Saturday, September 22, 2018

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Since 2014 I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (all have been for the P-G, unless otherwise noted). Here is a running list of the links:

Forthcoming (Fall 2018) - for the Journal of Urban Affairs:
Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit by Michael C. Hodges, (Detroit, A Painted Turtle Book / Wayne State University Press, 2018).

September 8, 2018:
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (academia, society).
July 25, 2018: (Accepted for publication June 29, 2016, but never published - now on my blog)
An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve (literary memoir).

June 4, 2017:
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis (academia, society).

April 23, 2017:
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia (cultural criticism).

August 7, 2016:
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology).

July 10, 2016:
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult fiction).

March 6, 2016:
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism, memoir).

September 20, 2015:
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture, biography).

December 27, 2014:
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel).

December 14, 2014:
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel).

September 7, 2014:
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel).

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Public Trashing via Private Email: Telling an Upstander to Back it Down!

[Note 9/14/2018: the original title of this post on 9/9/2018 made no sense, so I'm just rebranding it. Now I'm sure it's positive message of fraternal cartooning love will go viral! - Dandy Don.]

[Update: Okay, I can't count. It's only three years between 2015 and 2018; it just seems like four.]

Four Three years ago, the Toonseum was preparing to mount the Drawn in Pittsburgh exhibit featuring 51 local cartoonists (I was one of them; I had two pieces included in the show). In a press release, however, only 48 cartoonists were named. All three who were left off happened to be women.

Now, you'll not be surprised to learn that females are already somewhat under-represented in the cartooning arts, even in a happening town like Pittsburgh. But those three names represented a sizeable proportion of women practicing the craft locally.

Understandably, the aggrieved parties took to social media and started calling the organizers and participants in the exhibit a "good old boys club," sexist, privileged, and a few other choice names. Making matters worse, one of the Toonseum board members took to social media to respond in kind. While he tried to assure them that they were definitely in the show, his usual clipped manner came across as brusque and tone-deaf.

Now, just the year before, the Toonseum had parted ways with its founder; it's largely ceremonial board, finding it necessary to step in, had so far only seemed to have made matters worse. For various and sundry reasons, the Toonseum no longer exactly enjoyed the sterling reputation it once did when it was shiny and new. It was a long way from repairing the reputation it had enjoyed among local cartoonists and the local arts scene, and this exhibit, which was ostensibly supposed to be a step toward remedying that situation, was only turning into another opportunity for the Toonseum to dig themselves deeper.

Distressed by this situation and knowing as an established cartoonist I had the ear of at least some inside the Toonseum, I finally wrote a private email to four people who were most associated with the exhibit, whom I had known through comics for about a quarter-century each. I wrote,
I realize [the board member] is volunteering his time on the [Drawn in Pittsburgh] exhibit and is spread very thin, but his terse, irascible responses to criticism in general and his curt reply to [one of the female cartoonists] and the others omitted from the press release in particular have been completely lacking [in] any political sensibility whatsoever.
[Another cartoonist's] tactful reply was helpful[,] but the Toonseum needs to issue a public apology to those artists left off the press release. You've got to control this damage; [the board member] is a fucking disaster.
Shortly thereafter, to my amazement, the board member issued a reluctant apology on social media for the oversight, asserting that the omission was inadvertent and never intended as a slight. The wording to me seemed half-hearted at best, but it was better than nothing. The slighted cartoonists, at any rate, seemed satisfied, and everyone got back to looking forward to the opening.

The [other cartoonist] referenced above, who was one of the four individuals I had included on the email, responded immediately and thanked me for making the suggestion. He said,
Just wanted to say thank you for mentioning this.

I'm not on the ToonSeum board (which I'm actually grateful for), and one of the reasons I prefer to basically float at the periphery is I think they do better when they hear outside voices. Of course, the other part of communication is responding appropriately ... and that's up to them.

You picked up completely on my reasons for writing to [one of the offended cartoonists] and the [other] artists about the press release. I couldn't formally apologize on the ToonSeum's behalf (which is their responsibility), but I knew where she was coming from. She deserved some form of acknowledgement.

Again, thanks for noticing and having my back. Way to be an UpStander! ;^)
Not everyone, however, thought my friendly advice made me "an Upstander."

