past couple of decades, on a number of occasions, in vain, I brought First Amendment issues to the attention of local journalists. Their response has more often than not been simple indifference and silence. Nearly 15 years ago, for example, I was evicted from my office without due process at Fitchburg State College, a public institution. Eventually, the college paid me a settlement. However, neither local nor the student newspapers would publish a story about the incident. For the college, it was as if it hadn’t happen. Just the same, I founded The American Dissident as direct result of the intrinsic corruption witnessed first hand at Fitchburg State College.

A decade ago, I was accosted by police on three different occasions over the period of a year at Walden Pond State Reservation, each relative to the exercise of free-speech rights on public property (for details, examine www.theamericandissident.org/WaldenPondStateReservation.htm). Not one newspaper contacted proved interested in the stories. On one of those occasions the police incarcerated me for a day. The judge, of course, threw that case out three months later.

More recently, I brought to the deaf ears of local journalists anomalies also pertinent to the First Amendment regarding the Concord Cultural Council and Watertown Free Public Library. As for the latter, it issued a no-trespass order (see previous blog), though no crimes had been committed, that is, with the exception of lack of display of deference and curtsy. Although I informed the local editor of the Watertown Tab & Press that the librarian had lied in the text of the order stating I’d made threats and had caused a general disturbance, he was not sufficiently interested to investigate. But where and who were the witnesses and what threats had been made? Also, no hearing whatsoever was offered by the library for me to attempt to defend myself. My right to exercise free speech at that public library had simply been terminated on the whim and prevarication of an uptight reference librarian. But the journalist was not at all interested in investigating the breach of a citizen’s right to free speech in a public space. Why not? Didn’t attacks on citizen rights constitute a good enough subject for journalists nowadays? Well, he did publish a brief letter to the editor of mine, though corrupted its title to “Man, forbidden to enter the Watertown Free Public library, has his say.” Yes, I had my say, but I didn’t have my hearing!

As for the Concord Cultural Council, it decided this year to disregard any project proposals that might be of a “political nature,” a policy likely provoked by my overt questioning and challenging of the Council over the past several years. But what is “political nature”? It remains conveniently undefined, of course. My proposal was rejected this year for that reason. Why, a thinking citizen ought to wonder, didn’t the Council enact instead a policy to disregard projects of an “entertainment nature”? After all, entertainment is generally a superfluous form of culture, one that when too pervasive can indeed be detrimental to the health of democracy for it diverts citizen attention away from important issues, including war and corrupt politicians and other local leaders. Political engagement is, however, necessary for democracy’s very survival. Nothing at all in the minutes of the Council, which I examined, indicated that a discussion on the issue had even been engaged. I brought the matter to the deaf ears of The Concord Journal.

Finally, a thinking citizen, would have to wonder why there has not been a continued journalistic effort at revealing the extent of the damage effected by the millions of dollars used by the American Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s number one lobby in Washington, to purchase politicians in a very successful effort to stifle business regulation, which ended up wreaking havoc on the nation’s financial system and in the lives of everyday citizens regarding their retirement accounts.

Below are two letters I wrote this past week. Chris Helms (Watertown Tab & Press) did not respond to my questions, though did permit me to post a very short account of the event in question. Patrick Ball (The Concord Journal) has yet to respond, though it’s been about three weeks now.

Chris Helms: Please do let me know if you decide to run that letter of mine. Actually, I was really hoping, however, you'd investigate and write a story on the incident. After all, the First Amendment is clearly in question. My right to exercise free speech has been denied in a public space. As a journalist, why don't you care about that?

Were there witnesses besides the two librarians? If in fact I upset patrons, did any patrons complain? Why is there no recourse to contest the no-trespass order? Why doesn't Leone Cole respond to my emails with that regard? Why is she uninterested in my side of the event? Why did Francoeur lie? Why did she say I made threats and upset patrons, when nothing of the kind occurred?
Sincerely,
G. Tod Slone

Patrick Ball: No response at all from you regarding my cultural-council complaint! Perhaps you ought to investigate. I’ve been investigating. The issues are clear. This year the Council enacted a new provision for excluding culture: “political nature.” Why? Or why didn’t it enact a new provision excluding culture of an “entertainment nature”? Why has it been according grants year after year to the very same organizations? Why does it reject my requests year after year? Well, at least now we know why: “political nature.” Why are the Council’s minutes devoid of debate on that issue? I examined them yesterday in Town Hall. Why should politicians (selectmen) select Council members… in order to exclude those like me who challenge politicians and their masters, the business leaders of the Chamber of Commerce?

Here’s another interesting story you could do. It would be a fascinating one: “Local Journalists, Paladins of the Local Chamber of Commerce?” Think about that!

Sincerely,
G. Tod Slone

Monday, November 10, 2008

Manifesto of a Tenured Goon in Academic Regalia

Interestingly, Paula Krebs, editor of Academe (Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors), responded to this essay, arguing it was too long to publish in Academe. Thus, I suggested it be published as a refreshingly honest guest editorial, instead of a truncated letter to the editor. She did not respond to that. Also interestingly, Cary Nelson (see below), current president of the AAUP, put the satirical cartoon I’d sketched on him (see below) up on his website (www.cary-nelson.org/nelson/cartoon.html). Did he understand it? Or had he climbed to high on the academic ladder to fathom its implication that he had perhaps indeed become yet another 60s sellout.

Academe is not necessarily a positive term nowadays, as it enters its final phase of corporate co-optation. It has not become a bastion of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, but rather one of speech codes, political rectitude, pomp and circumstance, and image distortion, not to mention rampant professorial self-censorship and spinelessness. That is the academic culture, as addressed in one of my previous blogs.

In any case, the issue of Academe I consulted was upon the give-away counter at campus mail. So, I picked it up. It was my last day at the university and possibly, if not likely, my last day as an employed professor… and not out of choice. My intention was not to review it, just to leaf through it. But the idea took hold. Academe—not the magazine—tends to be pretty safe from hardcore criticism. For example, it had been next to impossible for me to get tough critique published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and impossible to interest Thought & Action, not to mention Inside Higher Ed, a Chronicle spin-off. The former tended to prefer mild, cutesy how-my-husband-and-I-both-got-tenure-at-the-same-university articles authored by anonymous pen-name professors like Thomas Benton. To get one column in response to the 52-guest columns authored by one professor praising the University of Louisiana at Monroe in the local newspaper, I had to fight tooth and nail with the editor of The News Star for several months. Take a look at that column. Then you’ll know why I had to fight: www.theamericandissident.org/Op-Ed-NewsStar.htm.

In any case and to my amazement, on the very top of Academe’s masthead, listed as AAUP president, was none other than Mr. Tenured Radical himself, Cary Nelson. Was I dreaming? Would Professor Nelson soon be writing another book, Manifesto of a Tenured Goon in Academic Robe? Let’s hope so.

One feature story in Academe caught my attention, in particular, because it summed up what academe had become. No, the story was not “Why Most Tenured Professors Don’t Need Academic Freedom” or “How Collegiality Has Replaced Truth in Higher Education,” but rather “Who Retires When and How?” Exuberantly, the editor states: “Examine your own college’s policies in light of the report; use it to help in your own activism on campus around issues of retirement benefits.” Ah, so they called that activism today!

