Weekend reading marches on:
This weekend’s reading list is brief. Thesis duties abound and, while brushing up on my weekend reading through the week has helped me disengage from the research, I can rarely afford to disengage now. What follows is a small collection of whatever I read this week when I refused to thesis. It’s a smart bet that weekend reading will be light to non-existent for the next month or so, dear readers. If you find yourself itching for a fix, mosey on over to The New Inquiry‘s Features page and look for Big Sunday Reading. There’s bound to be lots of good stuff.
From the moment the New York Times took it up as a cause, the Kitty Genovese story has counterposed police rectitude against community violence, cowardice, and confusion. Genovese’s murder is a parable in which the absent cops are the heroes and her neighbors eclipse even her killer in their culpability for the crime. Subsequent debates over the story’s meaning have centered almost exclusively on that claim of culpability, and on the question of to what extent those neighbors can or should be exonerated.
But Genovese herself lived in fear of police persecution, both at work and in her personal life. At least one witness to the crime, a friend of Kitty’s, also had good reason to be wary of law enforcement. And once the cops did engage with the case, they failed spectacularly to provide the kind of assistance the legend assumes they stood poised to offer that night. The Genovese story isn’t just a story of individual moral culpability, it’s also a story about malign and corrupt institutions and the corrosive effects those institutions have on our lives, and one of the real services Cook’s new book provides is the restoration of those effects to the broader narrative of the case.
Universities trade on our hopes, and on the fact that we have spent many years developing skills so specialized that few really want them, to offer increasingly insecure careers to young scholars. Although a fortunate few make smooth transitions onto the tenure track, many are lost in a phase of lecturing, adjuncting, or even unemployment. To those of us on the outside, the current academic employment system resembles a two-tier contract in which we are punished simply for having made the poor decision to graduate in the middle of a recession. Compensation for our labor is unprofessional, and we and our families are expected to bear this as a sign of commitment to disciplines and institutions that reserve the right never to commit to us.
I could perhaps hang on for another round: after all, I’m in for 9 years, what difference is 10? But I know also that each time I apply, I lose a little bit of something I’m afraid I’ll never recover. Depression has been the predictable price of failure in the past few years, and I know that it has sometimes robbed me of the experiencing the joy of having young children. It has certainly made me a less patient husband and father. Next year would be my fifth on the job market, in one way or another. Not so very long ago, I might have earned tenure with as much as I’ve done. Now I’ll spend the next months praying for the chance to move my family across the country for a one- or two-year position.
I wonder if I should work so hard to stay. My older son is the same age as my Ph.D., and he’s grown from a blob to a little person who can tell you about the moons of Jupiter. Is it time to trade my hopes for his? To give up on the work of my adult life, and just find a way to give my family some security? If I could do it all again, it would be madness to say that I would take the same path. But now, another year will pass, with no promise of success. And I wonder, channeling John Kerry but with lower moral stakes: how do you ask a year to be the last one to die for a mistake?
Spring has sprung, weekend reading is weekend read.
The definition of fetal harm in such cases has been broad: An Indiana woman who attempted suicide while pregnant spent a year in jail before murder charges were dropped last year; an Iowa woman was arrested and jailed after falling down the stairs and suffering a miscarriage; a New Jersey woman who refused to sign a preauthorization for a cesarean section didn’t end up needing the operation, yet was charged with child endangerment and lost custody of her baby. But the vast majority of cases have involved women suspected of using illegal drugs. Those women have been disproportionately young, low-income and African American.
Protests like this one, fueled by social media and erupting into spectacular mass events, look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime. And whether these take place in Turkey, Egypt or Ukraine, pundits often speculate that the days of a ruling party or government, or at least its unpopular policies, must be numbered. Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.
This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.
I saved these readings for when you really need them.
The system of free writing has created a caste system, with those who can afford to work for free doing so while those who can’t struggling to pay the bills and often giving up. As with unpaid interns, those who can afford to write for nothing inevitably make it into networks of influence which allow them to continue on to actual paying gigs. This crucial element, of the link between economic privilege and access (and I don’t just mean rich people), is frequently erased by those who insist that it’s their free writing that eventually landed them well-paying assignments. But it’s not their free writing and “exposure” that got them their jobs; it’s their ability to survive without having to depend on writing for a livelihood that guaranteed they could continue to write for nothing.
All of this has long-term effects on the overall tenor of writing from the left. If its writers are mostly those who benefit from the exploitation of free labour, but fail to see how their free writing makes it impossible for the rest of us to actually earn our living from writing, what are the chances that they might actually be able to interrogate the full and insidious force of neoliberalism?
[W]hen Chinua Achebe was alive, and when Chimamanda Adichie was a kind of heir apparent, all was still well for the literary patriarchy: the Great African Writer was a Great African Man, and Adichie’s books were filed just after his on the shelf, metaphorically as well as alphabetically. When she burst on the scene in 2003, she was young, a phenomenal talent with tremendous potential, but because was still just at the beginning of her career, she wasn’t threatening. He was the big man; she was the next generation.
Today, she is the most famous living African writer, and she has had a body of work that would make any writer proud (or envious). Each of her novels is a different kind of big deal…
Adichie’s “bigness” becomes a problem in this context. She has always been an ambitious writer, and it has paid big dividends; she has become a big deal. But as she becomes a big deal, she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.
Well, imagine what it is like to walk by a Birthright poster on this [Tufts University] campus, knowing that you have never, and perhaps will never see the very house your grandparents were expelled from in 1948. Yet, over one fourth of the Tufts population can see that house and they, simply by being Jewish, can eventually own that house, while their Palestinian fellow students cannot.