Rob Rogers, board president, who was also one of the four, responded to me.
 Hi Don -
As a friend I will say this in private. Back it down. You are a very talented guy and I value our friendship[,] but you need to find a way to control these types of reactions. [...] This kind of public trashing is one of the reasons we were hesitant to put you on the board. You did it to your Pitt colleagues [...]. Now you are doing it to us. There is a reasonable and professional way to voice your objection to something as simple as a press release. This is not it.
Now, I need to back up just a bit. All of the above emails occurred on September 9, 2015. A year prior, two board members approached me at Ka-Blam - an event at the Toonseum - where I had suggested a fundraising sketch table, about joining the board. They told me that they thought that a PhD might look good on the letterhead (this should have been my first clue). I never would have even asked about joining the board, having no political sensibility (as is obvious to any of my blog readers), but out of some sense of optimism, I responded affirmatively.

Months passed; my follow-up emails went largely unanswered; the Toonseum parted ways with its founder; and I forgot all about it.

One day in March 2015, in a local comic shop, I overheard someone mention that they had just been elected to the Toonseum board (someone whom I would have voted for over me in hearbeat). Nonetheless, it seemed a little rude to find out in this manner; and yet, this is how I found out I was no longer under consideration. Classic Toonseum.

Rob Roger's email, quoted above, was the first and only acknowledgement I ever received that my nomination had even been under consideration (presumably at an official board meeting, but maybe only over a beer at Primanti's), let alone the first hint at any kind of explanation.

Now let me just say, the Toonseum board was free to consider whatever criteria they want - any, or none at all (I submitted a cover letter and CV which seems to have never been perused; Rob professed ignorance to my in a text some time later that I ever drew the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although this fact was pretty prominent). In any case, I never asked for the job; still, I felt entitled to a more prompt and courteous response than finding out by walking into a local comics shop, since I had responded affirmatively. But  the Toonseum always was a bit challenged when it came to such niceties.

First, I've never quite grasped how a private email offering constructive criticism to four individuals I had known for twenty-five years each constituted a "public trashing." There was nothing "public" about it; in fact, for me it was rather discreet. I also have never figured how friendly advice that they actually took to heart could be construed as a "trashing."

I don't think I'm alone in having gotten the feeling by 2015 that the Toonseum didn't want to hear anything it didn't want to hear. And that attitude clearly came from the top.

Rob's response struck me as more than a little paranoid, in a Nixonian way.

It was also a revelation that Rob knew anything at all about my graduate school experience, let alone had an opinion on it, and a strong one at that. I never talked to him about it, even though a circa 2000 dinner with him and his partner, then working on her PhD at Pitt, and a cartoonist and his wife (a specialist in paper conservation) was one of the things that put the idea into my head that I should maybe go back to school (I started in 2003 and by 2013 also had a PhD in art and architectural history from Pitt).

I did have a falling out with my department the spring of 2014, over a number of issues that this past summer have been widely debated in higher education. I guess I'm ahead of my time.

How Rob happened to learn of them, to this day, I am uncertain. In any case, I responded to Rob thus:
Hi Rob -
I think an apology [in the case of the Drawn in Pittsburgh press release omission] was the right thing to do. Those left off the list were taking it very personally and reading sexist motivations into the slight. It wasn't my intent to trash anybody. I have always supported the Toonseum and was extremely distressed that this was snowballing on social media. I'm glad action was taken, whatever price it has cost me.

This is the first time I've ever received any explanation as to why consideration of me for the board went nowhere. I was very hurt by this last March and particularly by the manner in which I found out about it: by overhearing that [someone else - and someone better, by the way] had become a board member when I happened to be in the Phantom in Oakland. I deserved at least the courtesy of a formal notice that I was not being considered this time around. Here I have personally blamed [another party] all this time, since he was the one who had sought me out, and we corresponded for several months.

I blurted out some honest remarks about my grad school experience on social media, which I quickly deleted; others went out of their way to circulate them aggressively. As you should know better than anyone, Rob, when you hit a nerve with the truth it travels far of its own volition.
This email was also on September 9, 2015.

Rob Rogers has never made any effort to respond or communicate with me since (what would have been a more professional and collegial way to communicate I have yet to learn). I followed up with several emails to Rob, asking more pointedly each time to what "public trashing" of my colleagues he was referring, how he happened to know what he seemed to know, and how he came to his indignant verdict on my motives and state of mind. No response.

(Of course, I do have Rob's exemplary departure from the Post-Gazette to model now. No trash-talking there.)

I do know that someone spotted the 2014 remarks on social media about my grad school experience, which were highly elliptical in nature and mentioned no names, cut-and-pasted them into a PDF, and forwarded it to the chair of the department, who happens to have been Rob's partner's doctoral dissertation advisor.

It also seems highly unlikely to me that anyone outside of the orbit of the Department of History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh could have recognized anyone I was talking about in my quickly-deleted postings. Certainly no one in the Pittsburgh cartooning community, and no one on the Toonseum board.

Except for Rob Rogers, of course.

And his partner.