Pages 4-5 constituted an advertisement-article for the AAUP’s efforts to raise $10 million for an endowment fund. Money, indeed, was what higher education had become all about today. What would the AAUP do with more money, if not assure the academic status quo of self-censorship, backslapping, self-congratulating, and image hyperinflation? “Academic Freedom for a Free Society” was its motto. But the reality was rather Academic Enslavement for a Corporate Society. The AAUP boasted that it “defends the academic freedom of the professoriate,” but to do what, if not to do business as usual and otherwise fully cooperate in the corporate co-optation of the university by always exchanging silence for monetary remuneration? Academe was festering with tenured-professor functionaries and bureaucrats, those “goons in academic robes,” in the words of Cary Nelson, and seemed to be quite content manufacturing more of the same. It’s the system, dummy! The AAUP ought to have been fighting, not for more money, but, for example, to put an end to the three letters of recommendation requisite in the hiring process because those letters assured a candidate likely not to exercise his or her First Amendment rights. Instead, they certified the candidate unlikely to engage in vigorous debate concerning issues at his or her particular institution. At this very moment, I found myself in a self-censorship dilemma because the dean had promised to write a letter of recommendation. Why didn’t anybody speak out about that dubious institution? A simple statement by an employer of an employee’s attendance and assiduity should replace those letters.

Mayra Besosa’s article, “Golden State Solidarity,” was somewhat interesting especially the discussion on the attempt to apply “private-sector management models to the public sector” in higher education, otherwise known as New Public Management. In her concluding statement, Besosa noted: “as tenure-track faculty members become a smaller percentage of the professoriate, contingent [adjunct] faculty will increasingly have to carry the torch in the struggle to save higher education.” That sounded nice, but why had higher education gone down the tubes when tenure-track faculty had existed in larger numbers, if not because most tenured faculty were simply uninterested in truth and democracy at their particular institutions? Their interest tended to be more monetary and job-security than anything else. “Together, we (adjunct and tenure-track faculty) can challenge the notion that anyone should have to sacrifice human dignity and respect to the needs of cost-efficiency.” Again, that sounded fine and dandy, but what about those tenured faculty—the large majority—who didn’t seem to give a damn about dignity? What was most needed in higher education were faculty who would “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson) and who would let their lives “be a counterfriction to stop the machine” (Thoreau). So rare were such faculty in higher education today that one had to conclude tenure or the absence thereof had simply become irrelevant. Instead, faculty members overly concerned with offending or being offended had proliferated.

Of little if any interest was the superficial “filler” article authored by William C. Handorf, “Football or Physics?” It dealt with higher education… as featured on commemorative postal stamps over the years and how to make suggestions for future stamps. That article would have made a great feature story in The Chronicle of Higher Education! Well, I’d like to make a suggestion or two: a professor in black gown and multicolored court-jester hat or a professor holding a sword thrust into the heart of democracy. Hmm.

The report on institutions censured by the AAUP was of interest, listing 43 such institutions and developments regarding each one. But 43 seemed relatively small. I would have expected 99% of all institutions of higher education to be deserving of censure for intolerance of free speech and expression. It’s the system, dummy! The AAUP stipulated that its “censure is visited specifically upon” an institution’s “administration,” not faculty. Perhaps it was time it contemplated censuring the latter too. The institutions where I’ve taught all ought to have been censured for corrupt administrations and cowardly faculty bodies, yet not one of them appeared on the list, not Elmira College, Fitchburg State College, Bennett College, Grambling State College, nor Davenport University. Interestingly, some of the censured institutions had been on the AAUP list since the sixties and seventies and some clearly didn’t give a damn about their status.

More than half of this issue of Academe was devoted to a rather tedious business-like special report on Katrina and the diverse Louisiana universities affected by her. I did not read the report, only the very beginning.

Finally, Cary Nelson’s last-page editorial, “No Campus Is an Island,” dealt with tenure and the purported great fear of professors of the possibility of losing it! Well, that alone ought to have helped keep their muzzles firmly in place. But why would professors who rarely if ever dared openly criticize their particular institutions be so concerned with losing their jobs? That was a question Nelson did not address. Clearly, free speech was not the concern at all and perhaps ought not to be confused with academic freedom, which more likely dealt with the freedom not to publish, not to refresh ones courses with new materials, not to engage students sufficiently, and especially not to be an ardent supporter of the First Amendment. Nelson seemed to focus on—what else is new?—money, arguing that tenured faculty needed to “hold common cause” (i.e., holding on to tenure), but “How much solidarity should an assistant professor of art feel with an assistant professor of business earning more than twice as much?” Tenure ought to be eliminated. The majority of professors, who had it, clearly didn’t deserve it because they failed miserably to meet their moral obligation to encourage free speech and expression and vigorous debate on their particular campuses. With that regard, I tested the waters at each and every institution where I taught. Most professors (99%) were simply uninterested. That was the nature of the beast.

By the way, in the mid-90s, in vain, I tried to obtain help from the AAUP regarding the corruption I experienced first hand on the tenure track at a public college. AAUP members at that college (Fitchburg State, MA) proved entirely indifferent and unsupportive. Some even proved hostile. That college ended up paying me a secret monetary settlement because the corruption my case underscored was egregious. Yet those AAUP members chose to either ignore or belittle it. Most of them are still festering at that institution, ever grubbing for mo’ money…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Jack Conway

The Unspoken Mantra of U Mass English Professors: Just Say NO to Criticism!
When one reviews the corruption pervading the American academic intellectual world in the 1990s with regards teaching and research, the political corruption, the personal corruption, the institutional financial corruption—it is difficult not to believe in a destructive force at work, a fatal hubris. The one thread that seems to link all these corruptions is the intellectual arrogance of the players, their sense of being superior, their tendency to view others with disdain. That thread is a shameless breaking of the ordinary rules of society, as if, somehow, the breakers of the rules were earthly gods, incapable of being called to account...
—Martin Anderson, Imposters In The Temple

Unsurprisingly, the critical blog I’d recently addressed to University of Massachusetts English professors was essentially ignored by them (see October 16th). Ad hominem was the knee-jerk response of Professors Nelles and Skerrett. If you don’t know what ad hominem means, definitions and examples from, amongst others, U Mass English professors, are online at www.theamericandissident.org/AdHominem.htm.

In any case, several months ago (September 9th), I received an email from Jack Conway, a Bristol Community College and University of Massachussetts (Dartmouth) English professor. Conway was apparently angered, to say the least, that I’d actually dared criticize a rather lame statement he’d made on poetry (see below). Apparently, things like that just aren’t done at U Mass, where the proper thing to do is self-congratulate, backslap and praise ones colleagues and superiors.

Evidently, something is wrong at UMass, where professors are likely evaluated not in terms of truth telling and integrity, but rather sycophancy, collegiality, connections, and other lubrication of the machinery. The waves such professors will likely make, if any at all, will certainly not be made against the inherently corrupt university, but rather in line with “Waves of Scandal Rattle Beacon Hill” (article appearing in the Sunday Globe). Indeed, Conway ran for selectman this year!

