April 2007 Archives

Thinking About The Unthinkable

Like everyone else, I Ihave spent the last few days in stunned bewilderment over what happened in Blacksburg on April 16. I gained some much-needed perspective from this note from Justin Nystrom, a friend and former Phd student, who is teaching at Virginia Tech:

Cobb,

To say it has been a strange week here would be an understatement. The campus is still in a high degree of disarray, but there are signs of life. Many of the students left for home either after the Tuesday night candle vigil or on Wednesday. With students and parents trundling overstuffed bags to waiting cars parked outside the residence halls, it had the appearance of the last day of exams, but without the cheerful banter. Those students have remained grow actively hostile towards the media following NBC's decision to air that idiotic video of the killer. There's a lot of justifiable anger about that.

Among the dead are one colleague/friend in the German department and a former student. Jamie Bishop went to UGA and taught German. His office was just down the stairs from mine, and I'd often stop in to chat, either coming or going.
.... he was always an upbeat and supportive person to talk with. It is sort of hard to believe that he was probably the first one to die in Norris hall, the shooter bursting in the door and blowing him away with a gunshot to the head. He never had a chance.

So now we have this unprecedented situation of trying to wrap up our semester.
The general guidelines from the university have been to give the students an option to end their semesters now, if need be. So we are all trying to sort out how we confront Monday. US South will probably be "coming to grips with reality"
101. But many of my students have expressed the need to be in class on Monday.
They have really impressed us throughout. There is something to be said about the student culture on this campus, which is really like no other I have been on.

Justin

Like Justin, I have been deeply impressed with the students at Virginia Tech, and I, too, was dismayed and angered by NBC’s decision to run excerpts from the killer’s rant. My gag reflex was sorely tested when a sanctimonious Brian Williams explained that the network felt “an obligation” to air the material. An obligation to whom? Do the sorely deranged need any more encouragement to commit atrocities that will gain them public exposure? Do we know anything about this kid after viewing this video ad nauseam than we had already surmised? You don’t have to be a hard-core cynic to suspect that NBC’s real sense of obligation was to its ratings-conscious stockholders and executives. I wonder, having set the “body count” bar at 33, will the network feel any obligation to publicize the delusional ravings of somebody who can only manage to knock off a couple of dozen innocents? I do feel pretty confident, however, that the next time a mass murderer sends his whacked out apologia to a major network, NBC will feel no “obligation” whatsoever to admit that it may have played just a small part in encouraging such behavior.

Although I have spent the last 35 years teaching college students, I’m afraid that I can’t make much more sense of this tragedy than most of the long-winded pundito-shrinks who have been holding forth on TV and in the papers for the last few days. I do know that in all these years, I have encountered no more than a half-dozen students whom I deemed even remotely likely to harm themselves or others. Unfortunately, all of these encounters have come in the last few years. For all the freedom they are supposed to afford, college campuses are still very tough places for those who are “different.” I feel pretty confident in saying that racial or ethnic difference is not the barrier to acceptance that it once was, but the fact that a physically attractive Asian-American student who dresses, talks, and acts according to the latest trends and fads can become one with the sisters of Kappa Delta of the brothers of Sigma Nu, doesn’t mean that a warm, assimilating welcome awaits those who not only look different but act differently as well. This of course, applies to any student, regardless of race or ethnic classification.
In just the past 10 years at the University Georgia alone, I have taught well over 3,000 students. Most have seemed happy, accepted, and well-adjusted, but a noticeable minority have not. Parents used to worry that the college experience would lead their children astray by corrupting their minds and their morals. These days, it seems to me that the secondary school experience has already accomplished a good bit of this before we even get our hands on the kids. A typical high-schooler seems to believe she or he has two options: conformity or social death.
Like a typical professor, I’m a lot better at identifying problems than presenting solutions. I do know that while we could doubtless argue all day about whether we, as parents and teachers, have played a role in making this happen, it’s difficult to deny that, at the very least, we all share some of the responsibility for allowing it to happen.