No one at the time ever let on to me that they had seen the alleged "public trashing" of my "Pitt colleagues." Only Rob, a year and a half later, seemed to be at all aware of it.

That is to say, outside HAA. Because, you better believe it, everyone inside the department seemed to have seen it. Because one of my social media friends - perhaps even a valued friend - called it to their attention.

In any case, I've always assumed that by "we," Rob was indicating in his last email to me that he had unilaterally vetoed my nomination for Toonseum board membership. (For that little favor, I can say without fear of contradiction, I will always be grateful.)

It seemed to me at the time (four three years ago today) incredibly graceless and ungrateful, in response to a private email suggesting that the Toonseum pull its collective head out of its ass and get out in front of a public relations gaffe, for Rob to throw in my face the minor revelation that, by the way, a year earlier, I had been kept off the Toonseum board because I hadn't gotten along with his partner's old professors. Or that he was even aware of how my relations with the educators who granted me my PhD had unamicably ended.

Since Rob has refused all further communication, I still have no idea what aspect of the alleged "public trashing" most incensed him. Was it my snarky remarks about "Critical Theory"? Was it my assertion that art history as an academic discipline - and particularly the advocacy of contemporary art - was fatuous and bankrupt? (My dissertation was on architectural and city planning history; luckily, I'm not asked to teach art history after humans stopped drawing.) Was it my complaints of structural power inequities, professorial aversion to criticism, a failure to uphold university policy, Title VII, and Title IX, or allegations of the arrogance of carpet-bagging faculty, coupled with their innate instinct to maintain plausible deniability at all costs? Was it the brief reference to well-known rumors in the Graduate Student Office of what we would now call "MeToo" behavior in the wood-paneled suites?

I have no idea.

[Compare these rather timid and diffuse complaints - as I have more or less accurately characterized them - with just a few of the unequivocal allegations and characterizations that have been widely circulated in The Chronicle of Higher Education and a dozen other publications just this past summer. Take, above all, one astonishing admission by Slavoj Zizek, who was actually defending an academic  colleague:
[There are] quite a few professors that I know who obey all the Politically Correct rules while merrily screwing students or playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve.
Zlavoj, you will never be invited to serve on a non-profit board in Pittsburgh.

(I know I never said anything that harsh about the Department of History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. But if the shoe fits, wear it.)

I do know that I did get into a lot of trouble when my deleted social media remarks were circulated as a PDF, perhaps by someone who, in some perverse way, nonetheless thought they actually "value[d] our friendship." But I rather suspect it was just some backstabbing coward looking to score some cheap brownie points.

Now that Rob's partner is the new director of the University Art Gallery at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Art and Architecture, it is safe to say that her old professors are now (once again) Rob Rogers' colleagues, not mine. Particularly since the UAG has organized the current Rob Rogers exhibit at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., and will host an even bigger retrospective of his work at Pitt later this fall.

Come in from the cold, spiked cartoonist!

(The department chair, who studies East German art, certainly must have picked up a thing or two from the Stasi and how they rewarded their informants. Mostly, in keeping them dependent.)

I'll leave it to others to ponder the First Amendment and Freedom of the Press issues that are no doubt under discussion at the Corcoran and will surely  be raised at the UAG show (although these seem to me to be a completely manufactured diversion from larger structural issues attending the troubled business model of print and the tradition of American editorial cartooning).

Some may also want to think about why it's apparently all right for some genteel people to publicly trash their [former] colleagues, while others "need to find a way to control these types of reactions.

For my part, I'll skip it. Because, in part, I happen to be preoccupied by other urgent questions.

Like, what the fuck ever happened to the Toonseum?

(To be continued ...)

In the meantime: If you break one art gallery in Pittsburgh, we'll still replace it with another, free!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Rob Rogers Cheers On Possible Demise of Post-Gazette

Beginning this weekend, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reducing the number of days per week it will issue a print edition, going from seven (daily) to only five days per week (the P-G will henceforth be electronic-only Tuesdays and Saturdays).

The occasion has been greeted with derision by Rob Rogers, the long-time editorial cartoonist whose staff position was recently eliminated. In a Tweet, Rob said, "Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights ... [?]"

I responded to Rob's latest Tweet thus: "Pretty callous sentiment toward your former colleagues and coworkers, Rob, especially the tradesmen who don't have intellectual property to readily monetize by posting on the internet, or handy connections to the academic-gallery world."
[Full Disclosure #1: I've known Rob for years.]
This was not the first time Rob has cheered on the dissolution of his former employer. In response to a P-G ad taken out by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing the paper’s reporters and editors, Rob quipped to the Huffington Post, “If I had advice for them, I’d say: ‘Get out.’” Could solidarity - or gratitude - be expressed more eloquently?
Indeed, Rob had more of a head start in the online world than another editorial cartoonist (Tim Menees) Rob elbowed out of a job some years ago. Rob has a website with his name in the domain, a syndication deal, and several books published by his alma mater, Carnegie-Mellon University Press. (I do not believe Tim, whom I've never met, enjoyed similar advantages.)

