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The Stakes of Engagement with Literature

A while back, Mark Bauerlein at The Valve made a comment that has stuck with me ever since, or part of the comment, anyway:

We’ve done such a poor job of training young people to appreciate the value of literature that most of them see no point, and nothing at stake, in their engagement with it.

Today, Avedon Carol pointed me to Ursula LeGuin's acceptance speech for the Maxine Cushing Gray Award. This excerpt illustrates especially well those stakes:

There have been governments that celebrated literature, but most governments dislike it, justly suspecting that all their power and glory will soon be forgotten unless some wretched, powerless liberal in the basement is writing it down. Of course they do their best to police the basement, but it's hard, because Government and Literature, even when they share a palace, exist on different moral planes. Each is the ghost in the other's bedroom. A government can silence writers easily, yet Literature always escapes its control. Literature cannot control a government; poets, as poets, do not legislate. What they can do is set minds free of the control of any tyrant or demagogue and his lies and disinformation.

The Greek Socrates wrote: "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." Evil government relies on deliberate misuse of language. Because literary skill is the rigorous use of language in the pursuit of truth, the habit of literature, of serious reading, is the best defense against believing the half-truths of ideologues and the lies of demagogues.

The poet Shelley wrote: "The imagination is the great instrument of moral good." Believing that, I see a public library as the toolshed, the warehouse, concert hall, temple, Capitol of imagination — of moral good. So here — right here where we are, right now — is where America stands or falls. Can we still imagine ourselves as free? If not, we have lost our freedom.

PMLA-related disappointment

You may know that there are lots of web sites that consist of collections of brief quotations uttered by political leaders. They're decontextualized sound bites, pretty much. I tell my students that they may not use these sites as sources for their papers; this is because the quotations are insubstantial and out of context, and they simply will not suffice as evidence to support an argument (it's in the syllabus, even). Imagine my disappointment, then, when I saw the following in the October 2006 PMLA, by brilliant feminist critic Susan Gubar:

It's no laughing matter that the Supreme Court is being reconfigured, along with our traditional civil rights and liberties, by a president whose commitment to education remains in doubt ("You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test"), whose military aggression has harmed people here and around the globe ("I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace"), and whose tax cuts injure many health and welfare programs ("They misunderestimated me"). As large numbers of women are put at risk by the widening divide between rich and poor ("I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family"), by the incursion into civic arenas of religious ideologies that reinstate traditional sexual hierarchies while failing to mask proliferating ecological disasters ("I trust God speaks through me"), have the goals of feminists been put in jeopardy?

The source cited in the bibliography is The Complete Bushisms. So maybe I'm a fuddy-duddy, but in my opinion this use of sound-bite quotations is not witty or clever. It's lazy, it undermines Gubar's credibility, it alienates a segment of the audience, and it mucks up the otherwise articulate and important points Gubar is making. It aids in lowering the level of political discourse to which I aspire and to which I hope my students will aspire. How can I not allow students to make this type of move when an eminent scholar is doing it in one of the field's top journals? (I mean, I'm still not going to allow it, but there it is.)

What Has Blogging Really Accomplished?

Guest blogging at Feministe, Ilyka Damen poses this question, and the comments are terrific.

New Gender Policy in NYC

Looks like soon in New York City, you'll be able to change the sex on your birth certificate without undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. The whole article is interesting and worth the read, but I wanted to extract these particular passages:

The change would lead to many intriguing questions: For example, would a man who becomes a woman be able to marry another man? (Probably.) Would an adoption agency be able to uncover the original sex of a proposed parent? (Not without a court order.) Would a woman who becomes a man be able to fight in combat, or play in the National Football League? (These areas have yet to be explored.)
[. . .]
Joann Prinzivalli, 52, a lawyer for the New York Transgender Rights Organization, a man who has lived as a woman since 2000, without surgery, said the changes amount to progress, a move away from American culture’s misguided fixation on genitals as the basis for one’s gender identity.

“It’s based on an arbitrary distinction that says there are two and only two sexes,” she said. “In reality the diversity of nature is such that there are more than just two, and people who seem to belong to one of the designated sexes may really belong to the other.”

Progress indeed.

Science Cartoons!

