Weekly Varia no. 19, 03/25/23

This was the first week back from Spring Break, which means that the semester kicked back into gear. My bracket is truly busted, the NBA playoffs are right around the corner, and I have been spending a few minutes most evenings getting ready for my fantasy baseball draft next week.

But between the usual run of activities, I also found myself thinking about a line from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

I am perpetually enamored of the idea of book clubs, but I don’t usually participate in them, probably because I don’t like relinquishing the control over what I read and I find that either I love a book enough that I want to pace my reading or I dislike it enough that I don’t want to finish. However, a few weeks ago my wife and I decided to start a paired read where we read an agreed upon amount over the course of the week, which we can then discuss over a bottle of wine on the weekend. Our first read is Midnight’s Children. A line from this week’s section struck a chord with some of the other topics I’ve been thinking about recently, which meant that we spent a few minutes mulling its meaning:

I learned: the first lesson of my life: nobody can face the world with his eyes open all of the time.

The sentiment holds even truer in this age of social media. This is not to denigrate context or perspective, but I also find it easy to get overwhelmed. Too easy. Context and perspective is important, but everyone needs to remember to close their eyes from time to time, too.

This week’s varia:

  • Pasts Imperfect features ancient marijuana (and other psychoactive substances) this week.
  • Charles Kenneth Roberts has a blog post highlighting how “quiet quitting” in an academic context is better defined as faculty burnout because the old academic social contract are being broken. Where, before, academics traded relatively low and periods of extreme work for perks like job security, control over their work, and respect (for instance), those perks are rapidly retreating.
  • Studies Weekly has revised school materials to comply with new Florida laws. The new materials strip all reference to race from lesson plans on Rosa Parks, rendering the episode toothless. Rosa Parks was told to move (for no particular reason) and she should be honored because “she did what she believed was right.” Removing any mention of Jim Crow laws and racial animus that sparked the confrontation is bad enough, but it almost bothers me more to see the latter sentiment being taught. She ought to be held up as an exemplar because her act of civil disobedience was part of a long struggle for equity in a deeply unequal society. The fact that she believed it right is true enough, but it also elevates the virtue of the individual actor following their beliefs to the highest order of good. Not only does this obscure the boycott that lasted for more than a year after Parks’s arrest (and the expansion of the White Citizens Council and violence that accompanied that boycott), but if all you have to praise Parks with is this sort of anodyne pablum, one might deploy the same argument about belief in what one believes is right about any number of genocidal sociopaths. This is in fact one of the exact examples I give my students about the importance of specificity in writing.
  • A public charter school (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) in Florida (checks out) popular with Christian Conservatives removed its principal after sixth grade students were shown a picture of Michelangelo’s David, on the grounds that the image was “pornographic.” I think the teacher also made a pedagogical mistake because she felt compelled to tell the students that the image was “not-pornographic,” which only drew attention to the nudity and accelerated the snowball—especially in the current political environment. (Speaking from experience: I assign material with nudity and sex in it in a college setting, but don’t usually focus on those aspects, except one semester a couple years back when I fumbled my discussion of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break in class, which led a disgruntled student to accuse me of assigning “pornography” to the class in the course evaluations.) Dan Kois in Slate has an interview with the chair of the school’s board in which he admits that the problem is that Michelangelo included the naught bits, in so many words. It is almost as though the people most interested in “Classical Education” want nothing of the sort, but use it to give cover for a desire to impose their own small-minded world view on everyone else.
  • Frustrated with book bans, a Utah parent challenged school libraries including the bible, not on separation of church and state grounds, but because the book contains numerous lewd and “pornographic” episodes. Which, yes.
  • Ibram X. Kendi has a piece in The Atlantic about how “intellectual” (like “academic”) is a term often coded traditional and conservative in ways that support the white status quo, writing “Intellectual neutrality of the sort pushed by those wishing to create a veil of historical amnesia that allows bigotry to endure.” I have seen some fair critiques of this piece that Kendi is creating something of a straw man that casts him as the first “non-neutral” public intellectual (Howard Zinn’s autobiography is titled You can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, for crying out loud), but I think there is something deeper to the issues that he’s pointing at, both in the sense that his antiracism is a re-articulation of Zinn’s thesis and because the age of social media is creating a crisis of identity for the public intellectual. I’m not entirely satisfied with Kendi’s answer, but he’s asking an important question.
  • The Guardian has a piece focusing on the Met Museum’s acquisition practice and their ties to looting. The article uses the Met as a jumping-off point to a larger conversation about ethical museum collecting and the repatriation of artifacts.
  • Jason Kehe in Wired has a curious profile of Brandon Sanderson in which he profiles the author seemingly determined to answer the questions of whether Sanderson is a “good writer” and if the answer is “no” (as Kehe seems pre-determined to answer) why is he so dang successful without being a household name. The profile is strange for a bunch of reasons, not only because he seems disappointed by the lack of story that he found in reporting the piece (as Sanderson pointed out on Reddit), but also because the essay is laced with belittling commentary about Utah food, some Mormon cracks, and befuddlement at the people who like Sanderson’s books. I (and, frankly, Sanderson) will be happy to tell you that the strength of his books is not the style of his prose, but the books often contain thematic elements (Mormon, yes, but also more broadly human) with more heft than Kehe credits and given that best-seller lists are always filled with lists of reliable and entertaining books that are not lyrically-crafted makes the framing of the article about whether Sanderson baffling choice in its own right.
  • In Politico, a piece profiling The Federalist Society, detailing a worrying trend that I have also seen floating around online: skepticism about democracy. In this case it is not only Democratic victories, but also a disdain for Trumpism that drives the shift.
  • Ron DeSantis asked state lawmakers to allocate $100 million to the budget for the “State Guard,” a unit supplemental to the State National Guard for use at the discretion of governor. But he is also proposing to arm this force and grant them police authority beyond how other states use equivalent units.
  • The latest in strong-arm political tactics, an Indian court sentenced Rahul Gandhi, an MP and opposition leader, to two years in prison for defamation, based on a speech at a political rally in which he quipped that there are many corrupt Modis in India, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The case was brought by another politician from the ruling party, Purnesh Modi, who claimed that the statement defamed the “Modi community” (there is no community named Modi).
  • A piece from NPR about how Silicon Valley Bank’s reliance on the usually-secure Federal Bonds to cover its assets became a liability over the last year.
  • Starting April 1, Twitter is phasing out legacy verified status, while also allowing subscribers to hide their blue check marks of shame.

Album of the Week: Dessa, Parts of Speech (2014)

Currently Reading: S.A. Chakraborty, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, Emma Southon, Agrippina, Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

It has been a long week.
My wife informs me that this picture captures our respective personalities. I look tired and resigned, while Merlin is taking up as much space as possible in an attempt to be cute.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.