Rob also seems to be saying nothing to discourage his former print readership from cancelling their subscriptions to the Post-Gazette, despite pleas to readers not to do so from editor Tony Norman, Brian O'Neill, and others on the staff, most of whom have shown nothing but unstinting support for Rob.
[Full Disclosure #2: Tony Norman has hired me to write several book reviews over the past couple of years.]
 [Full Disclosure #3: In fact, I still have one unpublished book review in the queue, and, self-serving as it may seem, I'd kinda like to see it published so I can get paid.]
It should be noted that Rob received a generous severance package from the Post-Gazette, by which I mean the plausible spin that his firing was purely political. While few would argue that politics had nothing to do with Rob's firing, it's obvious that cost-cutting had more than a little to do with the elimination of Rob's position (and I use the term intentionally: to date, the P-G has not replaced Rob with another staff editorial cartoonist). No other newspaper seems to be eager to add Rob to their payroll, either.

If anything, the economic problems the Post-Gazette is manifestly experiencing - which Rob is so gleefully cheering on - puts the lie to his own "purely political" narrative.

Nonetheless, Rob has played the political angle to the hilt. Currently, his work is on display in Washington, D.C. The exhibition and attendant lectures is being billed as part of "a series of conversations regarding issues around censorship, freedom of the press, journalistic integrity."
[Note: Rob retroactively expressed outrage over an editorial widely viewed as racist that ran in the Post-Gazette. Rob's singular act of resistance was to cash several more paychecks.]
I sincerely hope that technology and the dysfunctional economic model for print media and their contribution to the loss of tens of thousands - indeed, hundreds of thousands - of staff positions once held by cartoonists, designers, illustrators, and others who once labored at drawing boards over the past several decades will be included in the "conversation."

After all, the host of the exhibit - the Corcoran School of Art & Design - is a design school; all of the factors contributing to the plight of editorial cartoonists and other commercial artists bound to the medium of print in the twenty-first century should be considered.

Rob Roger's response to this ad was that union employees who stayed on were essentially naive, optimistic suckers. "If I had advice for them, I'd say, 'Get out.'"
Because even if one takes at face value Rob's narrative that he was fired purely for political reasons, this fails to explain why he remains, as of this writing, without another staff position.

As has been mentioned throughout this story, whereas the number of editorial cartoonists on staff at America's newspapers twenty years ago once numbered in the hundreds, there are now "fewer than a couple dozen."

Staff editorial cartoonists are a luxury struggling newspapers can no longer afford, it seems.

So even if the occasion of Rob's firing was political, the reason he remains a freelancer, like so many thousands of other artists, is structural.

But I don't expect the economic or technological aspects of this story to receive more than cursory mention. In our simplistic culture, it is much easier to reduce the story to an attack on the First Amendment, in complete denial of overwhelming evidence that complicates this picture.

You see, the organizers of the current exhibit is the University Art Gallery of the University of Pittsburgh, which is "administered by the Department of History of Art and Architecture."

Rob's long-time partner is an alumnus of the department. (This gives "Friends of Frick" a whole new meaning.)
[Full Disclosure #4: I, too, earned my PhD in 2013 from HAA; although I'm about the same age as Rob's partner, I believe she earned her doctorate a decade or so before me.]
So, I don't expect the Corcoran - or the UAG - to critique too rigorously the narrative the exhibit was created to promote in the first place. Or anyone to scrutinize too closely the phenomenally rapid timeframe or the networks of power that caused two fine art galleries - in glacially slow-moving academia, no less - to so suddenly find holes in their exhibition schedules such an uncritical exercise.

Rob has been quoted in a number of places as stating, "I'll be fine," and he seems to be doing well with a patronage (patronizing?) endeavor.
[Full Disclosure #5: Although, I have to confess, the notion of subscription-only editorial cartooning completely escapes me; it seems the very definition of preaching to the converted. For an editorial cartoon to work, it presupposes an open-minded public that at least potentially might come out of the encounter thinking differently.]
[Full Disclosure #6: The fact that nobody wants to think differently any more is probably another reason there are so few staff editorial cartoonists left; no doubt this is the saddest aspect of this entire story.]
In any case, along with Andy Marlette, I am not worried about Rob, either. Nor do I feel particularly sorry for him.

