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Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Ivory Tower. What You Are Not Allowed to Say. The Hell in Small Things.

Will anyone understand this blog post? It's about matters as tiny and picayune as flea buttholes. It's about matters as big as being told you have cancer, and you can't get medical care, because you have no health insurance, because you are an adjunct professor, because even though you have a PhD you don't think and talk and act like the people in power, and so you'll never get a full time job, and never get health insurance, so just go die, already.

It's about that moment when power says to you , "Sign this. And we will give you brownie points. And if you accrue enough brownie points, you will be a bit closer to power, and maybe, just maybe, you will be allowed – oh, health insurance. Or maybe not. We'll see. But we will dangle this in front of your eyes in hopes that you bite."

It's about education. It's about the next generation. It's about what you are and are not allowed to say. It's about young people being taught to hate my faith. It's about young people never being taught what the word "gulag" or "Kolyma" means. Or what the Red Army did as it moved West.

It's about tiny, stupid things and big fat things that could land on your head.

Just the facts, ma'am.

I asked James P. Leary, a genuine scholar and mensch, to recommend work to me that addresses folklore on the internet. Prof. Leary recommended the work of Prof. Trevor J. Blank.

I asked a journal if I could receive a copy of a recent scholarly book edited by Prof. Blank for review. I received a copy and began to read it. I quickly saw that I was not the best audience for the book. I contacted the journal editor and said so. The journal editor insisted that I keep reading and submit a review. He said he was open to receiving a negative review.

I continued reading. I finished reading. I spent hours, over the course of three days, on the review.

I submitted the review to the editor.

I was in turmoil the entire time. I'm an adjunct professor. I want a full time job. If my review were published, it would irritate people who have more power than I, who, if they were ever to see an application from me for anything, might very well reject that application.

Why can't you just get along and go along? Prof. Dundes told me to do that. He could see that I was opinionated, and that I questioned everything. He could see that I was not like other people in academia. He told me to get along and go along until I got tenure. Prof. Dundes and I were debating this very point at the time of his death. His last email to me arrived a day before he died.

The journal editor wrote back.

The editor said that my review was petty and unscholarly.

The editor said he wanted to change the review extensively.

One example. One of the articles in the book recommended scholarship inspired by Marxism. In my review, I said that this scholar had "cast his lot with the force responsible for 94 million deaths in the twentieth century."

That's it. Fifteen words. I could have written many more. Here are a few words: Katyn, the ethnic cleansing of the Caucasus, Pilecki, show trials. I didn't say these words. I just typed in fifteen words indicating why Marxist scholarship doesn't really attract me.

The editor objected to my fifteen words. He wrote, "Does one have to mention all bad things in the world in order to discuss some of them? I think people are quite well aware of the ravages of the Communist regimes… but what about this piece suggests that it must be discussed?"

Oh. My. God.

The Nazis performed groundbreaking research on hypothermia. They performed this research by torturing helpless prisoners. There have been decades of debate: should we use this data accumulated by an evil regime?

I admire that debate.

I don't understand the mind that says "Does one have to mention all the bad things in the world" when a scholar recommends Marxism and another scholar mentions that Marxism was the justification for the murder of tens of millions of human beings, and Marxism has never come to terms with that pile of corpses.

I did not argue with the journal editor. I said, as I said in an earlier email, I am not the best reviewer for this book.

My review is below. The first three paragraphs praise the book in appropriate ways. Trouble starts in the fourth paragraph.

Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Past in the Present. By Trevor J. Blank and Robert Glenn Howard. (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2013. 225 pp. Bibliography, index.)

I grew up in a small town where few wanted to discuss film. After the invention of the internet, I was able to connect with passionate movie fans. As I spend hours at the International Movie Database discussing film with complete strangers, feeling the camaraderie and pique I feel in face-to-face interaction, I wonder how this activity meshes, or doesn't mesh, with the definition of "community." After a celebrity dies, year after year, pranksters post a running joke on the deceased's imdb page, "Jack warned him." I wonder about the definition of "tradition." As I scroll through Facebook feeds, I come across urban legend themes: sliced onions absorb influenza; rat urine on soda cans kills consumers. I wonder if folklorists illuminate these phenomena, and how I can present their insights to my students.

These thoughts brought me to Trevor J. Blank and Robert Glenn Howard's new book "Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present." The back cover promises that this book "offers a comprehensive overview of the folkloristic and popular conceptualizations of tradition from the past to the present." The book lives up to this promise.

