Sunday, January 31, 2010

"I Know All About Spain"

A student writes:

"Before taking this class, I thought I knew all there is to know about Spain because I lived in California for a long time and there were many Mexicans there."

Note to self: Remember to mention in class that Mexico and Spain are different countries.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


One of my students wrote in her essay that she was surprised to learn that the concept of zero was brought to Medieval Europe by the Muslims and not by the Americans. Seriously.

That's patriotism for you. Now I feel like asking my students about Adam and Eve's nationality.

Amazon vs Macmillan: How Much Should an E-book Cost?

Macmillan is one of those book publishers who are so shameless and disgusting in their greed that they believe hardcover prices should be charged for e-books. Never mind that with an e-book you save tons of money on production and distribution costs. Never mind that an e-book does not require extra printings and can be published ad infinitum, as long as people want to buy it.

Book publishers refuse to recognize that the world has changed. New technologies have made their favorite practices of charging exorbitant prices for hardcovers completely obsolete. Still, they are trying to hang on to these gouging techniques in hope that somehow the new technology will just go away.

As a result of Macmillan's greed, Amazon was forced to pull the Kindle editions of their books from the Kindle Store. I'm happy that Amazon is resisting Macmillans idiotic behavior. Good job, Amazon! Let's punish these losers for their stupidity by refusing to buy their overpriced books.

P.S. Sadly, Amazon has had to give in to the greedy bastards at Macmillan. Here is part of Amazon's statement:
'We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles.

We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it's reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book...
Of course, I'm boycotting stupid Macmillan. Their representative is bound to show up in my office trying to peddle their books as textbooks for my students. Is s/he in for a nasty reception!

I Don't Get Bipartisanship

What's with all this talk about bipartisanship? Like a child guilty of a prank, Obama is promising that he will do all he can to be more bipartisan from now on. There is endless analysis of whether he is really trying to be bipartisan and why and why not. All this bipartisanship drama makes me think the world has suddenly gone insane.

We have had eight years with a President who was an unbending, uncompromising religious fanatic. Everybody knew his convictions because he had no fear of expressing them every chance he got. Nobody expected any bipartisanship from him simply because it was like expecting to draw blood from a stone. And everybody seemed to accept it. So my question is: why is it perfectly acceptable for a Republican president to be fanatical and intransigent in promoting the interests of people who voted for him but for a Democratic president it suddenly isn't? Do the bloggers, the journalists, the pundits, the politicians who keep harping on Obama's lack of bipartisanship even realize how completely hypocritical they sound?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Paula Varsavsky's Visit

Paula Varsavsky is a very good Argentinean writer. I invited her to speak to my students this coming February, and the whole Department was very eager to see her here. I included her short story as required reading in my courses. The plan was to have the students read the text and then give them a chance to meet the author and speak to her. Paula is a very good speaker, and I know they would have loved listening to her. Everybody was really looking forward to this.

Today, however, I had to disappoint my students. I told them that the writer's visit to our university has been cancelled bacause of the budget freeze. The budget for Paula Varsavsky's visit was actually very very modest. The writer offered to limit the budget even more, but all to no avail. We are not allowed to spend even a dollar on such an important cultural activity.

I can't begin to tell you how frustrating this is. The students would have benefited from this in a variety of important ways. When I heard the President say in his yesterday's State of the Union address that universities need to start cutting spending, I thought how sad it is that we have to give up on such important cultural activities - which also cost next to nothing - while there is always money to send more troops all over the world and the Pentagon does not see even a tiny little cut in its spending.

They call it a "freeze" and a "cash flow problem." I know from sad experience, however, that when an institution gets into the practice of cutting funding for cultural and educational events, it's very hard to get it back on track. The efforts to kill the Humanities have been going on for a while. They started long before anybody even heard of the current economic crisis. I feel that this particular crisis is just an excuse that is being used to continue the assault on Humanities.

And more than anything in the world I hate having to deprive my students of the educational experiences they deserve.

Fundraising: Think about Participating

My multi-talented colleague Kola has opened bidding on his beautiful photos in order to raise money for two worthy causes:

1. To help the victims of the horrible pogrom in Jos, Nigeria.

2. To help the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

On the right, you can see the photo I'm hoping to get.

Here is the way to participate.

I know the times are tough but there are people who are in desperate need. Please check out the link and consider the possibility of participating in this noble effort.

Kudos to you, Kola, for coming up with this fantastic idea.

Obama's First State of the Union Address

We all know that Obama speaks extremely well. I never managed to sit through any of George W.'s garbled speeches, but Obama's State of the Union Address was strong and forceful. Great to hear a political leader pronounce the word "nuclear" right for a change. Here are some of the main points that attracted my attention:
  • Obama reminded that he inherited the economic crisis from the previous administration. This is a point that needs to be hammered home as often as possible.
  • "American people should get a government that matches their decency." Hear, hear. But there is no hope of that any time soon. The field of politics mostly attracts hugely indecent people. It's rare that you see so many nasty faces in the same room as you do when you watch Senate hearings.
  • "What unites us is that we all hate the bank bailout. It's as popular as a root canal." Then he proceeded to tell us why it was still necessary (not convinced!). And said there will be high fees on big banks. In my opinion, until Blankfein, Summers and Co are getting their bonus in the form of an extra TV hour in high-security prison, these "fees" are not nearly enough. It's not the bailout we hate, it's those disgusting criminals who are still at large robbing us blind.
  • Support for small businesses - it's about time, but something tells me it will be super hard making this work. Huge companies are set on destryng small business as a concept.
  • Gays should be allowed to serve in the military.
  • China, Germany, and India aren't waiting, so why should the US?
A good, powerful speech. Obama is a fantastic public speaker.

There was a very scary moment in his speech, however. He said the following sentence that made me cringe: "Universities should cut spending." I really wish Mr. President had elaborated on that thought. Exactly what kind of spending are we supposed to cut? All our funds have been frozen 100%. My department could not even buy a pizza to thank people working in the lab for their efforts. I'm not into pizza, so I don't know how much it costs. Must be something like $6-7? Well, this type of cost has been cut already. What else can we do? Eliminate chalk, have me moisten my finger with saliva and try to write on the board in this way? Or substitute even more tenure-track positions with overworked, underqualified "instructors"?

I still have no idea what this scary statement meant. If anybody has any insights, please feel free to tell me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where Are the Jews?

My students in our Hispanic Civlization class have written their first mini-quiz. It dealt with the three cultures of Medieval Spain: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. 

For some incomprehensible reason, about a dozen students, who answered all questions perfectly, neatly excised the Jews from their responses. Their answers look like they tried to avoid writing the word "Jew." I'm trying not to read too much into this, but it kind of makes me wonder .  .  . Where are the Jews?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sacrificial Womanhood

Any kind of collective identification requires some type of self-mutilation. The constraints of collective identity do not allow enough space for the incredible variety of human existence. That is why in order to belong we need to mutilate ourselves intellectually, spiritually, and often physically to fit into the mold and signal that we are part of the group. Female identity requires an even bigger amount of self-mutilation than other collective identifications.