Vote for your favorite science cartoon in Science Idol: the Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest. Here's my favorite:

And this one gets an honorable mention despite the somewhat heavy-handed pun. You can probably guess why.

Now in Greenville; the Political Discourse Awareness Project

Whew. We finally got here to our new house in Greenville yesterday. ABF should be bringing our stuff in a few days.

Also, I recommend that you go and check out this post of Holly's about the personal and the political. I have more to say about it, but I'll have to write that post later. For now, I'll just say that I've been thinking a lot about what "political discourse" is, and how it's interpreted and misinterpreted. I'm toying with the idea of doing maybe a weekly post under the rubric of "the political discourse awareness project," in which I link to a couple of posts that I consider to be political discourse, but perhaps many others wouldn't recognize them as such. Then I'd do a bit of explanation of why I think they count as political discourse. Here are a couple:

Badger's essay about trying to get health care coverage for her late husband's illness. This was a precise point at which government (SSI, Medicaid) met the personal.

Then there's this post at Raising WEG about children's shoes and clothes. Here are some excerpts:

Did you know that Payless didn't make a single athletic sandal for "youth" girls (wearing sizes 10.5 to 4.5) this year?  All our old "girly" sandal standbys, Dora and Strawberry Shortcake and Disney Princess, are only available in toddler sizes, through size 12.  Once girls reach kindergarten, however, their mainstream sandal choices narrow down to a few strappy sandals -- most of them with small heels -- or flip-flops.

How did I not notice this?  All week long during VBS activity time, we had four- and five- and six-year old girls tripping over cement walkways and running too carefully through the grass as they tried to negotiate athletic activity while wearing flip-flops.  This is probably a peak age for the embrace of all things girly, and when these girls go to buy shoes, they no longer fit into the clunky Princess sandal that gives them enough traction to climb trees, kick balls, or just climb a standard set of stairs without worrying about walking right out of their shoes.

No, instead they find a light-up Princess thong.  They find an entire shelf full of flip-flops, espadrilles, and thongs.

There is one single youth-sized rugged sandal marketed to little girls at Payless.  It has a one-inch heel.

No little girl can grow to adulthood in American without learning the cardinal rules of shopping. Of course everything about girls' clothing signals the importance of buying new clothes as often as possible. The US economy might crash to a standstill, if ever girls started expecting to buy the thick cotton t-shirts over in the boys' and mens' departments. Imagine what might happen, if my daughters' Target t-shirts had held up to more than a season's worth of washings. Their drawers might be filled with two-year old t-shirts, as their brother's are -- and we certainly can't have that.

I'd like to write that I've given up wondering why preschool girls need to show all of their thighs while wearing shorts, but preschool boys get to ward off cancer-causing skin rays with shorts that come down to their knees. But it would be a lie. Every time I think about this, I get a little apoplectic. There is no physiological difference between the waists, hips, and thighs of preschool boys and girls. What perverse set of sexual standards do we embrace when we teach our four-year old girls to show four times more skin than their brothers?

Have you ever considered how much more time girls have to spend getting ready to go outdoors than their brothers, because of the sunscreen issue alone? Thanks to his t-shirts with actual sleeves and nice long shorts, Wilder is out the door and playing before I have either one of the girls fully slathered.

I find this one to be political due to its far-reaching consequences. Freedom of movement is a fundamental freedom, and girls' freedom of movement is being compromised, subtly, every day. Arguably, this has implications for girls' confidence, physical strength, ability and willingness to protect themselves, consumption habits and economic standing, body image, Title IX, and more.

What do you think? Would you like to see me do a weekly "Political Discourse Awareness Project" post? Ideally this would be a collaborative effort; I'd love it if others would participate too.

Hank Johnson Ad on Daily Kos

As if Cynthia McKinney didn't suffer enough indignity when she dared to change her hairstyle, now her opponent, Hank Johnson, has a campaign ad on Daily Kos trotting out one of the most hackneyed woman-bashing tropes there is:

I wonder if any politician would ever make a reference to a male opponent's "shrill, polarizing politics"?

Note to Hank Johnson's campaign: Disagree with her views, her voting record if you want to, but don't embarrass yourself by stooping this low.

UPDATE: Much better. Maybe some Kossacks complained about the first one.

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