I just wish this inside-job of an exhibit at the Corcoran and (later this fall) at the University Art Gallery in Pittsburgh at my Alma Mater signaled more than a pity-party for one drawing-board jockey who was going to get the axe sooner or later anyway (particularly one for whom the axe cannot come soon enough upon his former colleagues).

I wish it signaled Art History's willingness to consider commercial art, a category of creative expression made possible by the rise of the print medium but now rapidly evaporating as a professional endeavor, as an actual part of Art History; not as a manufactured polemical footnote to current events.

More on the plight of editorial cartoonists and the print media | Schadenfreude! (Or should that be, congratulations, Herr [UAG] Director?) | MeToo in Academia | Why Not Some Editorial Cartoons on MeToo in Academia?

Note: Originally posted 9/7/2018 1:23 pm; typos touched up and a few quips added through 9:13 pm.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Avital Agonistes: Thou Persectuted Professoriat

The number of voices that have either condemned or seriously questioned a letter written in defense of an NYU professor suspended for an inappropriate relationship with a graduate student (signed by Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jonathan Culler, Slavoj Zizek, and other luminaries of the pseudo-intellectual movement known as "Critical Theory") has been truly remarkable. The growing list of publications taking a dim view of l'Affaire Ronell is staggering:

The New York Times, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education (more than once), Salon, Jezebel, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Inside Higher Ed, The New Republic, Vox, the Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Socialist Worker, Quartz, Hyperallergic, The Wire, and The Daily Nous.
[Update 9/24: The Atlantic (again); The Guardian; CHE a third time; and a similar case of academics ganging up on the accused.]
Overwhelmingly, these sources have rightly separated the issues of blatant power and privilege (and abuse of same) in academia from the more sensational "MeToo" and gender aspects of the case, which all but amount to side issues in this instance.

Rinaldo Mantovano (active 1527-1539), frescoes in the Sala di Giganti (room of the giants), Palazzo del Tè, Mantua.

In the aggregate, the consensus of opinion tends to agree with Brian Leiter (who first published the defense letter), more or less concurring with his assessment of the action as an ad hominem attack on the accuser (and de facto retaliation instigated by Ronell herself against the accuser for bringing a Title IX complaint) and an attempt to "bully" NYU into lessening the severity of its punishment.

I would go further. Since the action was successful in commuting a near-certain firing for a year-long suspension, I consider the signatories of the letter to have unlawfully interfered with a legitimate Title IX procedure, the result being a weakening of Title IX for everyone.

Certainly, not every sourced linked above states their conclusion in such strong terms, and there are a few (very few) dissenters. Among these, the most positive, if conflicted assessment comes from Laura Kipnis in The Guardian (a number of foreign sources seem to find Title IX and Hostile Environment policies at American university Puritanical, and therefore amusing).

The most self-serving doubling-down appeared in The Philosophical Salon. I have already addressed Slavoj Zizek's scorched-earth defense of Ronell in the latter (that there are "quite a few professors that I know who obey all the Politically Correct rules while merrily screwing students or playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve").

But these have been outliers in what amounts to a tsunami of condemnation of Ronell and her defenders.

The Theory Illuminati blog, named after Leiter's pejorative term for practitioners of Critical Theory, or what he terms "bad philosophy," seems to be the only staunch defender of Ronell. Apparently launched and maintained by Ronell's graduate students, it continues the retaliatory defamation of the accuser begun by Ronell herself and continued by her letter signatories (making the case against her for criminal liability arguably worse).

Theory Illuminati's feeble retorts, claiming everyone critical of Ronell and her agonistes are right wing, anti-feminist, anti-intellectual, unsophisticated Americans, Philistines, and "media sophists" are itself the worst kind of sophistry. They can be summed up as Critical Theory's persecution complex.

About the only defense of Ronell that has yet to be tried is actual contrition, which would involve a genuine apology to the accused, an affirmation of the fairness and wisdom of NYU's Title IX procedures and findings in this case, and a thorough-going self-examination by academia of the arrogance, entitlement, privilege and power that has allowed these corrupt practices to flourish.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

"Merrily Screwing [Grad] Students [and] Playing Obscene Power Games": Or, "Why Exactly Did You Become an Academic, Anyway?!"

Note: This post discusses power relations between faculty advisors and graduate (master's degree and PhD) students.

The particulars of the Avital Ronell-Nimrod Reitman sexual harassment dispute at NYU are of little interest to me. What has astonished me and a lot of other people, however, are the structurally fallacious arguments that have been put forward on behalf of the alleged predator (who on some charges has already been found guilty and sanctioned by NYU).

