Friday, May 27, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron. April 1, 1949 - May 27, 2011.

Gil Scott-Heron died today. I don't know yet what was the cause of death, but that's another truth-teller in the grave too soon. At sixty-two years of age, forty-one years after the release of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and forty after the groundbreaking Pieces of a Man, his words are still all too relevant and--as a nation in general--we have yet to listen. The Godfather of Rap, an unflinchingly prophetic critic of national entropy and persistent injustice, tragicomic to the bitter end. Listen to Gil Scott-Heron. I mean, listen to Gil Scott-Heron. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

das Man.

Something about this pisses you off.
"We have shown earlier how in this environment which lies closest to us, the public 'environment' already is ready-to-hand and is also a matter of concern. In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This Being-with-one-another dissolves one's own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of 'the Others', in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the 'they' is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the 'great mass' as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The 'they', which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness."

 - Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, I.4

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A letter from Tom Lutz.

Spread this far and wide.

Dear colleagues and students,

After a year and a half as Chair of the department, I am stepping down.  Professor Andrew Winer will be taking my place, for which we should all be grateful.

As my last act as Chair, I would like to share with you my sense of the gravity of the situation we face.  I spent most of my academic career doing what most of us do—teaching, writing, reading graduate applications and theses, having office hours, reading in my field, doing research.  I didn’t pay much attention to the University and its administration.  None of us have that luxury anymore.  Budget cuts after budget cuts after budget cuts have left us all painfully aware of how the sausage is made, or not made. 

Having served in administrative posts for most of the last five years, I have come to know the budget issues very well.  We are now past the tipping point.  We are on a rapid downhill slide that will have profound effects for our state, our families, our country, and our world.

In the space of less than a single lifetime, the University of California, Riverside went from being a small agricultural experiment station to being one of the top 100 universities in the world.  An incredibly dense and elaborate web of specialists across all fields of scholarship, science, and the arts was developed, and it took enormous efforts by thousands of people over those years to make it happen.  In less than the four years it used to take to graduate, it is being destroyed.

Our department is a great example of the breadth of vision and dogged effort that has made Riverside the exceptional place it has been.  There are other creative writing programs in the country, but not a single one anywhere with the range across genres and fields, with the breadth of knowledge in world literatures, with the diversity of voices, methods, and styles that we have.  And there is not another creative writing program anywhere—and certainly none with our caliber of professors—that is more truly dedicated to its pedagogical mission at every level.  The faculty at Princeton is perhaps a bit more famous, but undergraduates there never meet them, much less have access to them in, before, and after class.  I have now taught at every kind of school—fancy elite universities, small colleges, Big 10 universities, art schools, and universities abroad.  I have never been part of a faculty this student-centered, this concerned about the educational experience and future prospects of its undergraduate and graduate students.

Three years ago I was offered a job at USC, which is much closer to my house, more prestigious as an academic address, and was offering me more money.  UCR worked hard and did the best it could to match the salary and I stayed.  I stayed because I wanted to be part of this project, I wanted to teach a student body that is over 85% first-generation college students, that comes not from the richest families in California but some of the poorest, a group of students that have a much greater likelihood than not of coming from immigrant families and from families that speak more than English.  I wanted to remain part of one of the greatest democratic experiments in history, and certainly one of the few greatest experiments in public education in the history of the human race, the University of California.

If I got that offer today, though, I’m not sure I could turn it down, and in fact, many people are not turning down outside offers these days.  There are people who have taught here for more than twenty years considering going somewhere else, somewhere the future is a bit more certain.  These are people who are the best in their field—you don’t get such offers unless someone thinks you are among the best in your field—and UCR, and the educational experience at UCR, is diminished each time this happens, each time one of the best of our best leaves for a better job.  We can’t blame them—they have kids of their own to put through college, they have research projects that require funding, they know that to teach the most complex subjects effectively, they need to run seminars with 15 students sitting around the table, not 150.