The following is Professor Jack Conway’s email and my response to it, which Conway never answered.

FROM PROFESSOR JACK CONWAY:
Dear Mr. Bone [sic]: I am always inyterested [sic] when one of my many students bring to my attention any remarks regarding all my many publications. The follwoing [sic] was recently brought to my attention: “Jack Conway writes: ‘I teach my students at both Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth that the genre of poetry is a ‘big tent’ with room beneath it for many different forms and styles. I also teach them that there are many people with measuring tapes out there in the world of poetry today trying to measure American Poetry for a coffin and to beware of them.’ Perhaps Conway also needs to inform his students that poetry is, or at least should be, much more than “form and style.” It is, or at least should be, also substance. He needs to inform them which “substances” constitute taboos; for example, criticism of the University of Massachusetts and its creative writing professors. Conway needs to challenge his students to break those taboos. Moreover, he might inform them that that coffin is being measured perhaps because of the nation’s poetry professors, including Conway himself.” I presume it apperad [sic] in your blog or something. I am not sure. I find it hard to believe that you migth [sic] write something like this with so little information, including what I teach. Well, the Internet has been good for one thing: It has allowed people like yourself who woud [sic] not be published otherwise to try and feel some limited success. Good for you. As for me, I guess I'll get back to real publishing. Thanks for the comments. I's [sic] too bad you have it all wrong but I'm pretty sure your readers expect that. I kknow [sic] the student who brought this to my attention did. They said, "Look at this trite shit.." I had to laugh. When I sked [sic] who wrote it she said, "Some undereducated pig." Yikes. So there ya go. I guess the good news is that those of us who teach in colleges and universities reach far more people than stuff like this. In fact, I recently read a wonderful statement saying that blogs and self-publishing sites like I presume yours is, are now looked upon by t he current generation as vanity presses without the paper. Well, goodluck [sic] in whatever it is you do and I am sincerely glad that even without much of an education you can feel some limited success publ;ishing [sic] even if it is seen as pedestrian.

MY RESPONSE TO PROFESSOR JACK CONWAY:

To Professor Jack Conway: Come on, surely you can do better than making fun of my last name! And you really ought not to be encouraging students to engage in similar, childish ad hominem rhetoric (e.g., "Some undereducated pig."). With that regard, examine theamericandissident.org/AdHominem.htm. In fact, why not direct your students to that web page? It might actually incite them to think! All I did concerning you was simply examine with a sharp critical eye a rather vacuous statement you made regarding poetry (for the full context, consult theamericandissident.org/BookReviews-Rattle.htm). BTW, I do not blog, though admit I might like to try it in the near future. Vis-√†-vis publishing, why denigrate self-publishing, given the rather bourgeois nature of the publishing machine? Besides, since when did quantity (“all my publications”) indicate quality? Do you actually know any poets who haven’t published right and left and everywhere else? Indeed, being well-published today and vaunting that fact, as you do, is as banal as it gets. Since you’ve demeaned my record in that area without having any idea of it, I attach a partial list to this email. You note: “I am sincerely glad that even without much of an education you can feel some limited success…” But can you actually make such a broad determination regarding my “education” from five sentences? Or do you simply choose to perceive anyone apt to criticize you as automatically uneducated? If so, apparently you’re not the only one in higher education to do that. Indeed, it is as if an intellectual cancer has been spreading in the ranks of the professorate, rendering real critical thinking to the realm of improper manners, while lowering “education” to that of collegiality and general multicultural groupthink. For the record, I do possess a doctorate from the Universit√© de Nantes (France)… not that that makes me particularly “educated,” though through ivory-tower eyes it likely would. On another note, the plethora of spelling and grammar errors in your email ought to dumbfound, though given the state of networked-cronyism in Massachusetts, perhaps not. Indeed, reading your email reminded me of reading the worst of student papers. I suggest you consult my writing-well lecture (theamericandissident.org/DUWritingWell.htm), especially point #9 with regards proofreading and spell checking.

You note, regarding my five-sentence critique: “I guess the good news is that those of us who teach in colleges and universities reach far more people than stuff like this.” Good news? It would make me cry if not such old news. Those of you—not all, but perhaps as many as 99% of you—“who teach” have been disgracefully failing the citizenry relative to the importance of democracy. Far too many of you have proven to be frightfully terrible role models in your conformity (i.e., herd-like behavior), careerism, and spinelessness. You fail to teach the importance of questioning and challenging, not to mention vigorous debate, preferring instead to inculcate blind obedience to the canon and worship of its icons Pinsky, Collins, Dove, Angelou, Snyder et al. Finally, what you failed to do is examine my argument that for poetry to be meaningful, it should be more than simple forme, metaphor, and playful wit. In other words, it NEEDS to contain substance. These things said, why not consider subscribing to The American Dissident? Your students (well, perhaps not that female) would surely appreciate its refreshingly critical stance.

[No response]

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Warning: The Citizen General Has Deemed the Current Academic Culture May Be Harmful to the Spirit of Democracy

An “Extremely Presumptuous,” “Aggressive” “Too Pointed,” “Insulting and Reviling” “Jeremiad”
—An Open Letter to the English-Department Faculty of the University of Massachusetts—

But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
—George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press”

Originally, this essay was sent as an open letter to roughly 60 English-department faculty of the University of Massachusetts, as an experiment to test the waters of democracy in academe and otherwise determine how many of those professors contacted agree de facto with the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Healy v. James (408 U.S. 169, 180) that the university "is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas'”. I’d been performing such experiments for over a decade. A week later, I put it up on the Internet as a blog entry (see wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com) and informed those professors in a second missive.
The original essay was embellished with the responses received (only three of the 60 professors and none of the four student editors contacted), as well as with the new thoughts those responses provoked. Two self-protecting established-order taboos were transgressed: 1. naming names and 2. overtly defining and criticizing the academic culture. Regarding especially the first taboo, a retired professor and editor of a journal devoted to ethics and not part of the University of Massachusetts responded to the piece as a submission for publication consideration: “The essay is too pointed for general dissemination, so I am sorry but I cannot use it.”
His curt reply actually implied much, so I provoked him to respond in greater length by suggesting the essay probably implicated him personally. His response was the following:

I cannot use it because it is much too specific, geared to the problems, as you see them, at a particular set of institutions, and a small group of their professors who have displeased you or who do not like you. It would be of little interest to general JIE readers. It is also something of a vitriolic jeremiad, a way of getting back at those folks, a catharis [sic] and vindication for you (but not for us); it lacks credibility: Your experience has not been that of others, mine for example. Additionally, your perspective on freedom, truth, intellectual freedom, and especially democracy do not tell the whole story. Democracy, for eaxpmple [sic], can be horrific, as I am sure you know. All of this was contained, sub rosa, in my previous note, the one that indicated that I cannot use it. I hope this helps. (I too am a dissident.)