One astonishing argument is that Title IX should only be used to discipline and punish male predators, and that it is inappropriate to hold women to the same standards of behavior. This is a willful misreading of Title IX, of course, but nonetheless exemplifies a widespread sentiment in academia. In practice, and in my experience, tenured faculty and administrators in higher ed are reluctant and indeed refuse to even entertain complaints against women for violations of Title IX, for creating a hostile environment for students and colleagues, or any other transgression. This despite the unambiguous wording of Title IX, which in most cases is supplemented by even more strictly worded and detailed university policies.

From "Why Did I Sign the Letter ...?" by Slavoj Zizek

A personal anecdote: When I began graduate school in 2007, I was in a cohort of seven graduate students. One of them was a brilliant young woman who, as I described to one of my colleagues at the time, was the most rude, obnoxious, dangerously disturbed, inappropriately aggressive, emotionally volatile person I had ever been compelled to interact with over a prolonged period of time in my entire life.

Not only did this person have the affect of the stereotypical caricature of a pseudo-intellectual from a Woody Allen or Fellini movie (although she was an actual intellectual), she also violated the university's hostile environment policy every single time she set foot on campus (by all means, ask my former colleagues if I am exaggerating). She even propositioned me (when I was younger and twenty-five pounds lighter than I am now) very crassly on at least three separate occasions - in front of colleagues - despite the fact that I was married at the time.

Her behavior became so intolerable that I brought my concerns to her advisor, who also happened to be the graduate student advisor for the program. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, she's got to learn that rudeness is not going to work for her," and that was the extent of the department's response. Other faculty members, including a professor for whom both she and I were teaching assistants (technically at the time, Teaching Fellows), were even more indulgent of her behavior. On one occasion she had a complete blow-up and meltdown concerning the uploading of files to Blackboard; on another, she slept in and missed the final exam, when she was supposed to help proctor it (and this was for a rather large auditorium course). In all cases, her behavior was not even noted for the record, let alone there being any question of it being forgiven.

2007 drawing ™ and © Don Simpson 2018, all rights reserved.

Of course I have no idea what may have transpired behind closed doors, and I can only hope some effort was made to get this tortured personality some help (tragically, she took her own life in 2017, three years after earning her PhD).

But from all external indications at the time, and in all cases, it seemed to me and to several of my colleagues that she was indulged and, I strongly felt at the time and since, poorly served by a graduate program that could not bring itself to constrain such blatant, out-of-control behavior, simply owing to what it viewed as her protected identity (or intersection of identities, as the case may be).

Needless to say, as a straight, white, male, had I indulged in a similar pattern of behavior for even a few days in a row, not only would I have had Title IX and every other policy, applicable or not, brought to bear; I would have almost certainly been ejected from the program before the end of the week.

So when I hear the argument that Title IX should only be used to constrain male behavior, you understand why I cringe. It is merely the admission of a prevalent double-standard.

The second set of arguments brought on behalf of the accused has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won't rehearse them in detail here. Essentially, since the accused is a distinguished and influential scholar, and famous, and never faced accusations before (at least publicly), etc., the allegations now being brought against her should not even be investigated. (Books by some of the signatories are on many grad students' required reading shelf in disciplines that border on Critical Theory.)

This is, of course, an absurd argument, and the dozens of scholars who signed their names to a poorly-drafted letter making this utterly fallacious defense not only have manifestly displayed their own ignorance and blind spots when it comes to fairness vs. entitlement (and offered clear evidence that they don't belong in the education industry at all, let alone among the academic elite); they have only made matters worse for the defendant, who, it seems, likely solicited the letter and may be guilty of encouraging retaliation against her accuser.

1979 Pop Art work. ™ and © Don Simpson 2018, all rights reserved.

But even more astonishing is the argument made by one of the principal signatories to the letter, who felt the need to defend his defense of the accused. According to Slavoj Zizek, there are "quite a few professors that I know who obey all the Politically Correct rules while merrily screwing students or playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve." It is difficult to see how this in any way excuses the alleged behavior of the accused; more to the point, it is a truly remarkable admission to make - that Zizek has known of and done nothing about the serial abuses of power among his colleagues in academia for any number of decades.