The budget cuts of recent years and the ones we know for certain are coming next year mean a gross deterioration of our school.  Those faculty who leave for better jobs are not being replaced.  Many of you know Yvonne Howard, who has been the chief administrator for our department since it was founded.  This year her job was unceremoniously terminated.  Staff people and faculty who retire are not being replaced.  Next year students at UCR will have trouble getting the classes they need, and many of the classes they get will be crowded beyond responsible limits.  Departments are being forced to abandon optimal class-size limits for classes two, three, and five times that size.   The library has virtually stopped buying books.  We are on a race to become a mediocre university at best, and if the $500 million of proposed cuts to UC turn into a billion dollars, as they are now discussing in Sacramento, we will be over.  The billion dollar cut translates into thousands of classes across the system.  It means creative writing workshops with 50 students.  It means we will cease to be a real university, and will simply become another community-college-level institution. Then, maybe, after a few years, with tuition at $25,000 or $30,000 a year, we can begin the slow build back into a real university.

Why is this happening?  Political demagoguery and corruption.  Thirty years ago UC received 9% of the state budget and prisons 3%.  Now UC gets 3% and the prison-industrial complex gets 9%.  The legislature is taking the money that should be used to educate the best of its citizens and using it enrich the people who make a profit from the imprisoning the poorest.  The percentage of the cost of higher education provided by the state has been cut in half, cut in half again, and is on the verge of getting cut in half a third time.  The people in the legislature understand the value of public higher education—the vast majority of them have degrees from our state system, and many of them have multiple degrees—all made possible by the legislators who preceded them and had more courage.  They do not protect the University for a very simple reason:  because they risk a flow of conservative attacks and Tea Party racism if they stick up for anything that is directly devoted to the commonweal.

In my darkest moments, I think the monied interests working against reasonable taxation are doing so because they consciously, actively seek to make sure we do not have an informed, educated citizenry, the better to extract our collective labor and wealth unimpeded.  But such intentionality isn’t necessary.  Simple, short-sighted, grab-it-now, bottom-line greed explains their destruction of our culture, without recourse to any dystopian conspiracies.

The only thing that has a chance of turning this devastation around is student activism.  We in higher education cannot spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions the way the prison profiteers or the medical and insurance and aerospace industries do, so we need to find other ways to provide a political counterweight.  We need to make our voices heard.  For you students, your own self-interest should be the catalyst, as you will, no matter what happens this year, have trouble finding the classes you need, much less than the ones you want, and the chance you will graduate in a reasonable amount of time is already gone. But you should also think of what this means for your families, your neighbors, your friends, your own kids when they come of age.  And think what it means if California reduces its higher education budget to the levels of Missouri or West Virginia—we will become like those places.  Because of its education system, a system that, until just a few years ago, has always been considered the best in the country, California has been among the most innovative and significant literary and cultural centers in the country, and because of this education system, too, California has been the economic powerhouse it has been—1000 research and development companies a year are formed out of the UC system, for instance, and four UC inventions a week are presented to the patent office.   We had the best educational system because we were willing to pay for it, and our expenditures were among the highest in the nation, too. In a few short years we have dropped into the middle in state spending, and we are fast falling even farther.  Only a political movement strong enough to buck the corporate money determining our tax policy can change this downward spiral.  Only you can make that happen.

We have been told, from the top, not to expect a return to ‘the glory days.’  This year was not the glory days.  This year we already have discussion sections that are not discussions, fewer classes, an exploded faculty:student ratio; we are very far from the glory days.  Now that either 500 million or 1 billion more dollars are getting yanked out of the system, your favorite lecturer will be gone.  The class you wanted won’t exist anymore.  Your student advisor will have 800 or 1000 students to advise instead of the 300 we all agreed was an absolute maximum two short years ago.  This is the end of quality.  And why?  Because a few very wealthy people are protecting their wealth from taxes, taxes considered reasonable not only everywhere else in the developed world, but considered reasonable in America until the last 20 years.

I hope you get angry.  I hope you get active. Call and write your legislators, get out in the streets, take back your university, don’t let yourselves be the last people to have even this chance.

Tom Lutz
Professor and Chair, Department of Creative Writing

May 19.