THE POLITICS OF APOLOGY

( A REVISED VERSION OF THIS PIECE APPEARED ON THE NEW REPUBLIC ONLINE ON APRIL 9, 2007)

When Virginia legislators voted unanimously last month to express “profound regret” over the Old Dominion’s role in promoting slavery and Jim Crow they seemed to have unloosed a flood of demands for expressions of white contrition. Maryland recently followed Virginia’s lead and similar action is also being debated not only in Georgia but in several other states, stretching from Missouri all the way to Vermont. Tennessee Democratic congressman Steve Cohen has also introduced a House resolution calling for a national apology. Virginia state senator Henry L. Marsh III, a black Democrat who played a key role in getting the apology resolution through a majority Republican legislature, explained that he foresaw no “ true progress in this country until we get a reconciliation and an honest dialogue about race and slavery." Meanwhile, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized that while an apology “will not change Georgia’s past, ” it would “confirm that Georgia is committed to a better future for all its citizens.”
This pretty much sums up the consensus among proponents of such apologies, but whether such gestures actually represent benchmarks of progress for blacks and harbingers of greater progress to come is certainly subject to debate. In fact, a closer look at the causes and potential consequences of the great apology push suggests some fairly ominous political ramifications and implications for many African Americans. Apology advocates insist that a simple “acknowledgment that a wrong took place” is long overdue and argue that such an acknowledgment will lead to a better understanding of the enduring disparities in education and income between blacks and whites. Ironically, however, it is those African Americans whose circumstances most reflect those disparities who may have the most to lose here. During a severe fiscal crisis that threatened state services in 2003, the Georgia legislature spent a whole session arguing about the appearance of the state flag, a debate that 70 percent of those polled thought either divisive or trivial. Four years later, with funding for cash-strapped PeachCare, a health insurance program for children of the working poor, hanging in the balance, I’m inclined to doubt that the 41 percent of black families in Georgia earning less than $25,000 per year really wanted to see their lawmakers butting heads over whether to apologize for slavery.
. Some think that the NAACP’s insistence on pushing for action that is both politically polarizing and largely symbolic in any event reveals an organization out of sync with contemporary realities and thus, as African American columnist Leonard Pitts put it, “stagnant, static and marginal to today’s struggle.” No one could possibly calculate the value of the NAACP’s contributions to ending the most blatant forms of racial discrimination and making equal opportunity more than a slogan for millions of African Americans. Paradoxically, however, the more successful the NAACP and other activist groups have been in bringing progress, the greater their challenge to demonstrate their continuing relevance and importance. Differences over how best to accomplish this led to the resignation earlier this month of NAACP president Bruce S. Gordon. Gordon stepped down after just nineteenth months when his efforts to get the organization more involved in self-help initiatives such as pregnancy counseling and various mentoring programs met stiff resistance from a board of directors intent on restricting the group to its traditional role of aggressive social advocacy in behalf of African Americans victimized by racial discrimination..

The central question here, it seems, is not whether African-Americans are due an apology but what that apology will actually indicate or achieve. In Virginia, one of the Republican state senators who voted for the official apology apparently had a dramatic change of heart after suggesting a few weeks earlier that black Virginians should simply “get over” slavery. In Georgia, state senate president pro-tem Eric Johnson, a white Republican, initially found the NAACP's demand for an apology "rather silly," but agreed to go along with the proposal so long as the word "apology" itself was not used. "An apology is from someone who did wrong to someone who was wronged," Johnson explained. "That's not going to happen." More than anything, Johnson admitted, he just wanted to " get it over with." His Republican colleague, state senator Jeff Mullis, went a step further in demonstrating just how meaningless the whole business was to him when he reportedly offered to attach the slavery apology resolution to his oft-submitted bill calling for April to be designated “Confederate History and Heritage Month” in Georgia.
Suffice it to say, none of these examples suggest the kind of sincere, remorseful acknowledgment envisioned by Georgia NAACP leader Edward O. Dubose—that “whites benefited from slavery and the inhumane treatment of African Americans.” It is almost beside the point that well under a third of Georgia’s white male population in 1860 owned slaves, for there is little hard evidence that most whites feel any real responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, much less for the actions of someone else’s.
The idea of an apology for slavery doubtless has considerable emotional appeal to many African Americans, but the politics of symbolism can never be isolated from the politics of substance. What, in practical terms, would a formal apology for slavery really accomplish? Would it, as some opponents charge, lay the groundwork for a renewed call for reparations, and if so, would it really lend any more credibility to what seems nothing more than a politically divisive pipe dream? The aim here may well be nothing more than an honest dialogue on the historical roots of contemporary racial problems, but the only dialogue I’ve seen so far is taking place in the back rooms where white leaders huddle with black leaders to come up with language that white conservatives deem acceptable. On the other hand, what if, as I suspect, politically savvy white conservatives are beginning to see apologies for slavery and Jim Crow not as a stepping stone toward further discussion of the obligations of the present to the past, but as just the opposite, a quick and relatively painless means of achieving cloture on a debate whose end should not otherwise be anywhere in sight? Such apologies may well, as advocates like Senator Marsh contend, give us a chance to “move ahead,” but they don’t necessarily assure that we all intend to go in the same direction.