The topic of academic culture was perhaps a lot hotter than I’d initially suspected—downright taboo in the Orwellian sense. Needless to say, I addressed the points made, noting first that my goal was not at all to upset him, for after all, he’d previously published me. His lack of interest in the core fundament of the essay, that is, the need to radically alter the academic culture for the sake of democracy surprised me. Clearly, that culture was fundamentally corrupt, one that rewarded those who never questioned or challenged it and banished those who did in precisely the same manner as the Wall Street financial culture which had managed to cripple the country today. How, I wondered, could he be blind to it? Perhaps those who are well fed by it tended to perceive it with rose-colored glasses in the same manner as those in the financial community immediately prior to the egregious debacle. Greenspan hadn’t even seen it coming, he’d said.
Furthermore, the academic culture which I decried was not simply restricted to a “particular set of institutions” (i.e., the University of Massachusetts). It was widespread like a carcinoma in the belly of democracy. One had to begin somewhere. Also, since I did not know any of the professors contacted personally, they did not particularly displease me, at least not any more than professors elsewhere. And those professors did not know me, so did not necessarily dislike me. Granted, I had written a negative review of a book written by one of those professors. But certainly that did not give me cause to dislike 60 of his colleagues. The reason I targeted the University of Massachusetts was simply because I live and publish in the state. Also, I’m quite familiar with William Bulger, former president of that university, who received a controversial one-million dollar public pension and banned Ralph Nader from entering the campus building where a presidential debate was being held back in 2000. Where, I wondered, were the English professors then? Thus to imply I wrote the essay simply to get back at professors who I didn’t like and who didn’t like me was a paltry excuse to avoid dealing with its essence and akin to ad hominem.
Why, I asked the editor, would readers interested in ethics not be interested in ethical issues regarding academe? And why did the essay necessarily lack “credibility”? Where precisely was it lacking? Was it not credible that if a professor spoke out against a corrupt college president or dean, he would likely be punished, right or wrong? When teaching, I always insist students back their statements with precise examples to illustrate them. Unfortunately, the editor didn’t respond to any of the points I made. Well, he did respond that he had responded, but:

Perhaps ypu [sic] misunderstood what I said, which was that I did reply at some length but the computer deleted it and I refused to rewrite it. But even if you did not, you overreact. I said I could not use this essay which is merely a jeremiad. Thousands of editors continually reject millions of submissions, for hundreds of different and legitimate reasons. I did not say that I would not publisher others that you tender. This type of aggressive action toward another human being is why many of your "correspondents" ignore or hassle you. And it is extremely presumptious [sic] of you to indicate that all of these many folks do not stand up for what they believe. Many do; many suffer; some die. Indeed, my own father died because he stood up for high standards at his college and was hurt, became depressed, and died!

Yes, maybe his father had stood up, but what about him? More ad hominem! To denigrate efforts to attract attention to a serious problem—after all, academe represents the intellectual core of the nation—by labeling them “overreact,” “jeremiad,” “extremely presumptuous,” and “aggressive” is not surprising, because uncomfortable truths will likely always be labeled thusly. One must, however, wonder why so many grown adults have such thin skins. Clearly, the educationist focus on self-esteem building in the nation’s schools and even colleges will end up making them even thinner. Anything apt to implicate them will likely be perceived as “aggressive” and serve to explain their resultant silence or ad hominem. And doesn’t the use of ad hominem reflect anger? And doesn’t anger reflect a target hit square in the bull’s-eye? Another thing I ask students to do, especially writing students, is to contemplate their taboos. Perhaps professors ought to do that also. Most know precisely what they dare not speak openly about. In fact, any writer likely knows damn well what he should not write about, if he wishes to eat. The same goes for a professor. Perhaps good writers and good professors are not only aware of their taboos, but actually dare transgress them from time to time.
Over the past couple of decades, I’ve had ample experience questioning and challenging many academics, which has enabled me to draw certain conclusions, including most “do not stand up” and/or simply do not possess strong principles. Clearly, the culture attracts such people. What most end up believing in is turf domination, job security, and money. Those are not strong principles. Because the culture acts as a cocoon (the ivory tower!), assuring a life as a protected species of sorts, many professors ineluctably knee-jerk react when somebody like me suddenly appears. Only several weeks prior to this experiment, I’d sent a critique of The Kenyon Review $1,000 per person literary gala to some 23 English-department members of Kenyon College. Only the professor-editor responded, though he essentially ignored the points made. What about the other 22 other professors? How had they become so adverse to debate, so adverse to the university’s essential role as "the ‘marketplace of ideas'”?