I'm dropping out of grad school/leaving my job to follow my boyfriend. So what if I won't have a life and career of my own? At least, we will be together.

So what if I don't have an orgasm with this man? We get along well, and that's what matters.

I'm not going to have an elective C-section and avoid a long and painful labor. So what if my vagina gets torn to shreds in the process? It's not like I use it much anyways.

Who cares that my nipples are bleeding and I'm in pain? I'll keep breastfeeding until I drop dead because it's my duty.

I'm going to take on all kinds of boring and unfulfilling responsibilities at work. So what if they get in the way of my research and don't let me get tenure and promotion? Somebody's got to do it, and I'm always happy to be helpful.

So what if I don't feel like having sex right now? I don't want to upset my boyfriend or hurt his feelings. I'm just going to do it and hope it's over fast.

I come home from work dead tired and immediately start cleaning, doing the laundry, and cooking. Of course, I'm exhausted but if I don't do it no one will.

Sacrificing your interests, making your body serve everybody else's purposes except your own, suffering, accepting pain as your natural state of being - these are some of the most popular ways of signalling your belonging to female identity.

If anybody has their own version of why this happens, feel free to tell me in the comments. Then, I will propose my theory of the reasons behind the sacrificial womanhood.

Fiscal Responsibility According to Obama

Obama's new fiscal responsibility plan can be summed up as follows: cutting down on education but not on the Pentagon.

Well, is anybody really surprised? The education will become a bigger priority than the military spending when hell freezes over.

If you believe that cutting down on education and investing more and more in the Pentagon are non-related issues, you've got to wake up. The fewer people have access to education, the more desperate kids will turn to the military to make some kind of a living. So the only way to provide the Pentagon with more bodies that can be sent to death and mutilation is by destroying what's left of public education.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Who Can Teach Languages

Many people mistakenly believe that in order to teach languages it is enough to be a native speaker. Well, who cares what some sad ignoramuses think, you might object. Sadly, said ignoramuses can be found among university faculty more and more often. There are colleges that have disbanded their foreign language departments and have given the teaching of languages to the native-speakers among students. Needless to say, this system of language teaching cannot possibly work.

I have been teaching languages for more years than I care to mention. If I do, people might think I'm on the verge of retirement, which is completely untrue. I think that I kick ass at language teaching, and my students seem to agree unanimously. The only language among those I speak that I cannot teach, however, is my own. I am a native speaker of Russian, which is the language that I speak at home. I attempted not even to teach it, but to tutor somebody in it a while ago. It was a complete and total failure. I couldn't answer a single question my students asked me. "So why do you conjugate this verb like this?" they would ask. Or, "How many verb groups are there?" And even though I have been speaking this language my entire life, I had no idea what to tell them. I didn't know which grammar points would turn out to be especially hard to the students and how to make them clearer. I had no idea why I was speaking the way I was and couldn't explain it to the students.

Teaching languages is a skill that it takes people a long time to acquire. Being a native speaker of the language is completely irrelevant to whether you will be able to teach it. In their push to eradicate the Humanities, university administrators try to substitute tenure-track teaching faculty with underpaid, overworked, and often woefully underqualified part-time instructors. This measure seemingly saves money for colleges. Tenure-track and tenured faculty teach a limited number of hours, expect to have sabbaticals and course release time, and cannot be forced to teach 9 courses per semester with no TA.

This measure always turns out to be counterproductive. As a tenure-track faculty who only works two or three days a week, I have the leisure and the motivation to design complex, engaging, and original learning activities for my students. I have the knowledge necessary to ensure that every aspect of the activity has a pedagogic rationale. I am invested into making sure that the students do well, since in all probability I will see those same students in my higher-level classes and I want them to be prepared for that. I have time and energy to get to know all of my language students personally and help each of them overcome their personal struggles with the subject matter.

Aside from being a lame attempt at saving money, squeezing foreign language and literature courses off the campus has an important ideological goal. Our classrooms are always small and are organized around students talking, expressing themselves, and doing all kinds of creative things during the entire class. This is not a huge lecture in macroeconomics, where hundreds of students are sitting in complete silence for 2 hours, being indoctrinated by the professor and never getting a chance of formulating their own opinion, let alone expressing it.

At the same time, speaking another language requires adopting different ways of thinking, seeing the world, relating to your reality. It is a lot more difficult to zombify a person who has developed alternative modes of relating to the world. This is precisely why so many efforts are being made to prevent American students from learning about other languages and cultures.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Scaling Down Healthcare

So the second the Republican victory in Massachusetts was announced, Obama proclaimed that he is ready to scale down the health care bill. Like the changes it initially introduced weren't modest enough.

When I heard about Obama's rush to abandon his most cherished goals even before anybody actually asked him to do so, I remembered George W. with a kind of weird nostalgia. Sure, we made fun of him and couldn't wait for him to go away, but the guy had his strong sides. It is impossible to imagine Bush Jr. giving up on a piece of legislation that mattered to him simply because of losing one Senate vote. Anybody tried to stop the legislation he supported, and we would have him on television in matter of hours, raving about unpatriotic pro-terrorist evildoers who are trying to destroy our values or freedoms.

And he got results, too. Of course, these were really horrible, scary results, but you've got to respect the strength and the dedication it took to strip the Americans of their constitutional civil rights, for example. I mean, the guy decides that he doesn't like the Constitution, so he goes and introduces the Patriot Act without giving a rat's little tookie about anybody's opinion. The people who voted for him definitely got their money's worth, while those who voted for Obama are still waiting for him to deliver anything.

From the moment he was sworn into office, Obama has dedicated a lot more effort to appearing "bi-partisan" than to anything else. It is as if he hadn't been around for the preceding 8 years and had failed to observe that Bush Jr., who was signally uninterested in any kind of bi-partisanship, got reelected to his second term in office. Somehow, Obama seems oblivious to the simple truth that when you fall over yourself to give up on your beliefs even before anybody suggests you do, you only end up appering weak, irresolute, and indecisive. These are obviously not the qualities anybody wants in a president.

And it's the same with everything. Fumbling, half-measures, and so on. Today, Obama announced that he is ready to put some restrictions on banks. Good for him, but why just "some restrictions"? Why not just bring back the Glass-Steagall and proceed from there? It worked for a long time, so just bring it back and stop inventing the wheel.

What Obama refuses to see is that all these attempts to appease everybody will cost him the next elections. He will never attract the Republican base simply because they have their own candidates. But in the process of trying to ingratiate himself clumsily with the conservatives, he will lose the people who voted for him in the first place. They will be so disillusioned that they will simply fail to show up at the polls. And who can blame them.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Birth Control Held Hostage

Getting a prescription for birth control pills is an incredible pain in the neck. Normally, you are required to see a gynecologist once a year to get a year-long prescription. Even that is stupid because there is absolutely no reason to make birth control into prescription medication. But the doctors need to make money and this is one way of making sure women are forced to see them and pay exorbitant sums for these unnecessary visits. Now, even that silly system doesn't often work the way it is supposed to.