May 19 is Malcolm X's birthday. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz would be turning 86 were he alive today. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be 82. Medgar Evers would be 85. Fred Hampton: 63. Bunchy Carter: 69.

All (and many others) were killed within a five year span at the peak of COINTELPRO's efforts to prevent the emergence of a "black messiah." That's not even conspiracy theory--that shit's in the file.

Their truncated efforts fomented the rumblings that Nixon used at the end of the 1960s to seize on fears of integration and black urban migration with the euphemism "Law and Order." That became Reagan's "Morning in America," with its wars on vague concepts and its rancid downward trickles.

But unless you grew up in a disenfranchised community with some sort of minority political agitation, making those connections is just not a valid part of the study of history. If it comes at all, most Americans will only ever get that part in college--and now the motherfuckers want to take that away. Intersections like these are not simple coincidences, folks: UC tuition might jump 32% if tax proposal fails, official says.  

Just because we can't point to some back room where one group of scary men in suits pulls all the world's strings doesn't mean the game's not rigged to work in the favor of a de facto aristocracy. 

How many investment bankers have you seen in handcuffs?

Maybe Ahab was right when he observed that "This whole act's immutably decreed." 


Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Theirs was always a diasporic consciousness of sorts. Their dispersal hadn't been forced per se, but for them existence itself had woven into it a vaguely haunting sense of wandering, of being truly at home nowhere despite putting down roots. It was all the more disconcerting when one considered that, materially, they did have quite comfortably settled homes. They had carried on the old traditions wherever they settled, had built churches and clubs, started businesses, founded societies and sports teams, even convinced local schools to teach the children in the language of their fathers and mothers. They had carved out a niche for themselves so perfect that it was now hardly recognizable as the space to which they had immigrated--it was an island of the old country in the new ocean, a space they'd made theirs, a space they'd made home.

Home was also the old, the real island in the real ocean, the windswept green on bulging hills, the cobblestones and whitewashed homes that had all moved on without them after they left. People often noted that the imitation of the old in the new country had become more authentically old than the now increasingly new old country.

No home was what it had once seemed, no home was comfortably home. And they, these wanderers, were never actually home, were never completely visiting. One foot was always on the platform. But the hills remained, veiled in chill mists so dense that they seemed to muffle the ocean's roar.

All video clips lifted from the vimeo page of Ruben Tavares, whose montages of Terceira turn me into a ball of nostalgic misty-eyed mush.

Ilha Terceira - 24 horas em Timelapse from Ruben Tavares on Vimeo.

Céu Nocturno from Ruben Tavares on Vimeo.

Twilight (Azores) from Ruben Tavares on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


So it's not new--it's from 2006, to be exact--but as I just saw it I have to recommend Byron Hurt's short documentary about hyper-masculinity in hip-hop, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (links to the entire film online).

Highlights include Jadakiss's annoyingly stubborn but shrewdly pragmatic defense of all that the film examines, Fat Joe's candid and somewhat touching self-critique, some incisive commentary from Michael Eric Dyson and Chuck D., and an interview in which--when challenged--a bunch of aspiring rappers pull a complete about-face from talking about killing and raping to reveal tragically repressed social consciousness.

I hope to post some blogs on related matters soon--a reading of Nas lyrics, some words on de-facto segregation and urban decay, polemics against the right's assault on Planned Parenthood, passive aggressive neighbors--but of course that will all depend on how this quarter pans out.

So...stay tuned?

For now I just wanted to post something on here before the weekend's end.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why I refuse to celebrate.