CAN EURO-WIMPS BECOME NE0-CONFEDERATES?

When I’m looking for people who agree with me, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer rarely comes to mind, but in this recent column, he nails one of the reasons why, contrary to the perceptions of lots of Democratic Party mouthpieces, there are a lot of Americans who aren’t all that troubled by what European leaders think of us. Even as a confirmed Europa-phile, I have to admit that save for the Brits--whose handling of the recent fiasco with Iran hardly evoked memories of Winston Churchill, by the way--it seems that European politicos generally regard us a bunch of insensitive, self-centered, loudmouthed louts. Until, that is, they need our help and proceed to show up with a mouth full of “gimme’’” but barely a thimble-full of “much-obliged.”
Here’s Brother Krauthammer on the European wimp-out in the Iran debacle:
Europeans talk all the time about their preference for "soft power" over the brute military force those Neanderthal Americans resort to all the time. What was the soft power available here? Iran's shaky economy is highly dependent on European credits, trade and technology. Britain asked the EU to threaten to freeze exports, $18 billion a year of commerce. Iran would have lost its No. 1 trading partner. The EU refused….Where then was the EU? These 15 hostages, after all, are not just British citizens, but under the laws of Europe, citizens of Europe. Yet the EU lifted not a finger on their behalf.
In the end, so Charlie claims, it was the Yanks to the Rescue again:
An Iranian "diplomat" who had been held for two months in Iraq is suddenly released. Equally suddenly, Iran is granted access to the five Iranian "consular officials" — Revolutionary Guards who had been training Shiite militias to kill Americans and others — whom the United States had arrested in Irbil in January. There may have been other concessions we will never hear about. But the salient point is that what got this unstuck was American action.
Why did our European brethren fail once again even to venture from the dugout, much less to step up to the plate in a time of crisis? Well, according to the Chuckster:
The reason is simple. Europe functions quite well as a free trade zone. But as a political entity, it is a farce. It remains a collection of sovereign countries with divergent interests. A freeze of economic relations with Europe would have shaken the Iranian economy to the core. Yet nothing was done. "The Dutch," reports The Times of London, "said it was important not to risk a breakdown in dialogue." So much for European solidarity.
Like other vaunted transnational institutions, the EU is useless as a player in the international arena. Not because its members are venal but because they are sovereign. Their interests are simply not identical.”