Since I moved, I went to a new doctor for my prescription. I was only given one for 3 months and asked to come again for a new one because I am a new patient. My health insurance paid the doctor $132 for this 10 minute long visit. The entire visit consisted of me engaging in the following idiotic conversations with the nurse (I didn't even get to see the doctor):

Nurse: Have you had any pregnancies?
Me: No.
Nurse: Any abortions?

I don't know what she thought I could have aborted since I had already said I'd had no pregnancies. This mystery remains unsolved. Then we had the following exchange:

Nurse: Have you been married for a long time?
Me: A month.
Nurse: Huh! That's strange.
Me: Why?
Nurse: You look like you have been married a long time.

I still don't know whether to take this as a compliment or an insult.

Now I have to go back for more inane conversations in the same style. I swear to God, it's easier to get access to heroin than to simple harmless birth control. Of course, nobody is interested in making these unnecessary visits to a doctor disappear as part of this so-called healthcare reform.

Even with prescription insurance, a packet of pills (that lasts a month) costs $28. It is so frustrating to hear all the anti-abortion propaganda in a society where access to legal birth control is so painful and expensive. How can anybody expect a teenager from an underprivileged background, for example, to have money for this prescription and the endless visits to the doctor to get it in the first place?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Multiple Choice

My students asked me today why I am so opposed to using multiple-choice quizzes. I believe that there is absolutely no pedagogic rationale behind using multiple-choice exercises in the Humanities. The teacher's goal should be making students produce something. Even if it's one word, one date, or one name, it should come from the students.

Another reason why I consider multiple choice completely counter-productive is that it gives 3 or 4 wrong answers for every correct answer. What is the purpose of suggesting mistaken responses to the students? The wrong answers might end up sticking in their brain, and then it's hard to remove them from the students' memory.

From the teacher's point of view, while correcting multiple-choice assignments is very easy, creating them must be quite painful. I mean, you have to sit there inventing those mistaken responses, which seems like a royal waste of time. I wonder who is the genius who initially came up with this useless form of testing the students' knowledge.

The Dems Are About to Lose Their Majority: Why Should I Care?

The liberal blogosphere has been abuzz recently with calls to mobilize people in Massachusetts to vote Democratic. If they don't, the Dems are going to lose their 60 seat majority, and then what?

Then, nothing, is my opinion. It feels to me like no majority, or super majority, or super super majority will ever help the Democrats do anything useful. They always have a reason to buckle under the tiniest amount of pressure from the Republicans. They've had their majority for a while, and what have we, the people, got out of it? Nothing much. Somehow, even if there is only one Republican left in the Senate, s/he will still achieve more than all the Dems combined. All their majority has helped them do is to line their pockets.

So I can't muster an appropriate degree of enthusiasm, or even curiosity, about the results of the election to win Ted Kennedy's seat. I think that this is how the voters feel, too. You can't let the voters down every single time and then expect them to care about your party. The Dems are now reaping the fruits of their indecisiveness and weakness. Serves them right.


We are having the most unbelievable fog I have seen outside of mountain areas. This is one of the days when I'm really happy I don't have to drive.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why Are Professors So Liberal?

In her article "Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left," NY Times's Patricia Cohen suggests that the perennial query of why professors are so liberal is the wrong question to ask. Rather, she believes, we "should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors." After proposing this question, the journalist proceeds to suggest all kinds of weird reasons for this phenomenon that are too boring and primitive for me to discuss here. She writes for the New York Times, so how much insight can we expect?

It is true that there are very few conservatives in the academic world. The existing conservatives are usually marginalized and ridiculed by the rest of the academic community. The reason why this happens is simple: in order to be a professor you often (although not always, due to pervasive corruption) need to have a brain. Having a brain and believing the conservative swill about the inferiority of women and gays, creationism as a valid academic subject, the saintly nature of free markets, the war between civilizations, and so on, are obviously two completely incompatible things.

How can a professor vote for Bush who says things like "What is our children learning"? How can an academic vote for Palin who, when asked what magazines she reads, says "All of them"? How can a person whose job is to disseminate knowledge support a political movement dedicated to the eradication of knowledge and intelligence?

In order to rise to prominence as a conservative politician, one needs to dedicate one's life to demonstrating a profound and complete rejection of everything that might be deemed intellectual. A while ago, the noted journalist Paul Krugman observed that the Republicans "have become the party of stupid." All you have to do in order to see the truth behind Krugman's statement is turn on the evening news or open a newspaper. People whose poor language skills should have made it impossible for them to graduate from high school have come to symbolize the Republican party for everybody all over the world. Of course, there are intelligent, well-spoken conservatives in this country. It's hard for them, however, to make themselves heard or noticed behind the barrage of loudmouthed, angry stupidity coming from mainstream Republicans every single day.

The job of an academic is to disseminate knowledge and generate ideas. Thinking is what we do for a living. The only way to vote Republican is to amputate one's thinking capacity for good. So obviously, a Republican professor is an impossible contradiction. The only thing that is really surprising in this phenomenon is that it still manages to surprise any one.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Using Puzzles in Job Interviews

Puzzles are the latest fad in the job interview process that the corporate world has taken on recently. A candidate for JP Morgan or Microsoft is subjected to a humiliating process of being asked to solve a really weird puzzle that has absolutely nothing to do with their area of expertise. Many people who have been through this type of interview compare it to hazing.

There are many examples of such puzzles. There is an entire book and website industry dedicated to preparing you for this type of job interview. The one you see on the left is particularly popular, although there are many others (How to Ace the Brainteaser Interview, The return of the brainteaser interview: puzzles that challenge your logical thinking are back. , Brain Teasers, Book of Puzzles & Brain Teasers, etc.). This is an example of such a puzzle:

Three men and one woman find themselves on a deserted island. They only have two condoms between them. How can these 3 men have safe sex with the woman?

Believe me, people, I am not making this up. This is an actual question people are asked during actual job interviews. I am not even going to address the entire set of nasty, hateful assumptions that inform this so-called puzzle. Like, who said these men are necessarily interested in having sex with this woman, as opposed to with each other. Or, why would the woman want to have sex with all of them.

The main question here is what is the purpose of making this type of idiotic puzzle the central part of the job interview process. Contrary to what Microsoft and Wall Street companies claim, the goal of introducing puzzles into the job interview process is not to find the most creative thinker among your candidates. The real purpose is to find the most obedient, robot-like one. No self-respecting person with a degree from a respectable university will tolerate being asked stupid, irrelevant, and often offensive questions like "How many piano-tuners are there in New York?" or "How to design a spice-rack for a blind person?" The goal of such companies is precisely to weed out self-respecting, intelligent candidates. All they need is employees who would obey any humiliating task they are given without questioning their bosses on the legitimacy of the assignment.