To us, Birthright is the erasure of our right to our homeland, and it promises our homeland to one in four students at this university. Birthright is marketed as apolitical. Participants are led to believe that it is an innocent trip of camel rides, hiking, clubbing and swimming in the Dead Sea. It offers tourists a chance to “reconnect” with a country to which they have never been, and often times, to which they have no immediate familial ties.
Yet for us, Birthright is not only political; it is violent. That may sound dramatic, but it is our reality. To make Birthright “fun” and “safe” means eradicating an Arab populace. It means erecting illegal walls and vanishing the Occupation. It means exiling our brothers and our sisters to refugee camps, prisons or worse. It is important that students at this university understand the implications of their so-called right.
When a Google bus was surrounded on 9 December, it made the news all over the English-speaking world. Though what the blockaders wanted wasn’t so easily heard. They were attacked as people who don’t like carpools, by people who don’t get that the buses compete with public transport and that their passengers displace economically vulnerable San Franciscans. It’s as though death came riding in on a pale horse and someone said: ‘What? You don’t like horses?’ Many of the displaced then become commuters but they don’t have luxury coaches pulling up in their neighbourhoods to take them to their jobs and schools in San Francisco: they drive, or patch together routes on public transport, or sink into oblivion and exile. So the Google bus and the Apple bus don’t reduce commuting’s impact. They just transfer it to poorer people.
On the afternoon of 21 January, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency held a meeting to discuss putting in place a pilot programme to study the impact of the buses and limit them to two hundred bus stops in the city. As the San Francisco writer Anisse Gross has pointed out, if you evade your fare on a bus, you get fined $110; if you pull a car in at a bus stop, you get fined $271; if you just pay your fare it’s $2 per person. But if you’re the Google bus you will now pay $1 to use the public bus stop. This pissed off a lot of people at the hearing. Not everyone, though. Google had dispatched some of its employees to testify.
February was a bad month for weekend readings, but March is off to a solid start (but no promises!) Here are some readings for you from throughout the shortest month of 2014. Read and be merry:
I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.
[W]hat parents and educators so often labeled as peer pressure was actually the disease-like spread of ideas. It’s a degree of symbolic freedom and movement that made adults uncomfortable. The truly horrible things that happen to teenage lives are more the result of socioeconomic reality (gang violence), the failure of the mental health state (drugs, alcohol, shooting up the school), the horrific patriarchy of larger adult society (rape), or the all-around idiotic idea of the “school” as we construct it than they ever are the sole province of a teens en masse fearing social rejection.
The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems. Above all else, however, it is unjust. Even if this was not a country of abysmal electricity supply where university graduates are barely literate and people die of easily-treatable causes and Boko Haram commits casual mass murders, this law would still be unjust. We cannot be a just society unless we are able to accommodate benign difference, accept benign difference, live and let live. We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalize it.
A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria, attacks on people ‘suspected’ of being gay. Ours is a society where men are openly affectionate with one another. Men hold hands. Men hug each other. Shall we now arrest friends who share a hotel room, or who walk side by side? How do we determine the clunky expressions in the law – ‘mutually beneficial,’ ‘directly or indirectly?’
Readings on gender, on higher education, and on everything else – with some sports at the end.
But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages. I’ve spent countless hours over the past four years logging the online activity of one particularly committed cyberstalker, just in case. And as the Internet becomes increasingly central to the human experience, the ability of women to live and work freely online will be shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats, the constellation of local and federal law enforcement officers who investigate them, and the popular commentators who dismiss them—all arenas that remain dominated by men, many of whom have little personal understanding of what women face online every day.
Tuition at public colleges came to $62.6 billion in 2012, according to the latest government data. That’s less than what the government already spends to subsidize the cost of collegethrough grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds, which comes to about $69 billion. It spends another $107.4 billion on student loans.
That means that with the money it already spends to make college affordable, the government could instead subsidize public college tuition, thereby making it free for all students. This would not just mean anyone could attend a higher education institution without worrying about cost, but it could incentivize private ones to reduce their costs in order to compete with the free option.
The Chaplain said, “I’ve had several of them where [I'm] watching their last breath go from their bodies and their eyes never unfix from mine. I mean actually lock together. And I can close my eyes now and see those eyes. My feelings and my emotions are extremely intense at that time. I’ve never … I’ve never really been able to describe it. And I guess in a way I’m kind of afraid to describe it. I’ve never really delved into that part of my feelings yet.”
One warden said, “You’ll never hear another sound like a mother wailing when she is watching her son be executed. There’s no other sound like it. It is just this horrendous wail. It’s definitely something you won’t ever forget.”
Weekend Reading Lite. Less links, less calories, tastes different.
Take the episode in which, according to a synopsis, “the new Town Council struggles to find a solution for Bonanza City’s growing trash problem.” Bullshit, Michael wrote. The kids were disposing of trash just fine by themselves. The producers created the so-called “growing trash problem” by dumping it into the town. “Without the production crew, [Kid Nation] would have been fairly boring,” Michael wrote. “The producers engineered problems when we didn’t have any. Without them, the show would have reflected very well on the children, but it would have been a snooze.”
Reality television is most addictive when it’s edited. There’s a reason viral 24/7 live cams are usually fixed on pandas and puppies. Strangers are compelling enough for serialized television only if they’re not getting along. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, essayist Rebecca Solnit argues that Survivor, the archetypical American reality show, wouldn’t be in its 27th season if the producers had simply dropped a bunch of people on an island and asked them to cope—“the goal was to produce a single winner rather than a surviving society, a competitive pyramid rather than a party of cooperation.”