I’m not sure about Krauthammer’s version of how the U.S. saved the day, but I’m relieved to say that I can at least find something to take issue with in his observation that “Europe functions well as a free trade zone.” For all the hoopla about the EU’s success, it seems to me that it has worked a lot better in many ways for the former have-nots trying to play catch-up, Spain, Ireland, etc., which have benefited not only from EU subsidies but the flow of capital to cheaper labor markets and operating climates than those available in nations like Germany or France. The generous worker benefits packages and higher wages in some of Europe’s more developed nations don’t look all that sustainable right now, in light of the recent admission of Rumania and Bulgaria and the prospective admission of the likes of Croatia and Macedonia, all of them boasting what are described as “highly motivated” workforces. This familiar euphemism for “cheap, nonunion” points toward something mighty like what happened in the U.S. after World War II when the unionized workers of the old northern “Manufacturing Belt” saw their jobs first trickle and then flood into the “Right-to Work Belt” below the Mason-Dixon line.
Concerns about competition with cheaper labor also lay behind criticism of EU immigration policies, along with anxieties about preserving cultural and religious identities. Then there are the Austrian truckers who are none too keen about being forced to compete with foreign carriers in their own countries and the German automakers who don’t like being told that their big, fancy and hellaciously fast cars aren’t going to cut it with EU emissions standards. In fact, if the EU continues to push to centralize authority and standardize policies and practices, I can foresee some of our European friends developing greater insight into why the Southern states have so frequently and vehemently objected to Washington’s efforts to impose changes, even changes that were clearly in their best interest. I can remember when people were always telling us the South would “rise again,” but I never heard anybody mention Vienna.

THE SORRY STATE OF SOUTHERN BELLEHOOD

This story, from today's Red and Black, the UGA student newspaper, really doesn't require comment, but when have I ever let that stop me?

Campus Transit put the brakes on renting buses to all University of Georgia Greeks after members of one sorority acted in an un-ladylike manner. (Here is a classic understatement if I ever saw one. Read on...)

Alpha Delta Pi chartered nine Campus Transit buses to transport members for the 45-minute ride to and from the sorority's formal in Greensboro on Friday.

The behavior of some of the girls interfered with the drivers, and the buses required "extensive" cleaning afterward, said Ron Hamlin, manager of Campus Transit.

This week, Campus Transit decided to deny bus rentals to sororities and fraternities for the remainder of the semester.

No decisions have been made on what the policy will be next semester.

"We currently are assessing our desire to work for them," Hamlin said.

Alpha Delta Pi had booked another transit company, but it canceled last week, Hamlin said.

"They called us for help, and then it turned into a nasty situation," he said.

Jeremy Skates, a Campus Transit supervisor, drove one of the buses on Friday.

He wrote in an e-mail to The Red & Black that one girl was so drunk on the bus ride to Greensboro she threw up three times. (There may be an upside for her here. If "curling" is an Olympic sport, can "hurling" be far behind? In any event, my congrats to her on what was surely her personal "best"--to date, that is.)

"The 45-minute return trip was even better," Skates wrote. "Girls were urinating in cups and bottles, then throwing them out the bus windows." (Most un-ladylike indeed. Bet they didn't act this way at their freshmen rush parties.)

When groups charter buses, they are charged at a rate of $55 per hour. Buses usually require about 10 to 15 minutes of cleaning after an event, which is charged to the groups at the hourly rate.

However, Alpha Delta Phi was charged extra because it took so long to clean the buses.

"One driver reported spending 45 minutes cleaning, and it still reeks of alcohol," Hamlin said. (I heard the buses also reeked of "tee-tee." Apparently, some of the AdPi's could use a little target practice.)

He did not know the total extra time spent on cleaning the buses.

That bus had to be used Monday for regular transit service because the University does not have many buses to spare, he said. (I knew that smell wasn't coming from my armpits!)

This is not the first time Campus Transit has had problems with the Greek community, he said. (Speaking of understatements...)

Campus Transit enforces additional policies when renting to Greeks. A police officer is required on each bus, (For what? To gawk idly while blotto women shower passing motorists with cups of pee?) and no alcohol is allowed on the bus. (Guess the ADPi's didn't get the memo.)

"Our primary responsibility is to provide a safe service. Not too long ago, there was a situation where a bus took a dive over a bridge in Atlanta," he said. "We don't want that to happen."

Hamlin added it wasn't the whole group that was a problem.

"There were nine buses," he said. "It was only some of the girls on some of the buses that caused problems."

Only individuals affiliated with the University can charter buses. Other student organizations rented buses in the past, but Hamlin said no other groups posed problems like the Greek community.

Efforts to reach _________, president of Alpha Delta Pi, were unsuccessful Tuesday. (Anybody check the buses? I thought I heard snoring beneath the back seat.)

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