Zygmunt Bauman's Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part II

As I mentioned in the first part of this review, Bauman's vision of today's world is, at the very least, flawed. The impression his analysis often makes on me is one created by a person who is so afraid of certain aspects of life that he never ventures outside of his ivory tower. He hides from reality and theorizes about it from the
the place of his fear. As a result, a lot of what he has to say bears no relation to reality. For instance, Bauman sees us as constantly moving away from coercion and towards freedom. He observes (or he believes that he observes)
the ever more evident dismantling of the system of normative regulation, and thereby the releasing of ever larger chunks of human conduct from coercive patterning, supervision, and policing, and relegating ever larger numbers of previously socialized functions to the realm of individual "life politics."
                                                                                                                        I thought about this statement for a long while, but for the life of me I can't see how anybody can say that the world today is moving away from supervision and policing. I don't want to keep belaboring the point of those new airport scanners ad infinitum, but what about the US Patriot Act? If that is non-invasive and non-coercive, I honestly don't know what is.
Bauman spends quite a lot of time attempting to construct an argument on the basis of this perceived disappearance of coercion and its substitution with something else:
Coercion is being replaced by stimulation, forceful imposition of behavioral patterns by seduction, policing of conduct by PR and advertising, and the normative regulation, as such, by the arousal of new needs and desires.
I have no idea why Bauman needs to present PR and advertising on the one hand and policing and coercion on the other as mutually exclusive. Coercion and advertising are part of the same system, two sides of the same coin. The arousal of new needs and desires is a product of both PR and policing. If we know that we will be policed (say, at an airport), we are very likely to provide ourselves with a kit that will make the process of being policed easier. People who travel a lot nowadays have a special personal grooming and make-up kits that come in small bottles and that are packaged separately. Before your trip, you can just grab your pre-packaged kits and head to the airport. In a similar fashion, one could give many examples of coercion and stimulation working together to impose new behavioral patterns. Advertising often serves not so much to provoke new desires as to give us a justification for accepting the needs imposed on us by coercion.

Another topic where Bauman's argument is wide of the mark, is his description of an ideal employee for big corporations. For some reason, he has decided that in order to be competitive on the job market one has to be single, unattached, and not burdened with responsibilties:
Bosses tend nowadays to dislike having employees who are burdened with personal commitments to others-particularly those with firm commitments and especially the firmly long-term commitments. The harsh demands of professional survival all too often confront men and women with morally devastating choices between the requirements of their career and caring for others. Bosses prefer to employ unburdened, free-floating individuals who are ready to break all bonds at a moment's notice and who never think twice when "ethical demands" must be sacrificed to the "demands of the job."
Nothing in this statement makes sense. A commitment-free individual, unburdened with a mortgage and dependent family members, is the worst nightmare of repressive employers. Such an employee feels free to leave the second she feels unhappy with the conditions of her employment. A "free-floating" individual doesn't scare as easy as the one who is the only breadwinner for a group of people. If I have several mouths to feed, I am more likely to swallow a lot of shit coming from my bosses in order to keep my job at any cost. If, however, I don't owe anything to anybody, I will leave the company without a second thought and will have no trouble moving to a different city, state, or even country. This is precisely why we are so constantly brainwashed into marrying and having children. Free people pose the greatest danger to the system. Why Bauman would wish to claim the opposite is incomprehensible to me.
In his desire to signal his rejection of the way the world is today, Bauman allows his argument to become sloppy. For instance, the philosopher bemoans the lack of interest in politics in today's world:
All over the "developed" and affluent part of the planet, signs abound of fading interest in the acquisition and exercise of social skills, of people turning their backs on politics, of growing political apathy and loss of interest in the running of the political process.
He fails to mention, however, when that happy age of political participation that is "fading" today actually took place. I believe that any argument about things getting much worse absolutely has to mention the time period with which today's reality is being compared. Otherwise, there is no value to this line of reasoning.

To summarize, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? offers an insightful discussion of identity construction. However, as soon as Bauman begins to theorize about the subjects of ethics and consumerism, he cannot avoid the need to massage reality into the confines of his flawed system.

Zygmunt Bauman's Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part I

Zygmunt Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. His interest in the mechanisms of identity construction is enough to make me follow his work with great dedication.

Bauman's recent Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Institute for Human Sciences Vienna Lecture Series) made a dubious impression on me. Everything Bauman has to say about identity is really good. Everything he has to say on other topics, however, is really not. This is unusual, since normally philosophers are provoked by the topic of identity into uttering strings of annoying platitudes. Bauman avoids this danger and talks about identity in a thought-provoking and profound way. The other subjects he addresses in Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? , though, are analyzed in a much weaker way. Unfortunately, a moment comes in everybody's life when our brain cannot process change as effectively as it used to when we were younger. As a result, we see any change in our world as at worst terrifying and at best negative. This is, sadly, what happens to Bauman. His fear of today's reality taints his analysis and robs it of any intellectual value. As I already explained, I have no patience with anybody whose sexism and racism do not allow them to recognize that life today is without a shadow of a doubt better than at any other point in history. Bauman's lamentations about some unspecified past when everything was better, fresher, and sweeter are a testimony to his nostalgia for his lost youth. This nostalgia is so strong that it overruns the obvious ethical considerations that should have helped Bauman remember that the current historical period he dislikes so much is characterized by an incredible progress in the rights of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

In this review, I will first address the parts of Bauman's argument that I really liked. Then, I will proceed to discuss the much weaker second half of this book.

Bauman starts his discussion of identity formation by observing how much the task of creating an identity is linked to fear, anxiety, and constant insecurity:
Identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation. Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation, turns into a lifelong task, never complete; at no moment of life is the identity "final" There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing. That built-in "nonfinality," the incurable inconclusiveness of the task of self-identification, causes a lot of tension and anxiety.
The idea that identity today is negotiable, fluid, and non-static has, of course, turned into something of a favorite platitude among the theorists of identity. What is different in Bauman's analysis is that his thinking does not stop there. He realizes that the qualities of fluidity and variability of contemporary identities do not in any way rob them of their potential to do harm. It is a given that everybody today moves seamlessly between identities. This mere fact, however, does nothing to alleviate the dreadful burden of identity.

By its very nature, collective identity requires a common enemy. The ever-growing complexity of today's world makes the need for this enemy stronger, instead of weaker:
The act of selecting a group as one's site of belonging in fact constitutes some other groups as alien and, potentially, hostile territory: "I am P" always means (at least implicitly, but often explicitly) that "most certainly, I am not Q, R, S, and so on." "Belonging" is one side of the coin, and the other side is separation and opposition-which all too often evolve into resentment, antagonism, and open conflict. Identification of an adversary is an indispensable element of identification with an "entity of belonging"-and, through the latter, also a crucial element of self-identification. Identification of an enemy construed as an incarnation of the evil against which the community "integrates," gives clarity to life purposes and to the world in which life is lived.