In their introduction, the editors remark on an evergreen concern of folklorists. Do folklorists study dying material, and, if that is true, do folklore scholars have anything to offer contemporary people? Folklorists tend to be anti-modern. Can they be lured into studying the Internet? The editors insist that folklorists' emphasis on tradition can offer much to illuminate "today's globalized, media driven, and technologically infused world." The editors review definitions of tradition from Stith Thompson, Alan Dundes, Dan Ben-Amos, Linda Degh, Henry Glassie, Robert Georges, Michael Owen Jones and others, factoring in whether or not a given scholar's definition is amenable to technologically mediated communities. Some definitions "open folklore studies to the important work that needs to be done in the new global, mediated, and technology driven contexts of the modern world…folklorists must strike a subtle bargain between the perception of the traditional as that which is handed down from the past and the technologies that are changing the means and scope of those 'handing down' processes."

"Tradition in the Twenty-First Century" is influenced by current academic trends toward anti-Western, anti-white, anti-male, and Christophobic attitudes. For this reader, that influence lessened the value of the book.

Stephen Olbrys Gencarella's "Critical Folklore Studies and the Revaluation of Tradition" recommends folklore scholarship inspired by Marxism. Gencarella offers a tidbit of queasily intimate self-exposure. He "trembles" with a "crippling," "debilitating" phobia of mushrooms, he reports, information that has no pertinence to his scholarship.

That self-exposure may be meant to humanize or endear, but he has cast his lot with the force responsible for 94 million deaths in the twentieth century. This choice of inspiration for folklore scholarship renders the editors' objection to oppressive power in colonialism selective outrage – the pains of African and Latin American subjects of Western colonial power matter to the new folklore scholar; the Eastern European, Chinese, and Cambodian victims of Marxism do not.

As an example of the kind of folklore scholarship he would like to see, Gencarella recommends the following. If, at family reunions, Italian Americans suggest that their families include quinoa in their meatballs, and if their families reject the quinoa, and if the scholar suspects that they reject quinoa because of prejudice against Hispanics, the scholar must encourage them to accept quinoa in their meatballs. Thus, the folklorist may "serve as a friend to a given community by calling it to more noble aspirations." No doubt a folklorist urging Muslims to sample pork would be expelled from the tribe as a holdover of colonial hegemony.

Robert Glenn Howard opens his piece, "Vernacular Authority: Critically Engaging 'Tradition,'" with the kind of anecdote carefully honed to disparage Catholicism while exculpating the teller from any charge of bigotry. Howard quotes a Filipina in such a way that a priest, and Catholicism, look bad. It is the Filipina, not Howard, who can be made to voice anti-Catholic sentiment.

Howard goes on to misrepresent Catholicism's position on homosexuals. Catholicism is a "hegemony that rejects their very identities." Howard exhorts folklore scholars that they "should value" action "against the hegemonic assertions of" Catholicism, "an institution hostile to … individuals in our society."

In fact, Catholics choose to be or not to be Catholic; Catholics are famous for living lives at odds with doctrine. Thus Howard's term "hegemony" is inaccurate. Howard misrepresents Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Contrary to Howard, Catholic catechism teaches that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

Tellingly, Howard gives a free pass to Neo-Pagans who make demonstrably false claims about their beliefs. Howard's book announces itself as caring about victims of misrepresentation, but he expresses no concern for the hostile Neo-Pagan misrepresentation of a group he himself attacks: Catholics. His book voices concern for the underrepresented; as Espenshade and Radford have demonstrated, Christians are underrepresented on elite American college campuses.

Casey R. Schmitt's "Asserting Tradition: Rhetoric of Tradition and the Defense of Chief Illiniwek" describes how both sides of the debate over a college football mascot cite tradition. White students at the University of Illinois dressed as Native Americans and danced before football games. Native American and other activists jousted about whether or not this could continue. Both sides cited tradition to make their points. According to Schmitt, such displays are "culturally disrespectful" and "unjust." It "perpetuates white hegemony and promotes cultural imperialism by seizing authority to speak for marginal traditions and then remaking them as dominant groups see fit…Violence remains violence. Insult remains insult."

Schmitt's Native Americans feel about Chief Illiniwek the way I felt about Howard's take on Catholicism. Consider: sexualized images of priests and nuns are standard fare at Halloween, including Gay Pride parades. I know of no effort by Catholics to ban them. In fact, I wore a sexy nun costume on Halloween – at my Catholic school. What would folklorists say about the difference between these costumes, and Catholics' tolerance of them, and the successful efforts to ban Chief Illiniwek? In other words, should scholarship not be consistent? If some costumes offend folklore scholars, why don't others? Current scholarship picks and chooses groups to privilege.