Even if my “perspective on freedom, truth, intellectual freedom, and especially democracy do not tell the whole story,” why should that constitute a reason to truncate debate? Where is the logic in that? “Sub rosa”? And if one is a dissident, why quietly put that fact in parentheses? Dissidents do not hide out in democracies! They hide out in autocracies, where free expression can result in execution or incarceration! Dissidents consciously think of those areas deemed taboo by their superegos, those areas that could affect their “success.” Dissidents consciously transgress those areas periodically. That’s what makes them dissidents. A key taboo for a professor inevitably includes the institution feeding him and his immediate colleagues. It is odd, to say the least, that even the tenured dare not transgress that key taboo. They—not all, but certainly most—have become conditioned like Pavlovian dogs or rather cows and sheep vis-√†-vis electrical fences. As an example, one of those electrical fences where I taught several years ago at a public HBCU was the prayer held at each faculty meeting. Consciously, I thus dared touch that fence and openly criticized the prayer in an article published in the student newspaper. Unsurprisingly, at least to me, not one colleague responded. A student, however, stated: “Dr. Slone, man, you’ve got balls!” No, I’m not patting myself on the back at all, just presenting the facts. Besides, what that student said confirmed that even he was well aware that the academic culture dictated that professors should not be critical of the institutions employing them, requisite behavior at antipodes to the needs of democracy.
Due to that editor’s criticism (“too pointed”), I decided to rewrite the essay in an effort not to transgress the first taboo, naming names, though likely that wouldn’t help get it published, especially not by professor-editors, for how can professors possibly accept an essay that might actually implicate them as, amongst other things, indifferent to the needs of democracy? What the nation could use today is a citizen general akin to the surgeon general. Such a citizen general would likely issue a warning that the current academic culture may indeed be harmful to the health of the spirit of democracy.
The academic culture has bred a professorate largely indifferent to the needs of democracy. Likely, most professors today would be as content under a dictatorship, as long as that system fed them well and offered life-time job security. Theirs is the same academic culture that responded with deafening silence during the Nazi regime in Germany and McCarthyism in America (the AAUP kept its mouth shut!). So what if other citizens are not well fed, do not have jobs, and do not have health benefits and pensions! So what if professors cannot openly criticize certain things! So what if they have to turn a blind eye now and then, especially regarding colleagues and the institution! Theirs is and has been a largely selfish outlook on society and civilization. They are being paid for their silence. Theirs and the very tenure process have become shameful Faustian pacts.
In the spirit of democracy, openness to other points of view, desire to debate with those holding opposing ideas, encouragement of criticism, a certain equality amongst citizens—as opposed to autocratic president-dean-chair hierarchy—, and unabashed truth telling ought to be held in high regard. Yet most professors are either indifferent or downright hostile to those things. In academe, truth telling has largely been replaced by herd-like multiculturalist groupthink and other politically-correct orthodoxy, not to mention the panoply of copycat, educationist diversionary fads of the day, including learning centers, portfolios, assessment, technology in the classroom, and leadership academies. Clearly uncomfortable truth telling has no business at all in the business of higher education.
The academic culture has indeed become selfish and exclusionary and is based on sycophancy, fear (e.g., professors and administrators, more and more frequently, sign articles with pseudonyms in the Chronicle of Higher Education), cowardice, careerism, networking and resultant cronyism, rampant self-censorship, speech codes, self-congratulating, image distortion, and indifference to the needs of democracy (i.e., courageous truth telling and vigorous debate). As for the latter, the curt response from one professor illustrates the point: “I specialize in English literature between l485 and l650 and will be happy to read anything connected with that.”
In other words, the health of democracy and the nation is not that professor’s concern at all. Yet if we do not somehow change the ostrich-head-in-the-sand academic culture he illustrates, how can we expect our democracy to be a healthy one? The academic culture also seems to favor the denigration of anyone apt to offer opinions not of the herd. Indeed, another professor wrote: “do [sic] you really think that insulting and reviling the faculty is the way to persuade us to read your publication? You don't kmow [sic] anything about sany [sic] of us and your e-mail suggersts [sic] that you don't know aything [sic] about politics either.”
Yet if trying to instigate vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, is to be deemed “insulting” and “reviling,” how indeed can we expect our democracy to be a thriving one? The third professor to respond wrote even more curtly: “Quit spamming us, you loser.” Evidently, for that professor, a loser is a man who questions and challenges what others dare not. It’s also a man who has different opinions than his and who dares ponder the health of democracy. If a man questions and challenges a university and its professors, when he doesn’t belong to that community, that man is easily dismissed as “spamming.” Yet the 60 professors contacted were all teaching at a public institution funded by taxpayers. Shouldn’t non-connected citizens be curious and even attempt to involve themselves in it? Following that professor’s logic, citizens should keep their noses out of the banking industry currently wreaking havoc on the nation because, well, they’re not part of that community. Clearly, that professor somehow felt implicated by my less-than laudatory description of the academic culture he evidently embraces. Needless to say, I brought those thoughts to his attention. His reply was again base ad hominem: “You're a dullard who imposes himself unwanted on strangers. Cut it out.”
Well, how not to add that remark to my webpage on ad hominem, which explains the phenomenon and illustrates it with the numerous epithets hurled at me over the years by angered intellectuals (see theamericandissident.org/AdHominem.htm). Because I’ve been the brunt of ad hominem so often, I’ve become quite conscious of it and make a determined effort to avoid it. I informed that professor he was now part of that webpage, but he never again responded.
Having had ample contact with college professors over the past several decades, as a publisher and professor, I’ve sadly discovered the large majority of those professors to be entirely indifferent to the spirit of democracy and lacking the courage to speak openly critical of their particular institutions and colleagues, no matter how nefarious. Now and then, as editor of The American Dissident, a journal devoted to literature, democracy and dissidence, I receive poetry submissions from English professors. Always those submissions avoid dealing with particular institutions and colleagues. Always I write back to those professors requesting poems that risk criticizing the immediate, as opposed to the distant and safe, as in the Iraq war or the president, and always I receive no further response.
The lack of hardcore criticism of institutions of higher education by employees of those institutions must be decried, which is precisely what I’ve attempted to do here. “Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine,” had advised Thoreau. Why is there not one English-department member at the University of Massachusetts who has the courage to heed those words? Look at what that machine—and not just the academic component—has become today! “Go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways,” had written Emerson. Why is there not one member who actually has the audacity to do that and even risk, just a little, his or her precious career? Is it the burning desire to achieve the final carrot of Emeritus designation? But what does that designation, more often than not, really imply today, if not did not make waves and buck the system?
Why is there not one English-department member at that university open to the ideas expounded in The American Dissident? Note a handful of other universities and colleges are subscribers, including Harvard University, Buffalo University, Brown University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Endicott College, and Catawba Valley Community College. Why is there not one English department member at that university who would at least introduce his or her students to the journal’s website (theamericandissident.org)? After all, the journal is quite unique in the agora of literary journals, for it actually dares counter the academic/literary established-order. Likely, the libraries at that university possess nothing like it in their collections. Yet the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights stipulates, in particular: “II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
Shouldn't professors be encouraging students to consider "all points of view"? Indeed, if they cannot brook criticism, let alone encourage it, what kind of role models have they become for students? Have the English departments of that university become so business-oriented that the model they seek to project and inculcate is nothing more than the faithful academic apparatchik? Not long ago and not as a result of this particular experiment, another English department member of the University of Massachusetts responded to a simple criticism I’d lodged regarding a rather vacuous statement he’d made on poetry (see theamericandissident.org/Reviews-Rattle.htm).

Dear Mr. Bone [sic]: I am always inyterested [sic] when one of my many students bring to my attention any remarks regarding all my many publications. The follwoing [sic] was recently brought to my attention: “Jack Conway writes: ‘I teach my students at both Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth that the genre of poetry is a ‘big tent’ with room beneath it for many different forms and styles. I also teach them that there are many people with measuring tapes out there in the world of poetry today trying to measure American Poetry for a coffin and to beware of them.’ Perhaps Conway also needs to inform his students that poetry is, or at least should be, much more than “form and style.” It is, or at least should be, also substance. He needs to inform them which “substances” constitute taboos; for example, criticism of the University of Massachusetts and its creative writing professors. Conway needs to challenge his students to break those taboos. Moreover, he might inform them that that coffin is being measured perhaps because of the nation’s poetry professors, including Conway himself.” I presume it apperad [sic] in your blog or something. I am not sure. I find it hard to believe that you migth [sic] write something like this with so little information, including what I teach. Well, the Internet has been good for one thing: It has allowed people like yourself who woud [sic] not be published otherwise to try and feel some limited success. Good for you. As for me, I guess I'll get back to real publishing. Thanks for the comments. I's [sic] too bad you have it all wrong but I'm pretty sure your readers expect that. I kknow [sic] the student who brought this to my attention did. They said, "Look at this trite shit.." I had to laugh. When I sked [sic] who wrote it she said, "Some undereducated pig." Yikes. So there ya go. I guess the good news is that those of us who teach in colleges and universities reach far more people than stuff like this. In fact, I recently read a wonderful statement saying that blogs and self-publishing sites like I presume yours is, are now looked upon by t he current generation as vanity presses without the paper. Well, goodluck [sic] in whatever it is you do and I am sincerely glad that even without much of an education you can feel some limited success publ;ishing [sic] even if it is seen as pedestrian.