"That is a subtle observation on the part of philosophy: you can both love virtue too much and behave with excess in an action which itself is just."
- Michel de Montaigne, On moderation
* * *
 "...but if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, or even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed, because we are hamstrung by our love of lower things."
- St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine
* * *
I took notes, I sat down, I got tired and frankly lost interest in the whole thing. I was going to compose this long argument about why I think it's wrong to celebrate even a justified death, how it demeans us as a society, how the sudden mainstreaming and approval of our tendency toward ultranationalist necrophilia gives me the creeps, how I don't want to be aligned with people who consider a mosque several blocks away from Ground Zero sacrilege and then go get drunk at Ground Zero and encourage drunken superpatriot college girls to flash their breasts...and so on. But Osama hatefuck fatigue has set in (exacerbated by Obama lovefest fatigue, which in this context is just as irritating), and I think we'd all be better served if I just linked to these remarkably thoughtful pieces by Mona Eltahawy at The Guardian and David Sirota at While you're at it, if you really want to see the depths to which people stoop during a civilization's decline, check this link to a Wonkette article about Osama's Dead merchandise. Maybe you can get your dog a shirt, or treat yourself to a trucker cap.

Or just take a look at the guy in the clip below. And if you don't see layer upon layer of horrifying irony here, may God help you.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Trump, Black King, Poker Face: The Anatomy of A Political Takedown.

Much has been made in recent days of President Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and rightfully so. It was brutally funny. Or was it hilariously brutal? In any case, it’s safe to say that anyone still supporting The Donald’s potential bid for the White House does so quietly and with some embarrassment. As host Seth Meyers noted at the dinner, Trump’s candidacy was—or is it still?—a joke. And although I’m not usually a vindictive person who relishes the humiliation of another human being, I can’t honestly say that I was anything but delighted to watch the smile fade from Trump’s face as he watched his grandiose political aspirations slip away in a hail of roaring laughter at his bombastic stupidity.

Then on Sunday an extra dimension was retroactively added to that verbal trouncing, as YouTubers everywhere returned to the video to re-watch it in light of current events. What one sees in that clip pre-May 1 is an intelligent politician delivering razor sharp punch lines with the cool assurance of a skilled orator holding the higher moral ground in an absurd situation. Post-May 1, it’s an intelligent politician delivering razor sharp punch lines with the cool assurance of a head-of-state staring down his detractors after secretly giving the order to eliminate the nation’s—perhaps the world’s—most vilified foe. Bloggers especially latched onto one clip of Obama laughing heartily at a quip by Seth Meyers about Osama bin Laden’s elusiveness, and the president was roundly applauded for maintaining his “poker face.” I’m not sure what else he was supposed to do, but it was really intriguing to watch amid the collective national fist-pumping over bin Laden’s death.

But why is this so satisfying to me? Am I relishing the fact that our awesome president finally has some points on the Republicans? Am I just really super excited that a terrible dude trained in the midst of a terrible idea died a terrible death during a terrible war, thus proving how fucking awesome America is and allowing me to finally be proud to be an Obama supporter because all this time I’ve felt effete and weak by not being able to express how badass a patriotic red-blooded American I can really be?

Well, no.

It can’t be a vindication of Obama’s policies that makes me smile, because I’ve been generally pretty dissatisfied—if not disgusted outright—with those. Corporate bailouts, our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gitmo, Race to the Top, the severely compromised health care plan, and a host of other letdowns have left me pretty disillusioned with an administration whose campaign stickers I still have by the stack somewhere in my apartment.

And it’s not because Osama bin Laden’s dead. I mean, I’m glad that a planner of and inspiration to mass murder is off the grid, and sure I take some pleasure in the fact that the guy was capped on a non-Republican’s watch.  But the Democrats don’t have—will never have—clean hands either, and I’m not about to engage in all this bloodthirsty fist-pumping about how great violence and death are when they’re justified (quick side note about that: what the fuck are you doing, American liberals? Have you only opposed violent rhetoric and stupid jingoism up until now because it wasn’t your team carrying it out? ).

No, what turned my frown upside down was something different, something most Americans would (wrongly) consider a separate issue. What I’ve relished in viewing upon viewing of this smackdown is the complete disregard it shows for the “race card” taboo in American politics. Of course, it wasn’t (couldn’t) be framed that way explicitly, but it was there—it couldn’t not be there, focused as it was on the Birther issue. The Birther movement is a racist movement, regardless of whatever else they try to say and how gingerly the media tries to dance around that fact when they give it airtime. It’s not a coincidence that “Birther” is one letter away from “Bircher”—these are xenophobic nativists and nothing more. President Obama will never be an American to them, just as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were treated as buffoons—African-Americans are not Americans to these folks, and non-Americans are hardly even people.