Consequently, when the world becomes less clear and more complex, a group needs to construct an enemy who is more and more evil with every passing day. Thus, those who believe that we live in a post-identity world are completely wrong. I have no idea whether these people even follow the news or turn on the television. There are no structures in place today that would dilute the strength of collective identifications. Just the opposite.

After this impressive discussion of identity, Bauman proceeds to talk about the actual subject of his book, which is the relationship between ethics and consumerism. And here, unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart. In order to introduce the topic of ethics, the philosopher comes out with the following bizarre statement:
In order to have self-love, we need to be loved or to have hope of being loved. Refusal of love-a snub, a rejection, denial of the status of a love-worthy object-breeds self-hatred. Self-love is built of the love offered to us by others. Others must love us first, so that we can begin to love ourselves.
It honestly took me a while to realize that the author was completely serious in this statement. When I finally saw that no punch line was coming and this is exactly what he meant to say, I felt pretty embarrassed for Bauman. You cannot proceed to theorize on the basis of your psychological insecurities and neuroses. Of course, we can never escape them, but the least we could do is avoid projecting them onto the entire world. The kind of self-love that is so dependent on the aceptance and approval of others is beyond unhealthy. A theory constructed on the basis of this vision cannot convince anybody.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Traditional Russian Clothes

For the Language Awareness month, my colleagues asked if I would be willing to wear the kind of clothes women traditionally wear in Russian-speaking countries to our campus activities.

I didn't know how to explain to them that if I did it would look like what you see in this picture.

Of course, if I were to dress like this we would achieve our goal of attracting people to our department. Unfortunately, those people would mostly be police officers and not prospective students.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Elections in Ukraine

It has become pretty obvious that the candidate most likely to win Ukraine's upcoming presidential elections is the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The elections will be held on January 17. If Viktor Yanukovych wins, this date might signal the end of independent Ukraine. There is, of course, nothing more dangerous for Ukraine as an independent political and cultural entity than going back under the influence of Russia, but the majority of Ukrainians are incapable of realizing this.

As the leading Spanish newspaper El Pais astutely observed, while the economy of Ukraine is in shambles, there is at least no doubt that Ukrainians enjoy their democratic freedoms. Freedoms of expression, association, and belief are - for now - available to all Ukrainians. This will obviously end if Ukraine turns into a dominion of Russia. No political or ideological dissent is tolerated in Russia, where the old habits of a totalitarian state have come back in full force.

The imperial mindset of Russian politicians has suggested to them a great way of distracting their citizens from their poverty and lack of democratic freedoms: contempt and hatred towards everybody who is not Russian. People in Russia are indulging in their hate of everybody else - from Ukrainians to Americans - with a vengeance. Those Ukrainians who are likely to vote for Yanukovych will do that because they want to identify with Russia. They are blind to the fact that being Russian wannabes does not convince actual Russians to suspend their contempt towards everybody who is Ukrainian.

Ukraine was a despised and looted colony of Russia for centuries. Our people were exterminated by the million in horrifying acts of genocide, our culture and language were destroyed. We have been taught to hate ourselves and to feel hugely inferior to the Russians. The propaganda techniques that Russian leaders employed in order to make Ukrainians feel ashamed of their non-Russian origins have been wildly successful. Many Ukrainians, especially from the Eastern part of the country (which is incidentally the place where I come from), hate being Ukrainian and are eager for Ukraine to return to the role of a bullied and exploited colony of Russia.

The prospect of seeing Ukrainians heading for national and cultural self-immolation saddens me beyond what words can express.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chris Hedges's Empire of Illusion: A Review

The moment China, the oil-rich states, and other international investors stop buying U.S. Treasury Bonds, the dollar will become junk. Inflation will rocket upward. We will become Weimar Germany. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to simpletons like Sarah Palin to loudmouth talk-show hosts, whom we naively dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. . . There are powerful corporate entities, fearful of losing their influence and wealth, arrayed against us. They are waiting for a moment to strike, a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control. The tools are in place. These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing dissent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy. And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross.
                                                                                          -Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion

This long quote from Chris Hedges's Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle demonstrates perfectly why I think this is a stunning piece of journalism at its very best and a book that any responsible citizen has to read. I absolutely loved this book (except Chapter 2, which seemed like it was taken from a completely different book and can be resumed as "Pornography bad, Dworkin good, sex scary, intimacy comforting.") I suggest that this chapter be skipped altogether in favor of the brilliant political analysis of the rest of the book.

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle is an angry book. Hedges, one of the very few remaining journalists in the US who do actual journalism instead of regurgitating washed out mantras handed to them by their keepers, is not afraid of hurting the public's tender sensibilities by the truth. He realizes the gravity of our current situation and is unafraid of telling the readers that our economic and political future looks bleak. The way our government tries to address the collapse of the economy, which it coyly terms "a recession", by throwing taxpayers' money at the problem is wrong and self-destructive:

We are vainly trying to return to a bubble economy, of the sort that once handed us the illusion of wealth, rather than confront the stark reality that lies ahead. We are told massive borrowing will create jobs and re-inflate real estate values and the stock market. We remain tempted by mirages, by the illusion that we can, still, all become rich.
None of these so-called measures are working. Endless bailouts and stimulus packages that have indebted us in an unheard of way have failed to jumpstart the economy and move the country out of this crisis. Still, nobody is proposing any alternatives to this failed system. The economy of the US operates in exactly the same manner as the unsustainable Soviet economy. Nobody, however, is willing to recognize it. People believe that if you call this perversion "capitalism" and "free market economy" often enough, it will actually turn into capitalism and free market economy. Reality has been substituted by illusion in so many areas of life, Hedges observes, that people often refuse to see and identify what is right in front of their faces. This rejection of reality in favor of illusion haunts all spheres of our lives:
Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity. The New Age mysticism and pop psychology of television personalities, evangelical pastors, along with the array of self-help best-sellers penned by motivational speakers, psychiatrists, and business tycoons, all peddle a fantasy. Reality is condemned in these popular belief systems as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as negativity, or as inhibiting our inner essence and power. Those who question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able to confront reality and who grasp the hollowness of celebrity culture are shunned and condemned for their pessimism.
The reason for this resistance to acknowledging the reality that lies right in front of us is that the very few of us possess the intellectual, psycholigical, emotional, and linguistic tools needed to perform this task. Rather than decipher the incomprehensible, confusing, and often painful reality around them, people prefer to escape into the world of cliches and make-belief. Who wants to dedicate their lives to addressing complex, important issues, if you can happily escape into the world of triviality?
Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by cliches, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes or our national character or because we are blessed by God. In this world, all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition.
(I'm quoting so much because the way Hedges writes is so powerful, concise, and convincing that I don't want to deprive my readers of the enormus pleasure of seeing the way a real journalist should write. This is a rare pleasure nowadays.)