The pattern illustrated by the responding professors is frightening, to say the least, especially if one considers that some of them, like the one who wrote the above email, might actually be encouraging students to engage in similar ad hominem rhetoric. Also, one must wonder why not one of the 60 professors contacted would entertain the thought of introducing his or her students to alternative ideas and invite me to speak in front of one or several of his or her classes on literature, democracy, and dissidence? Like those professors, well, perhaps not all of them, I too have a doctoral degree. To date, only one English professor has invited me to speak. Indeed, he invited me several more times after that and even uses The American Dissident in his creative-writing courses. He was not a friend or even an acquaintance and teaches at a private college in Massachusetts. He was, however, unusually open to alternative points of view and unusually curious. He should be praised, though I fear the opposite might result… and probably behind his back. He risks disfavor of his colleagues and department chair by inviting someone like me. By no means do I belittle that risk. I praise him for taking it.
Finally, the current academic culture seems to work to soften professors, rather than strengthen them, and not only physically but also mentally. Thought is often better provoked when one is standing on the edge of society, as opposed to sitting in an armchair in a wainscoted office well inserted into society. Certainly, if I’d been accepted by academe, that would have happened to me. Instead, I’ve continually been rejected by it, which not only has continually reinforced my critical edge and eye, but also enabled me to have experiences I wouldn’t have had if I’d succeeded at the tenure game, including teaching gigs at two HBCUs (North Carolina and Louisiana) and on two Navy battle ships. Moreover, I wouldn’t have created The American Dissident and wouldn’t have written hundreds of pages of critical essays, poems, and creative nonfiction. Instead, I would have written tedious scholarship in the field of geolinguistics. In any case, the academic culture must be radically altered if our democracy is to survive. The university must reconsider its hiring and promotional practices and begin rewarding those who actually dare "go upright and vital" and value the importance of “the marketplace of ideas,” while eliminating those who do not, even if well published. Professors need to stop being so corporate-like in their demeanor and attitude. Given the exposed corrupt tie-and-jacket mob on Wall Street today, one would think intelligent, honest individuals with PhDs would reject that attire and demeanor.
What do those 60 professors contacted intend to do to help alter the nefarious academic culture briefly described here? Remain in denial and tighten up the old muzzle and apply for a sabbatical, extra courses, grant monies, or early retirement, business as usual, or rather, literature as usual? I was really looking forward to their responses and really hoped a free and open debate on the concerns expressed here might actually be engaged. Unfortunately, professorial anger and/or apathy were all I’d obtained from the English-department members of the University of Massachusetts. Over the years, however, I’ve grown used to such disappointments. After all, my entire generation—the Sixties—sold out… to the Academy and elsewhere! Nevertheless, I will continue until the day I die hacking away in certain futility at the immense brick wall, of which those professors choose to form part.

Sent to UMass--Amherst: jenny@english.umass.edu, almeidab@english.umass.edu, cbachelder@english.umass.edu, bartolomeo@english.umass.edu, mailto:mjblack@english.umass.edush.umass.edu, nbromell@english.umass.edu, carlin@english.umass.edu, mailto:mclingman@english.umass.edumass.edu, sdaly@english.umass.edu, janed@english.umass.edu, ldoyle@english.umass.edu, mespada@english.umass.edu, kfarrell@english.umass.edu, tjfernan@english.umass.edu, jfreeman@english.umass.edu, egallo@english.umass.edu, gizzi@hfa.umass.edu, sharris@english.umass.edu, murhen@earthlink.com, anneh@english.umass.edu, hhoang@english.umass.edu, fholland@english.umass.edu, ruthj@english.umass.edu, afkinney@english.umass.edu, knoper@english.umass.edu, donnal@english.umass.edu, masonl@english.umass.edu, mordecai@english.umass.edu, sabinamurray@comcast.net, nadkarni@english.umass.edu, mjobrien@english.umass.edu, jrosenberg@english.umass.edu, russworm@english.umass.edu, skerrett@english.umass.edu, jlsolber@english.umass.edu, jspencer@english.umass.edu, tate@hfa.umass.edu, dtoomey@english.umass.edu, rwelburn@english.umass.edu, daraw@hfa.umass.edu, jeyoung@english.umass.edu, azucker@english.umass.edu

Sent to UMass--Lowell: Melissa_Pennell@uml.edu, Diana_Archibald@uml.edu, Todd_Avery@uml.edu, Laura_Barefield@uml.edu, William_Coughlin@uml.edu, Andre_Dubus@uml.edu, William_Hersey@uml.edu, Hilary_Holladay@uml.edu, Jeannie_Judge@uml.edu, Susan_Kirtley@uml.edu, Mary_Kramer@uml.edu, Bridget_Marshall@uml.edu, Marlowe_Miller@uml.edu, Michael_Millner@uml.edu, Keith_Mitchell@uml.edu, Julie_Nash@uml.edu, William_Roberts@uml.edu, Jonathan_Silverman@uml.edu, Anthony_Szczesiul@uml.edu, Joseph_Zaitchik@uml.edu, connector@uml.edu

Sent to UMass--Boston:
pamela.annas@umb.edu, margherita.cappellli@umb.edu, carole.center@umb.edu, carol.chandler@umb.edu, teddy.chocos@umb.edu, ann.erde@umb.edu, john.hess@umb.edu, sandra.howland@umb.edu, esther.iwanaga@umb.edu, janet.mickevich@umb.edu,

Sent to UMass--Dartmouth
chouser@umassd.edu, jblitefield@umassd.edu, acohen@umassd.edu, sharrison@umassd.edu, wnelles@umassd.edu, pwhite@umassd.edu, jblitefield@umassd.edu, jbobrick@umassd.edu, ceisenhart@umassd.edu, sevans@umassd.edu, jgardner@umassd.edu, sharrison@umassd.edu, chouser@umassd.edu, jkellerman@umassd.edu, rlarschan@umassd.edu, jmarlow@umassd.edu, wnelles@umassd.edu, mpeters@umassd.edu, j1riley@umassd.edu, jschaaf@umassd.edu, lsun@umassd.edu, rwaxler@umassd.edu, cwhite@umassd.edu, pwhite@umassd.edu

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An Experiment in Democracy: Kenyon College

Money, Tenure, and Tuxedo Literature
Well, the sudden idea to write each of you actually put a grin on my face, though short lived. My question is simple: might there be one—yes, just one—English Department member at Kenyon College who might be able to perceive, even if but for a brief moment, beyond the paradigm of established-order literature? Might there be one of you—yes, just one of you—who might actually be willing to “listen”—not necessarily agree with, but just “listen”—to what is not within that paradigm?

As a professor (when employed, that is), I fully understand the expectations of tenure, which render taboo the questioning and challenging of ones colleagues, department, institution and, in the case of literature, the canon. University life from grad school on up is a kind of subtle and sometimes not so subtle indoctrinating process. If a student, question and challenge your professor’s fundamental aesthetic tastes and you will likely not obtain a letter of recommendation. It has become a bite your lip, shut your mouth culture. Few escape established-order indoctrination, though many will argue they’ve not been infected. The rewards are too great to escape.

In any case, nine months ago I sent the editors of The Kenyon Review a not very fawning email asking why the need for self-vaunting, which seems to have become all too commonplace in the milieu of poets and professors. “Always dazzled by its riches, when it arrives, I grab it and read it no matter what else there is to do,” states Susan Hahn on the review’s website.

What are Kenyon College English professors teaching students today? I asked the editors. Icon worship, icon ingurgitation, literary networking, self-aggrandizement, and self-congratulations? Shouldn’t professors be teaching students rigorous questioning and challenging of the academic/literary established-order instead? Shouldn’t they be teaching that vigorous debate is the cornerstone of democracy?