As I commented elsewhere:
Zizek claims there are "quite a few professors that I know who obey all the Politically Correct rules while merrily screwing students or playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve." In other words, Zizek has been knowingly protecting and enabling a culture of predation, repression, and retaliation under the guise of "collegiality." In the interest of cleaning up academia, Zizek must now assist the institutions that are harboring these criminals and bring them to justice, and do everything in his power to encourage others to come forward with similar knowledge. Then he needs to step down, after he's paid back every iota of compensation he's earned in academia since he began covering up for these criminals.
Again, an anecdote from my own experience. I too, know of at least one particular professor who was widely rumored as having slept with his graduate students dating back to the 1970s. This was an open secret in the department, and confirmed by at least one faculty member. I personally had no direct knowledge, but in 2014 (after I had earned my PhD and was a Visiting Lecturer, i.e., an adjunct instructor in the department) I made some very elliptical references to these well-known rumors on social media. One or more of my colleagues, anonymously, reported these remarks to the department chair, going so far as to cut-and-paste them into a PDF and circulate them widely. The retaliation I faced (unlawful, considering the issues I had raised previously with the department, under Federal law) included general ostracism, not being rehired as a Visiting Lecturer, various spurious legal threats, and even all-but-mandatory psychological counseling just to finish out the semester.

More importantly, four professors, including my main thesis advisors, informed me (in off-the-record meetings, of course) that I should not expect them to write Letters of Recommendation that would be useful in a tenure-track job search (this was among Reitman's complaints against Ronell). This of course was most damaging of all - it is relatively easy to write an otherwise glowing endorsement that contains a poison-pill sentence intimating that the applicant is "not a team player" - and in my academic field, such a coded non-endorsement ensures that I will never be more than an itinerant adjunct making low five-figures. This in retaliation for remarks about rumors with which everyone was familiar, and several could confirm, and which, I hasten to add, never resulted in so much as the deduction of one thin dime from anyone's paycheck.

(This unfettered power - to effectively neutralize the financial value of a graduate's credentials and completely nullify the investment a society has made in them - in this case, the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, among others - simply to stifle free speech and carry out a petty vendetta for telling one's truth about one's graduate school experience, is unconscionable, of course; but hey, this isn't about one.)

Photograph c. 2013. ™ and © Don Simpson 2018, all rights reserved.

My particular experience aside, what makes Zizek's assertion so disturbing - that he knows "quite a few professors ... who obey all the Politically Correct rules while merrily screwing students or playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve" - is that it normalizes an abusive, exploitative, unaccountable situation that simply should not exist. Tenured professors, even and especially academic superstars, should not be permitted to sleep with their students, consensually or otherwise; they should not be able to retaliate through poison-pill Letters of Recommendation or other means; they should be restrained from "playing obscene power games with all the dirty moves such games involve" at all. Rather, they should be concentrating on sharing their knowledge and educating.

The fact that so many in academia see the rules as not applying to themselves, and decline to enforce them against their colleagues (yet have a series of dirty moves - along with plausible deniability - to wield against critics) is a lamentable situation. It is this deplorable situation that, to my mind, is so vividly illustrated in the Avital Ronell-Nimrod Reitman case.

Unfortunately, if we are diverted by the funny dress and eccentric behavior, or the role-reversal and supposed gender orientation of those involved, we miss the bigger issues.

Zizek and his cohort should stop excusing bad behavior since everyone else is dirty, and start cleaning up this corrupt, privileged, entitled system. First, abolish tenure; second, make Letters of Recommendation reviewable by committees and university ombudsmen, and not the purview of individual, unaccountable professors with retaliatory agendas.
Note: the author considers himself an adjunct, not an academic (which implies not only a full-time, tenured position on a faculty, but also the leisure to pursue institutionally-supported research in a given field or discipline). Nice work, if you can get it.

Update: The NYTimes discusses the disproportionate power of Letters of Recommendation and their use as weapons of retaliation.

Update 8/25/2018: One of the most incisive summations of "l'Affaire Ronell" to date is by Nisha Bolsey at SocialistWorker.Org

Update 8/26/2018: The New Yorker's Masha Gessen has written a comprehensive piece on the issues involved

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

An Abbreviated Leve: An Unpublished Book Review

Ariel Leve, An Abbreviated Life (Harper Perennial, 2017). $15.99 paperback.

Journalist Ariel Leve has produced a memoir of growing up as collateral damage in literary New York. Divorced at the dawn of the 1970s, the author’s mother, a poet dubbed Suzanne, places her own career aspirations and uncontrollable drives above the encouragement and support, and sometimes protection, of her daughter. In a complex mosaic of impressions from childhood and adult life, Ariel realizes that even in this sometimes brutal relationship, a love of words has been imparted from mother to daughter, playing no small role as tools in the author’s eventual liberation.

Composed of seemingly random snippets presented out of chronological order, the book is a highly structured argument on the effects of neglect and emotional abuse in childhood on adult intimacy. Ariel the child is at once the neglected, manipulated daughter of a self-indulgent literary diva momentarily rescued by a series of surrogate parents, and the uncertain adult Ariel groping for connection with a loving, supportive partner and his affectionate twin daughters. A third character, the author herself, is the relatively unitary mind trying her best to step back and make sense of these tortured experiences in the very composition of this memoir. 