One would expect, of course, our system of higher education to help students acquire the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to analyze the failings of our poitical and economic systems. This, however, does not happen. As anybody working in the higher education system knows all too well, our universities have been undergoing the process of transforming themselves into robot-churning factories. Hedges's understanding of the way the higer education system has been appropriated by the military-industrial complex is profound:
The bankruptcy of our economic and political systems can be traced directly to the assault against the humanities. The neglect of the humanities has allowed elites to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions. Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed. But those in charge, because they are educated only in specializations designed to maintain these economic and political structures, have run out of ideas. They have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system.
Our universities have become nothing but "high-priced occupational training centers." Graduates are incapable of approaching their reality in a critical way. All they are trained to do is to service the system as efficiently as possible. Now that the system itself is in dire need of a rehaul, there are very few people around who would be at least capable of recognizing this fact, let alone do something about it.

For a while now, I have been discussing with my friends and colleagues the very scenario that Hedges describes in the first quote of this post. This crisis is not going away any time soon. People will start to get scared, restless, depressed, and angry. They will turn to the Evangeical fascists for consolation. It's good to see that there are thinkers who realize that we are going in this scary direction and are trying to do something about it.

We all remember Obama's insightful remark about bitter people clinging to guns, religion and hatred. I still remember what a relief it was to hear a politician say something so smart and relevant for a change. If the President is smart enough to understand that we are going in the direction of religious fascism, then why is he doing all he can to push us towards this horrifying prospect?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

First Day of Spring Semester 2010

So I just finished all 3 classes I'm teaching this semester. I thought giving three 1 hour 15 min. classes one after another would be hard, but the time passes really fast. The only problem is that the first and the last classes are given in Spanish, and the one in the middle is in English. It turned out to be extremely hard to switch back to Spanish after my English lecture. It got so bad that I forgot how to say "niece" in Spanish, which is extremely humiliating since it's Spanish 101 vocabulary.

I was also stupid enough to start doing a translation into Russian during small breaks between classes, which somehow switched the Spanish-speaking part of my brain off.

On the positive side, I managed to demonstrate my first ever PowerPoint presentation to my Hispanic Civilization class effortlessly. This class is so big that I think I'm going to lose my voice soon. Still, it feels fantastic to have so many students listening to my lecture. The enrollment in this class is three times what it used to be before I came to this school. I guess my students did tell their peeps about this "totally radical course." :-)

Robert Dornan's Goodbye American Woman: A Review

Robert Dornan's Goodbye American Woman is a curious example of a North-American anti-feminist backlash. I am co-authoring this post with a guest blogger who was kind enough to recap the content of this book for me.

Guest Blogger:

I picked this book because I got interested in how North American guys perceive Russian culture and people.

I grew up and lived next to Moscow until I moved to the US in 2003, which gives me some grounds to think I know how things truly are in Putinland. Given a delicate subject of this book – Russian women – I hoped to have a good laugh while comparing the content of this book with reality.

I am happy to say my expectations have been exceeded fivefold.

The author starts by introducing two Canadian guys, Bob and Alex, who work as mid-level software engineers in Toronto. Both their professional and personal lives leave much to be desired (i.e., suck): the only source of joy in Bob’s after-divorce life is spending time with his kids. Although Bob (according to his own words) is fairly good-looking with a long string of pretty girlfriends in the past, his present condition (according to his best friend Alex) is termed as “butt-ugly”. Unlike Bob, whose child support payments put a sizable hole in his budget, Alex has managed to escape the dark side of marriage by never having one in the first place. In fact, he appears to be performing better in the dating department, although he complains that it’s not cheap: despite all the equality talk, Canadian women are not eager to split the dinner bill and 99% of the time Alex has to pick it up. It’s a good thing that he can economize by still living at his father’s place. To make it short, both guys seem to be disillusioned in bitchy, pushy, over-demanding, and mercenary women.

Alas, they don’t see any way out: since all the women in North America are like that, what is a nice Canadian guy supposed to do? cross the Atlantic?

Literally enough, crossing the Atlantic turns out to be the solution to all of their problems. The two friends are forced to fly to Moscow, Russia, to fix a few software bugs, and they end up fixing their miserable lives into the bargain. As it turns out, Russian capital is filled with warm, hospitable, fun-loving people who quickly bring back to life the jet-lagged Canadian pilgrims. Russian women prove to be absolutely gorgeous, elegant and feminine creatures who are so much unlike their North American sisters that it’s just breathtaking, period. Most importantly, Russian ladies are smart and sensitive enough to see what great guys Alex and Bob really are, and they have no inhibitions expressing their appreciative feelings to the two gentlemen. After they spend ten days in Moscow, our newly born software engineers return to Toronto, but life is never the same without their Russian girlfriends. Within a few weeks, they fly back to their loved ones and propose. Needless to say, the two ladies are beside themselves with joy and gratitude and can only answer yes. In a few months, all six of them (I forgot to mention that each lady has a fairly grown up kid) would move to Canada to start a new life.

Now, if Alex and Bob strike you as two losers who cannot put two and two together, I agree. The funniest thing is that the book has no lack of information about what is really behind that syrupy fairy-tale. A few other characters in the book supply lots of accurate facts and opinions about what drives the men and women who sign up for that mail-order-bride-like business. However, all of their advice falls on deaf ears: Alex and Bob never stop to wonder why it only takes them a 13-hour flight to Moscow to become marriage material.


It is funny to observe the many forms anti-feminist backlash can take. The author of this book feels uncomfortable in the world where women have claimed for themselves a place of equality and human dignity. He hates the idea that a woman can have thoughts, desires, and opinions of her own. In the inhospitable universe where women have other goals than attracting and satisfying men and men have to learn to treat women as human beings, Dornan turns to the myth that submissive, compliant, doll-like women exist in parts of the world still unspoiled by vicious feminism. The greatest joke of the book is that in his search for such women he goes to Russia, of all places.

Anybody with a modicum of intellect and historical knowledge would realize that Russian-speaking countries have a historical legacy of female empowerment unmatched in the West. Women of my generation (early 30ies) were brought up by mothers and grandmothers almost a 100% of whom worked full-time their entire adult lives. In class, at work, at home, and in the majority of public settings, Russian-speaking women have been dominant (or, I would even say, domineering) for decades. This, of course, came at the price of complete sexual disempowerment and repression for women.