Nine months later, yesterday in fact, I received an email (not a response) from The Kenyon Review, which startled me: “The Board of Trustees of The Kenyon Review is pleased to honor Richard Ford as the 2008 recipient of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement at a gala dinner on Thursday, November 6 at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Tickets are $1,000 per person and include dinner and cocktails, with proceeds benefiting The Kenyon Review.”

Wow, has it really gotten that bad? A literary journal with a board of trustees and hosting a thousand-dollar per plate cocktail dinner at the Four Seasons! Writers in tuxedos! Poets in tuxedos! Professors in tuxedos!
If indeed you are teaching—exclusively teaching—the kind of tuxedo literature evidently promoted by Kenyon Review, perhaps one of you—yes, just one of you—might be daring enough to stretch your ears just a little beyond the walls of that comfortable tuxedo paradigm, listen, and even better yet encourage your students to do the same. You might wish to begin by introducing them to this open letter, which, since it is “open,” is posted at wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com. You could encourage them to even respond to it. You could even encourage your colleagues to respond to it.

Finally, you might also wish to get Kenyon College’s library to subscribe to The American Dissident, a journal of literature, democracy, and dissidence, which stands in direct opposition to the Kenyon Review in its open critical stance of the academic/literary thousand-dollar dinner established order. A one-year subscription costs only $16.

Your students deserve to be introduced to all points of view, not simply those approved by the Chamber of Commerce, pillars of the community, and bourgeois suburbanites.

Will one of you actually surprise with a response?

Sent to: boeckelere@kenyon.edu, carson@kenyon.edu, clarvoe@kenyon.edu, davidsoa@kenyon.edu, fernandok@kenyon.edu, garciai@kenyon.edu, hawkst@kenyon.edu, heidts@kenyon.edu, hyde@kenyon.edu, klein@kenyon.edu, klugef@kenyon.edu, laycock@kenyon.edu, lentzpe@kenyon.edu, lobanovrosto@kenyon.edu, lynnd@kenyon.edu, mankoff@kenyon.edu, masonte@kenyon.edu, matzj@kenyon.edu, mcadamsj@kenyon.edu, mcmullen@kenyon.edu, schoenfeldj@kenyon.edu, smithju@kenyon.edu, vigdermanp@kenyon.edu, kenyonreview@kenyon.edu

Monday, September 29, 2008

Frozen in Blind Acceptance

A friend brought to my attention a couple of rather predictable essays on poetry contests appearing in Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century. Contrary to assertions, the real problem with contests is not so much the transparent corruption of some contest judges, but rather autocratic aesthetics. “Manuscripts are more likely to be evaluated solely on their merit today than ever before,” writes contest-winner David Alpaugh, who believes instances of sweaty literary incest rare. BUT what is artistic or poetic excellence (i.e., “merit”)? You’ll know it when you sniff it tends to be the usual implied response. Sadly, Alpaugh seems to think that “merit” is an objective term. Sadly, I doubt he could ever be made to consider it otherwise. Sadly, Rattle operates to keep the very idea that “merit” may indeed be subjective out of the agora of ideas. It has banned my opinions, for example, and backs the censorship effected by the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Foundation, and Poets & Writers, Inc..

“A well-advertised contest, judged by a well-known poet, will attract hundreds of manuscripts, each accompanied by a $15 to $25 reading fee,” notes Alpaugh. BUT what does that really say about the judge? What does “well-known poet” really imply? It implies playing the game, never bucking the system, never daring to go against the poesy grain, and simply opening ones mouth, saying ahhhh, and swallowing the gob of bourgeois verse fed by some blank face. Does that really make a good judge? Is Billy Collins a good judge? “I mean, I write about saltshakers and knives and forks—and talk like a politician,” he stated proudly. AND what does it say about the herd of contest-prize seekers? So few seem capable of questioning and challenging anything today! Well, perhaps it’s understandable since likely many of them are college grads used to groveling for letters of recommendation, those certifications that one is likely not to question and challenge what shouldn’t be questioned and challenged.

“They [contest administrators] are also free to solicit work from poets who have an established track record with at least a segment of the poetry reading public,” notes Alpaugh. How it pains/irritates me to contemplate this fellow who writes a seemingly analytical article on contests, but fails to examine the very underbelly of the ugly creature. What the hell does “established track record” mean? He can’t even ask himself that question. It’s as if it’s become taboo for those who want to be poet “success” stories. So, I’ll do it for him and even supply the response: “Established” always implies accepted by the established order. Instead of blindly sucking up to that order, we need poets willing to question it and question why it promotes certain kinds of poetry, discourages criticism of it (Rattle sure has done its part!), and why it promotes the likes of Billy Collins et al.

And what about the poets like me who NEVER apply to contests? Alpaugh never even poses the question as a possibility. Oh, but of course, all real poets seek to be contest winners! Christ, it’s like the back of a box of Wheaties or Cheerios! Alpaugh fails to even sniff the very bourgeois stench of the literary established order and the bourgeois type of poetry it peddles today. [Note how the very term “bourgeois” seems to have conveniently gone out of use today.]

“Though English professors would probably be more objective and impartial referees, they lack the name recognition crucial for a successful poetry contest,” argues Alpaugh. But why the fuck would they be more objective? Alpaught can’t seem to ask himself fundamental questions either. Name-recognition? Is that what it’s come down to? What is wrong with these scribbling poets? Tenure implies a certain degree of indoctrination. English profs are likely indoctrinated in the bourgeois mindset of bourgeois aesthetics and bourgeois poetry. “The more famous the judge, the more entry fees. As always, po-biz trumps ars poetica,” notes Alpaugh. BUT why doesn’t he even ask why poets act like a herd trampling towards the famous? Why don’t they behave as individuals instead and question fame? What all of this nonsense is really about is the taming of the poet and literature in an effort to render it sin cojones innocuous highbrow entertainment. Look at the immense difference between the samizdat literature during Stalin’s day and that in America today. It’s a question of powerful and threatening versus tame and playing the poesy game. By the way, Alpaugh wants everyone to know he is “winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize and owner of Small Poetry Press, David Alpaugh has both won and run a Poetry Book Contest.” Whatever the fuck happened to the SIXTIES??? Headline: HIPPIES HATCH BUSINESS-MINDED POETLINGS!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Crony Capitalism Paving the Way to Crony Culturalism: the Massachusetts Poetry Festival… Brought to You by State Cultural Apparatchik, Charles Coe

What really pains—deeply pains—is the bourgeois grip upon poetry and the literary milieu. It is an iron grip not unlike that of the Soviet Writers Union under Stalin. It silences dissent effectively. Indeed, if one wants to be a “successful” poet (or poetry editor), one must not upset it, let alone question it. Thus is the sad state of the literary milieu today in America. The voice of dissent is out there, but it is up against a massive, impervious brick wall. So, for a poet today, the choice must be a conscious, deliberate one, between “success” and failure, repression and truth. For some poets, however, we do not have the choice. Truth is our muse.