But you can’t say that. To point that out would be to “play the race card.” Because the racists are not playing the race card, they’re being “patriots” and “realists,” they’re being vigilant about the Constitution or looking out for American jobs. So the rest of us are supposed to keep our mouths shut. We’re supposed to grind our teeth in silence at Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens, Jesse Helms’s hands, National Security PAC’s Willie Horton ad, John McCain’s Messiah commercials—but to point out the racist implications of each is going too far. That’s playing the “race card.”

So, to get this definition straight: playing on racial tensions and xenophobic fears, enacting racially discriminatory policies, employing racist rhetoric to appeal to a base of disgruntled sheeple is fair game. Pointing out these strategies and calling them for what they are: playing the race card.

It’s a clever metaphor, simultaneously implying a knockout quality and an unfair, forbidden advantage. So it’s both a trump card in the political game and a form of cheating. It’s as though, despite its power to win everything, it’s actually not part of this game, making it shameful to put it on the table. Of course, that’s bullshit. First, it’s incredibly rare that the perceived “race card” actually wins anything. Second, race is always already on the table—it’s only when we identify it that it becomes an issue.

What’s most troubling about this for me is that liberals play along. I think some of this is pure political pragmatism, but there’s something else going on: liberals (actually neoliberals, but let’s call them what they call themselves) relish their little victories. We really wanted to think we’d fixed racism when Obama won the election. We really like the idea that Brown v. Board of Education and the Voters’ Rights Act healed all those old wounds. Explain to a room full of white liberals how crack proliferated in American ghettos, why incarceration rates reveal a new form of Jim Crow, and watch how many squirm uncomfortably if not challenge you outright.

So the race card doesn’t get played not because it’s politically inexpedient. It’s politically inexpedient because half of the “left” in America is drinking the right’s Kool-Aid and allowing itself to be shamed into submission.

And that’s what made me love Obama’s roast of Donald Trump. He didn’t pull any punches and he didn’t leave the race card off the table. He slammed Trump, he mocked Michelle Bachmann for being an abject liar, he slammed FOX News for its idiotic coverage of every sensational tidbit they could scavenge from right wing hacks, and he didn’t let up until he’d essentially destroyed their ability to ever speak again on this issue. It was more than a series of political jokes, it was a rhetorical submission hold.

My reading is certainly open to disagreement, but I would direct detractors’ attention to the Lion King bit and ask that you consider all the implications of calling that the president’s birth video. In one crushing blow (and using a beloved Disney clip!) Obama brutally mocks rumors of his African birth, criticisms of his campaign’s messianic undertones, and questions of his leadership. It’s cocksure, brazen, and—to me, at least—glorious.

As far as I’m concerned, all of this turns on race—John McCain’s “The One” ad, which mocked Obama’s “messiah” status, was little more than a thinly veiled critique of an “uppity” negro. Questions of the president’s leadership are certainly merited, but much of that discourse has adopted the assumptions and rhetorical strategies of the Birther movement, which is pure xenophobia, and a huge segment of our population ate it up.

It’s that segment of the population that Obama’s speech really nailed. If anything, Trump was cancelled out and shown to be a political zero, FOX and Bachmann were called out for the stupidity we knew about all along—those are easy. But without Trump or Bachmann the idiots in our nation will carry on. They’ll find new leaders to spit vitriol and preach hate in the name of Christian love, so who cares about Trump and Bachmann.

What this speech really accomplished was a takedown of a form of political discourse, exposing a powerful ideology as nothing but stupid bigotry. Obama stood before the nation, looked half of it in the eye, and issued a smiling but serious “Fuck you.”

Does that mean they’ll go away? No. But at least I know that, for all the other shit he does wrong, this president can take a stand in the culture wars and be on the right side of history. Whether he’ll continue to do that remains to be seen, but for about five minutes, as the Black King trumped the Trump with a race card, it felt pretty good.