This is why it is so hilarious that anybody would be so deluded as to search for a sexy submissive doll in a Russian-speaking country. If anything, the pathetic mail-order bride seekers find the exact opposite.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Student Evaluations Fall 2009

I just got back my student evaluations and they are spectacular. The students really love me, which is extremely rewarding. I had over a hundred students altogether last semester, so I can't give all the evaluations here but here are some:

First, the negative evaluations:
I like her overall but I wish she didn't skip around so much.
Do not talk so fast!
Rushes through lessons, can be vague.
Didn't dress colorfully enough. [Yes, that is an actual comment by an actual student.]
And the positive ones (I am only putting the ones that are funny here to avoid looking self-congratulatory):
I did not even dread going to class, nor did I even desire to skip - love Clarissa! [I especially liked the use of the word "even" in this context.]
Very interesting and full of information. [I'm glad they think information is the only thing I was full of.]
Totally radical course, definitely gonna tell all my peeps about this one. [I'm not in touch with the jargon, but somehow it feels that this student was trying to say something positive about me. I hope.]
I thought I would hate this class but I love it.
A+. Pay her more! [Hear, hear.]
She is extremely intelligent and an amazingly interested teacher. [I truly hope the student meant I'm interesting.]
Clarissa is not intimidating or scary (LIKE PROFESSOR X).
My merit review committee seems to have been impressed as well. They gave me higher grades than I, in my infinite modesty, even asked for.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Economist Invents Its Own Feminism

Who would go to The Economist to find out about the latest trends in feminism? Nobody in their right mind, of course. When this kind of magazine comes up with its own perspective on feminism, the result is hilarious.

The authors and the readers of The Economist are so terrified of feminism that they need to convince themselves that today's feminism has become the exact opposite of what it is. Feminism is not into defending gender equality any more, they claim. According to The Economist, today's feminists defend their reight to be "less aggressive" and "more nurtuting":
The new feminism contends that women are wired differently from men, and not just in trivial ways. They are less aggressive and more consensus-seeking, less competitive and more collaborative, less power-obsessed and more group-oriented. Judy Rosener, of the University of California, Irvine, argues that women excel at “transformational” and “interactive” management. Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham, the authors of “A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom”, assert that women are “better lateral thinkers than men” and “more idealistic” into the bargain. Feminist texts are suddenly full of references to tribes of monkeys, with their aggressive males and nurturing females.

I don' know who the illiterate authors of the above-quoted texts are. What they say is stupid and uninformed. There are anti-feminist ideologues who use this "women-don't-need-success-they-just-need-to-nurture-men-and-babies" swill to brainwash the younger generations into despising feminism. Calling them "new feminists" in order to make people think feminism is stupid is wrong and annoying.

The author of this weird article proceeds to berate these imaginary "new feminists" for pushing the agenda of "gender differences." This, of course, is one of the most common devices aimed at discrediting a person or a movement. You ascribe to them some really idiotic ideas that they never held in the first place and then chide them for holding such obviously wrong views. Of course, no feminist can support this gender-differences rubbish. Also, nobody who considers themselves a feminist would react with anything other than utter disgust to these ramblings about monkey-like nurturing and cooperative women.

And the only monkeys I have encountered recently in discussions about feminism are the ones who wrote and published this idiotic article.

Airport Insecurity Measures

This is what the new bout of anti-terrorism hysteria has brought us. The European Union is planning to force all of its members to adopt these intrusive and humiliating scanners in airports.

Some European countries that have somehow been able to preserve certain remains of human dignity and mental sanity - Spain and Germany, for example - are still resisting the madness. Others, like the Nederlands and Italy, are falling all over themselves in their desire to appease the United States by any means necessary.

It is still unclear whether anybody on the planet honestly believes that these invasive procedures will really do something to stop terrorism. We have been removing our shoes in airports for a while now but somehow I don't remember hearing any reports about hundreds of terrorist attacks being stopped by these measures.

The whole mess of this last failed attempt to blow up an airplane is a competition in ineptness. The terrorist is so inept that instead of exploding the airplane he blows off his own junk. The counterterrorism agencies are so useless that they never figure out he might be dangerous in spite of warnings. Obama-haters are so stupid that they blame him for the fact that this terrorist managed to board a plane in Amsterdam. They must honestly believe that Amsterdam is part of the US. The European Union is so silly that it is willing to strip itself not only of clothes but of the last shred of dignity to make the US happy.

I hope that my blog doesn't get tagged as pornographic because of these images. This is not pornography, this is our new reality.

This is how we are willing to be seen by airport security.

This is where our fear is taking us.

P.S. The people at airport security can easily adjust the resolution on the scanners to achieve a much better visibility of any area of the body, including the genitals.

P.P.S The third picture has been pulled since the reader Mike pointed out that it is fake. Thank you, Mike, for your vigilance!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

We have been snowed in!

Even the campus has been closed and the last part of the research procedures seminar I have been attending for the last two days cancelled.

Since I come from Montreal, this kind of snow is nothing to me. The locals, however, are not used to anything like this. In Montreal this kind of snow is considered business as usual and nobody would cancel classes even for twice as much snow.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

The Opening of Burj Dubai

If you don't think this is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen, then I don't know what your problem is.

Many of the floors of Burj Dubai will be residential. Imagine what it must feel like to live in this incredible building.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Feminism Is Dead. Or Maybe It Just Hasn't Been Born Yet in Some Places

Reading St. Louis Post Dispatch turned out to be a pretty good idea, after all. Daily, I discover things that bring me in touch with the kind of reality I find next to impossible to believe. The article titled "Mother who home schools receives custody in St. Charles County divorce case" made me ponder the question I put in the title of this post. Is feminism really dead, as many people have been suggesting for the past couple of decades? Or has it simply been slow in arriving to St. Charles County and other similar places?

Here is the part of the article that made me worry about the future of feminism in this country (or, if we are very lucky, just in St. Charles County):
The court awarded Payne-Naeger $1,262 per month in child support and $3,500 in maintenance. Various investments and retirement funds were to be divided equally between Naeger and Payne-Naeger. The ruling said both parties agreed the monthly cost of maintaining the household exceeded $10,000. Zerr said Payne-Naeger, who has an associate's degree in advertising design, could earn $20,000 per year. She has not been employed for more than 20 years, but the court said evidence at trial showed she was capable of continuing her education and finding a job.
I know that it's hard to get past the $10,000 that some people apparently need to "maintain a household." The whole idea sounds kind of offensive in the middle of a harsh economic crisis. Leaving that aside, however, I wonder if the court that made this ruling sees an obvious contradiction between the first and the second parts of its decision. Why should a healthy, grown individual who is capable of finding a job receive "maintenance"? How come child support is a lot less than this mysterious maintenance? I understand the need to support underage children. But how is it fair that one adult should "maintain" another adult with an amount of money three times bigger than the amount of child support he pays to his children?

Such rulings infantilize women and are deeply humiliating. The court in this case seems to be suggesting that even if you are an educated woman capable of finding employment, you still need to be kept by a man. Even a man who is not a part of your life any longer.