Why, one could wonder, was I not invited to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival since I have been a long-time Massachusetts poet and an editor of a poetry journal based in Concord, Massachusetts since 1998? Why, one could also wonder, was The American Dissident, the journal in question, not invited to exhibit at the Festival’s small press fair? Well, the answer to those two questions is simple. Charles Coe, the Festival’s chief organizational apparatchik (i.e., Project Administrator—I just love the corporate titles these fellows adorn) and Massachusetts Cultural Council (see www.theamericandissident.org/LitCCC.htm) career cultural functionary does not like dissent at all, let alone vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy. Only a month ago had I attempted, in vain of course, to obtain from him some rather simple answers to some rather damning questions regarding MCC policies, including the public funding of organizations that form part of multibillion-dollar endowed private universities like Harvard Museums and Agni (Boston University) and the refusal to fund any literary journal not having a budget over $10,000—a very strange policy indeed, or perhaps not for it likely works against the dissident spirit.

As for the CEO of Concord Poetry Center (www.theamericandissident.org/LitCPC.htm), an active participant in the Festival, Joan Houlihan also detests dissent and vigorous debate. Once upon a time, she’d written me:

“The idea of your teaching a workshop or delivering a lecture on the art of literary protest or poetry protest, or simply protest (Concord is where it all started!) occurred to me even before you mentioned it, so, yes, it’s something I will consider as we progress (this is only our first event). However, I must say I don’t favor having you teach at the center if you protest the reading.”

How odd! Or am I the only one who can see the oddity? Later she wrote: “We welcome dissidents! All the best poets were dissidents.” But then I informed her that I was going to protest and to hell with the workshop possibility. Her response was again an odd one: “What are you protesting? Seems like you’d welcome a place in your area for poets who are not part of the poetry establishment.” But what was Houlihan talking about? Not part of the poetry establishment? Horseshit! She is part of the establishment, regularly gets funded by the establishment and only invites poets of the establishment to read at the Center.

Thus, I’ve been around protesting lame poets, poetasters, and poetophiles for the past decade and even longer for back in 1995 or 96, I’d protested against the corruption at Fitchburg State College and brought it to the attention of Pinsky, who was chosen as graduation speaker. Pinsky, of course, chose to take the money and, like a good establishment boy, remain deaf and dumb. Evidently, for the average established-order poet or established-order wannabee, protest is fine, as long as not against the poetry milieu. “Pissing off politicians, corporations, zealots, and/or lawyers is acceptable and, in fact, encouraged,” writes M. Scott Douglass, editor of MainStreet Rag. Well, I challenged him on that and asked why it was apparently not acceptable to piss off poets and poet organizations. He did not/could not respond. Logic has died or never did thrive in the hearts of established-order poets and editors.

On another note, though really always the same note, why the NEED for egregious, ubiquitous self-vaunting in the poetry milieu, as in “The Massachusetts Poetry Festival is a three-day celebration of the poets, poetry, and literary heritage of a state whose contribution to American poetry is unsurpassed in the nation”?Is Massachusetts, a state plagued by rampant cronyism in all sectors including the cultural one, really “unsurpassed” in the realm of poetry? Perhaps in the realm of cronyism, but certainly not in poetry. Why the NEED for such feel-good exaggeration? Shouldn’t we expect more from poets and poet organizers? Moreover, a thinking poet—how few of us there are!—ought to ask him or herself who were the appointed judges who selected the appointed poets to read at the festival and, in fact, who appointed the judges in the first place. One could also ask why the judges (Coe?) chose to invite the usual suspects Pinsky, Espada, Sanders (The Fuggs?), and Dubus. Likely, they (or he) did so because they are dazzled by literary celebrity, know the chosen poets are safe, inoffensive, and do not question and challenge (i.e., think as individuals, disconnected from the crony careerist network). BUT does poetry really need INOFFENSIVENESS or does it need DISSIDENCE, QUESTIONING AND CHALLENGING of poetry events made safe for the bourgeois pillars of society, and POETS WHO WOULD DARE GO AGAINST THE GRAIN OF POETRY AS USUAL? Given the sad state of the nation, and not simply with regards the economy and war all the time, the answer to that question ought to be crystal clear. Crony capitalism has given way to crony culturalism.

Well, since I stand in direct opposition to the hypocrite Houlihan and for the sake of democracy, shouldn’t the Massachuestts Poetry Festival at least place a link to The American Dissident (and this blog!) in the list of links on its webpage? Let’s see what Coe has to say about that, though I already know what he has to say about it: NEIN!

Today, I swam across Walden Pond likely for the last time this year. The water is getting chilly! A dissident needs to stay in top physical shape, while on the other hand, a cultural council apparatchik will likely get as flaccid as a porker.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gen-X Takes on the Censorial Hippie Helm

Gen-X takes on the censorial hippie helm. This blog will likely be a blog into the void of the universe, the void of death pending, read by nobody but I. Ainsi soit-il…

A DeCordova Museum gen-x curator rejected my request to display the dissident watercolors exhibited at the Concord Free Public Library at the museum. It pisses me off. Onwards nonetheless! I’d contacted Nick Capasso, curator at DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, just a couple of “blocks” down the street from Walden Pond, informing him of the exhibit of dissident watercolors, “Literature, Democracy & Dissidence” at the Art Gallery in the Concord Free Public Library last month. He visited:

“While DeCordova Museum does have a long track record of presenting politically engaged contemporary art, I’m afraid that we will not be able to include your work in our exhibition program. Good luck fining [sic] other venues for your work.”
What pisses me off is not so much the “good luck” automaton refrain these fellows collegially chorus like toads in the evening, but rather the autocratic NEIN! It bubbled up in me over a couple of weeks then popped out just yesterday, took form as a new sketch and eventual watercolor. How to do it? I pondered and pondered, then came up with the Nazi idea. Yeah, curators like Nazis. Autocratic Aesthetics! So, I hunted for the fellow’s photo and a photo of Adolf, found both, and sketched. The curator looks like a gen-X fellow—replacement yuppie—, as does the new director. It does piss me off to witness these young bourgeois grads dictating what art shall appear in the nation’s museums and what art shall be deemed NEIN! Ah, but thus is life in America. So, the least one can do is create from the cultural crap covering over the landscape or crony culturalism to paraphrase that nice new term, crony capitalism.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Activist poems wanted

Just beginning here. Never done this before. I do not expect this blog to become popular. The American Dissident is not popular, nor is it meant to be. So many seem to judge quality on the basis of "hits" (i.e., popularity). Sad. Hopefully, I'll do one or several entries per week. It would be nice if they might elicit a little debate. As mentioned (Mather tires of this!), vigorous debate is the cornerstone of a thriving democracy. Evidently, it is not the cornerstone of the academic/literary established order milieu, which thus must not be a thriving democracy.

Anyhow, this blog, my first one and first entry, is to announce that I am beginning to set up The American Dissident #18. So far, I have received fewer pertinent poems than in previous periods. Poets just don't seem to be writing activist poems nowadays... perhaps because seeking publication tends to be the only activism in which they engage. Sad.

The AD website now contains this blog and also several examples of activist poems just put up on the site today. Hopefully, they'll serve as an example to help out the confused.

So, what to do today? Unemployed and not quite ready for another battleship, I shall take a swim in Walden Pond, though the water and weather are getting a bit cool. This will likely be my last week in Walden.