Against this relatively concrete self-portrait is pitted the abstract maelstrom of Suzanne, the compulsively needy mother, the picture of artistic self-centeredness and unpredictable turmoil personified. Tangible only when making demands or offering timed depth-charges of love and support, Suzanne is a ubiquitous presence that has left fingerprints on Ariel’s psyche that reach to the other side of the world. Now the conflict is within Ariel herself.

The relatively few names dropped are enough to suggest that anybody who was anybody was likely to turn up at one of Suzanne’s raucous dinner parties thrown in her Upper East Side penthouse, interrupting Ariel’s homework and sleep pattern. The child pleads for famous directors, novelists, and magazine editors to go home, and tap dancers, opera singers, and Broadway composers make it impossible to rest. By the time we meet Andy Warhol, we are as unimpressed as the seven-year old who has once again been kept up well past her bedtime on a school night.

In Ariel’s waking hours, her mother’s inappropriate appearances at school and erratic behavior in restaurants are the source of even greater humiliation. Suzanne’s extra-literary reputation has preceded her adult daughter even across the Atlantic, where Ariel has fled as much to escape her mother, since become a documentary filmmaker and Broadway dramatist, as to pursue her own career in journalism. Reports of her mother’s latest scandals follow Ariel even to Bali, despite efforts to curtail communication, and Ariel dreads running into Suzanne when her itinerary brings her back to New York.

Even more virulent prove to the coping strategies Ariel has had to improvise in order to survive her childhood, now hard-coded into her brain and threatening to derail her adult efforts at establishing safe and loving relationships. Thanks to nurturing guidance provided by more stable caregivers, prolonged therapy, and sheer trial and error, Ariel comes to realize that her worst enemy is herself.

It is at this point that the narrative may seem inexorably drag on, as a relentless and increasingly erratic Suzanne only redoubles her efforts to maintain a manipulative presence in Ariel’s life and defeat her. But survivors of toxic childhoods will recognize that realization is not the same as resolution, and establishing new terms for an adult relationship, let alone effecting a clean break, with an irrepressible loved one can involve numerous false starts, prolonged effort, and discouraging relapses. A force of nature such as Suzanne is a worst case scenario.
Note: This is a book review I submitted June 29, 2016; it was accepted for publication but never run. After two years, I think it's safe to run it on my own. Although the book was well-written and even gripping, it lacked a feel-good happy ending, and didn't seem to make a major splash.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Rejoice, Pittsburgh! Rob is Back in Print!

He was a fixture in Pittsburgh print media for three decades. Every week, readers looked forward to his dependably progressive commentary to guide their lives. He was often controversial (in fact, his readership, I guarantee you, never agreed with more than 1/12th of what he had to say at any given time). But whether people perceived it or not, he had seeped into their subconscious; he was a local legend.

Then, an ill-considered overhaul of his paper left him out in the cold. Rioting nearly broke out in the streets. Longtime readers (myself included) stopped picking up the paper at Giant Eagle. If you wanted his unique, insightful wisdom (to which you had grown accustomed all these years), you had to search out his website. Or you were just plumb out of luck.

Now, after only a short time on the Missing Features List (although it seemed like months), by popular demand -- Rob is back! In print, on paper, in all his glory ... right where he belongs, and better than ever. (It may take a long time to repair the damage, but I sure hope those dastardly editors have learned their lesson!)

Art credit: Unknown.

I am speaking, of course, about Rob Brezsny, who's Free Will Astrology has been my favorite feature in the Pittsburgh City Paper, a free alternative newsweekly in these parts, for the longest time. Earlier this year, some bright light at the paper decided they would run only one of the twelve zodiac horoscopes in their print edition each week, forcing loyal readers to seek out the others online (why go to the City Paper website, when you could more easily visit Rob's own?). For most of the spring and summer of 2018, this deplorable situation persisted; I even wrote a letter of complaint to the editors and stopped picking up the paper.

Then today - lo and behold! I spotted a stack of new City Papers in the foyer of my local Giant Eagle, right next to the gumball machines. I couldn't help myself -- old habits die hard -- I found myself leafing through it, and miracle of miracles, there it was -- all twelve signs of the zodiac, as nature intended. And on paper!

I am not one to doll out compliments willy-nilly, but this newspaper reader sure is glad Rob is back! Our long, national (or is that just local?) nightmare is over!
Note: The CP reduced Rob's horoscope to a print wiki stub in March; when it brought the full feature back in print is unclear, but it appears to be fully back as of the July 18-25 issue.