Just consider the difference in the way we would normally react to a story about a man who has not worked for 20 years in spite of enjoying perfect health and is asking that his ex-wife "maintain" him to the tune of $3,500 per month after the divorce. Nobody would respect him much, and you know why? Because we see a man as a human being - or rather, the human being by default - and expect him to be responsible for himself and his own life. A woman, however, is still mostly seen as not a wholly valid human being. She is, rather, an appendage to a male. That is why we see it is kind of normal that a man should pay car maintance, ex-wife maintenance, a bike maintenance, etc. A woman is forever a man's possession. And a possession needs to be paid for.

And the scariest thing of all - this woman homeschools her poor children. If many children in St. Charles County are "educated" by people of similar values, we should not expect feminism to arrive in this area any time soon.

Anti-depressants Don't Work. Is Anybody Really Surprised?

A new study by Professor Robert J. DeRubeis of the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated that
Antidepressant medications likely provide little or no benefit to people with mild or moderate depression. . . Rather, the mere act of seeing a doctor, discussing symptoms and learning about depression probably triggers the improvements many patients experience while on medication.

Really? There actually needed to be a study demonstrating this? Even the relentless pharmaceutical companies have recognized that anti-depressants are useless. These powerful drug-pushing concerns have been brainwashing the public for decades with their mantra of "depression is a chemical imbalance in

your brain which we will cure by a prescription medication. Or two. Or three, if you are stupid enough to buy into our advertisement of an anti-depressant on top of another anti-depressant taking care of the residual symptoms of yet another anti-depressant."
If you read the entire article I quoted, you will see how apologetic Dr. DeRubeis sounds about his findings. All he is saying is that if you feel depressed, it makes sense to discuss this with somebody instead of guzzling crippling chemicals. To the public zombified by the endless ati-depressant commercials the scientist's message might come as a huge surprise. Still, I'm glad that finally somebody dared to publish findings that are likely to cut into the huge profits by the nasty pharmaceutical companies.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Foreign Languages Programs

I am sick and tired of receiving these defeatist articles announcing the imminent demise of language and literature programs in higher education. The most recent of these articles, suggests that we avoid being seen as service programs by . . . finding ways to serve engineering and agriculture more effectively. Another idiotic suggestion promoted by this article is one practiced by the University of Utah (like anybody in their right mind would want to be anything like Utah):
Members of the public pay to join the club, for which every third week they meet in a bar for a 10-minute talk by a humanities professor on some provocative topic (yes -- only 10 minutes -- it's called an "intellectual hors d'oeuvre") and then enjoy (non-intellectual) hors d'oeuvres and drinks. These talks are regularly heard by 100-plus people who get to know more about the humanities.
"Our first course is Professor X, followed by beer and curly fries." Is that what one kills oneself for in graduate school? To be offered in ten-minute servings before a hamburger and a pitcher to a bunch of people who want to pretend they have a brain? Of course, this kind of public would never be able to deal with more than 10 minutes of intellectual material every 3 weeks. How sad.

This "we-need-to-save-the-languages" attitude is very frustrating. Like the recent introduction of invasive airport security scanners, it attempts to treat the symptoms without addressing the root of the problem. I don't even want to go over the entire list of things that demonstrate how urgently relevant the Humanities in general and foreign languages and literatures in particular are today. The only type of people who doesn't realize this is the one who attends the embarrassing intellectual hors-d'oeuvres.

The real reason why our students are reluctant to major and minor in foreign languages is that they are born and grow up in a culture that keeps telling them that they live in the best country in the world and that everything beyond the US borders is not worthy of interest. Other countries are presented as uncivilized, weird, and dangerous. The best thing to do about people from other countries, my students are told, is to build a wall or install a scanner to hide us from the bad, scary "them."

Taking courses that introduce them to other cultures can be a disconcerting experience for American students. Their preconceived notions about some vague superiority of the US over everybody in everything are shattered. Often, it's easier for the students to major in disciplines that do no require them to engage in any painful intellectual analysis.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Blogging in Cuba

Imagine what it must be like to be a blogger in Cuba. Censorship, persecution, fear. The very possibility of gaining access to the Internet - the sine qua non of blogging - is painfully out of reach. Cubans living in Havana or near a large tourist resort have a theoretical possibility of visiting a cyber-cafe or an Internet room in a hotel. Internet access in this places is so expensive, however, as to be completely out of reach for anybody but tourists. In the interior of the country, matters are even worse.

Many Cuban bloggers only get to see their own blogs once every couple of months. Still, they persevere and publish regularly. One of the ways of making their posts appear online is to include the text of the post into the letter sent by snail mail to a relative or friend residing outside of the country. Brave Cuban bloggers put their lives at risk to bring the truth of what is happening in Cuba to the world.

I discovered all this from an article in the main Spanish periodical El Pais. Here is a list of links to some of these great blogs:

Voces cubanas,  Desde Cuba, Revista digital, Penúltimos Días, Cubaencuentro.

Let's support these brave colleagues by reading their blogs.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Fear and Dignity

In view of the recent failed terrorist attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit, the authorities in Netherlands have announced that from now on everybody who wants to board a US-bound airplane will have to go through a scanner that shows the contours of your naked body to the customs officers. The US supported this decision.

It is curious to observe to what lengths people are ready to go in order to convince themselves that inflicting yet another inconvenience, humiliation or debasement upon themselves is going to make them safe. For years we have been taking off our shoes, going through explosive-testing cameras, enduring endless lines in the airports, and undergoing searches and questioning. And none of it works. I don't know how many times I, a peaceful graduate student and later college professor, have been taken aside into a special room for suspicious people and questioned for lengthy periods of time when trying to cross the US-Canada border. I got so used to it that now I always arrive at the airport 3 hours early to make myself available for questioning which is surely coming. None of these measures, however, prevented the most recent terrorist - who was on a list of suspicious individuals - from getting on board with explosives.

Now we are supposed to parade naked in front of the customs officers in futile hopes that this new humiliation will finally buy us some peace of mind. It won't, though. All that is awaiting us as a next step in this frantic rush to appease our fear is a prison-type cavity search. The fear is growing, and soon enough nothing short of having a customs officer with his nose up your anus will make us feel secure enough.

Understanding the consequences of certain events, seeing similarities, and experiencing fear as a result is a very human thing to feel. So we attempt to strip ourselves of our humanity by stripping obediently in front of the customs officers in hopes that if we manage to play the role of cattle convincingly, nobody will want to hurt us. 'Look what we allow to be done to us,' we seem to say to the terrorists. 'Look how readily we give up our comfort, our privacy, our self-respect. See how sad and pathetic we are? Why would you want to waste your time hurting such a sorry bunch of sheep?'

It doesn't help, though. Dehumanizing ourselves is not a way to go.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!!!!!!

Happy New Year, my dear friends and readers!!!!

I hope that this new year 2010 will bring so many great things and so much happiness to all our lives, that we will no longer need any New Year's resolutions.

I really hope that you are getting very drunk with some great people in a really great place right now. I definitely am.

[This is a scheduled post]