Not all the articles in "Tradition" are heavily politicized. Merrill Kaplan offers a straightforward comparison between nineteenth-century folklore archivists and internet archives like Snopes. She methodically points out differences and similarities, and they are fascinating. Toward the end of her article, Kaplan accuses herself, in good Marxist fashion, of privileging herself. That is thankfully brief.

"Tradition," as the title promises, spends a great deal of time defining the word. Elliott Oring, Tok Thompson, Lynne S McNeill, and Simon J. Bronner all contribute articles that attempt new definitions, while citing previous ones.

"Tradition" did not offer me the scintillating insights into my imdb and Facebook experiences for which I had hoped. The introduction did offer a sound platform for folklorists to venture forth and find those insights, though. For this reader, the politics got in the way, and the repeated attempts to define tradition did begin to feel repetitious.


  1. A facebook friend posted this:

    "I read it. I understood most of it. I don't know how you survive in academia today and I feel sorry that you were born into this time when your clear intellect and opinions don't matter to those in charge of hiring at the college level. I don't feel sorry for you, however, because you, my dear FB friend, will win in the end, whether it's in this life or the next."

  2. I think this is a hugely important post. Not kidding. And I'm glad you posted the review sans short-sighted editing. It seems we're on the verge of another decade of almost bottomless conservatism - the sort that resists truth. Happens every thirty years or so. The fifties and the eighties waved the flag of Fear and Consumption as though the bomb had landed in the backyard. And now, enlightenment of the purest sort is traded once again. Perhaps that's reactionary of me. But after digesting your opening comments, not to mention the doggedly obtuse misapprehension of Catholicism (and its position)_presented by these quislings, I can't help it. The church was practically made by proponents of questioning authority, and that is what makes it great. Bigotry against homosexuals is such a timeworn and archaic response that it makes me want to march ... to festoon myself with a garland of pink triangles, and sing "It's Raining Men" and "Put A Little Love In Your Heart" in caroling fashion on front porches. Egad. Also ... mushrooms? I can't imagine what self-indulgent mindset would find that the least bit relevant. Whew. Poopy-heads.

  3. This is a perfectly depressing blog post. I was shaking my head in disbelief halfway through. It says a lot about this publication—-none of it good—-that they responded so negatively to what is, in my opinion, a rather restrained criticism of Marxism.

    Tenure? Get rid of it. There’s no reason why, say, a smug historian with a cozy sinecure at an elite college should be allowed to get away with behavior-—bullying, indoctrination, writing crap, whitewashing atrocities—-that would get people in other professions fired.

    Like many others, I thought things would change for the better after the Wade Churchill controversy. Correct me I’m wrong, but the evidence seems to suggest that it’s now even easier, on college campuses, to get away with assaults on truth and decency. Just recently, I read an article on Yahoo about a new book by one Candida Moss, a 35-year-old full professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In this book, Moss argues that Christians suffer from a persecution crisis and that the early Christians weren’t really persecuted by the Romans. The book is a real hit.

    Another example: In 2002 or 2003, when I was wrapping up my MA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an Israeli journalist discovered that the sociology department there had approved an MA thesis in which the writer, a female graduate student, argued that contempt for Arab women (the belief that they are dirty) is the only reason Israeli soldiers don’t rape Palestinian women in the occupied territories—-an astounding argument for which she provided not a shred of evidence. The thesis was nevertheless approved.

    After reading your blog post, I murmured a quiet “thank you” to the untenured professor who, hearing that I had been accepted to the University of Chicago for a PhD program in Near Eastern and Islamic Studies, told me this: "You will spend the next 6 years swallowing your pride and apologizing for your background, your ethnicity, and your first name. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll land a tenure-track job somewhere, but know this: It isn’t very honorable to wait until your livelihood is secure to start speaking the truth.” Bless him.

    My apologies for the long comment. This pissed me off.

    1. Liron, I LOVE what you wrote. Every word of it. I admire your courage. I nod at the mention of the dirty women / no rape nonsense.

      What can I say. Thank you.

    2. Liron I just googled Candida Moss. She is a young, hot, blonde with a professional head shot on her page.

  4. I didn't notice the head shot. :)

    And she has an English accent. That always helps.