The Chronicle of the Highly Uneducated; or, The Riley Fallacy

The main problem with Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley is not racism.  The main problem is her intellectually lazy, sloppy “journalism” that cherry-picks examples in order to “support” uninformed opinions.  In her recent piece, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” she reads the descriptions of dissertations by five recent Ph.D.s in Black Studies from Northwestern University.  Based on this exhaustive study of the field, she concludes:

If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

I understand why people call her racist: as commenter chuckkle notes, Ms. Riley “makes definitive evaluations of academic research without having bothered to read it…. She is clairvoyant, and can judge it in advance.  The Queen has delivered her verdict, judging it in advance.  There’s a word for that: prejudice.”  In other words, Ms. Riley’s type of casual generalizations also underwrites racist thinking.  However, Riley’s primary problem (as a writer, at least) is less her susceptibility to the bigot’s false assumptions and more an entire way of reasoning that makes her vulnerable to all sorts of unproven ideas (including many varieties of prejudice).

Based on her Chronicle columns, Ms. Riley appears to lack the ability to reason.  Indeed, should she happen to come across this blog post, I humbly suggest that she might begin her reeducation at the Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies website.  There, she will learn about the fallacies of relying on anecdotal evidence (say, relying upon five dissertation descriptions to represent an entire field), personal incredulity (because Ms. Riley cannot understand the field, it therefore must not be true), and false cause (assuming, for instance, that having a black president means that racism has been solved).  Her response to the criticism is classic tu quoque: instead of engaging with the criticism, she just turns it back on those who accuse her.

Ms. Riley’s inability to sustain reasoned argument is troubling, but the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s decision to employ her is baffling.  Plenty of bloggers play fast and loose with facts or succumb to logical fallacies.  But why would a publication that covers higher education wish to grant a platform to a person who seems to have learned so little?

Update, 7 May 2012:

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The People’s Library

“Nazis destroyed books to ‘purify’ German culture. Bigots do it in the name of God, or Allah. What’s Bloomberg’s excuse? ‘Hygiene’?”

— Salman Rushdie, via his Twitter account, 16 Nov. 2011

“If corporations are people, tents are definitely speech.”

— Ben Chappell, prof. of American Studies, University of Kansas (via Eric Michael Johnson [@ericmjohnson on Twitter], who credits @rmmilner and @docfreeride as his sources), 15 Nov. 2011.

The term “fascist” is used too often and too loosely in American political discourse. Mayor Bloomberg is not a fascist. However, in ordering the destruction of a library, the mayor’s actions evoke the symbolism of fascist and other totalitarian regimes. One expects that he did not intend a metaphoric alliance with such groups. Indeed, he wisely ordered the books to be thrown in the dumpster, rather than having them set on fire.

But Salman Rushdie — who knows a thing or two about the destruction of books — is not wrong when he hears parallels between Nazis’ attempts to “purify” culture via the destruction of books that (they alleged) would pollute minds, and Bloomberg’s claim that he’s acting to promote “the health and safety of the public.”  That was his explanation for the Tuesday 1:30 am attack on Occupy Wall Street, and the destruction of its library.  And you can see the appeals of his rhetoric: who would argue against “guaranteeing public health and safety”?  Unfortunately for the mayor, evidence contradicts his rhetoric.  Though Mayor Bloomberg worked to prevent reporters from covering the raid (for their own safety, he alleged), too many people were able to capture the event on film.  Looking at those images, the chaos and violence of the assault does not resemble either “health” or “safety.”

Occupy Wall Street Library (after)

Which is precisely why Mr. Rushdie’s parallel gains symbolic force.  As the mayor’s predecessors (fascist and otherwise) have done, Mr. Bloomberg uses language to mask ideology.  In a delightfully Orwellian use of language, he claims the twin goals of “guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protestors’ First Amendment rights” but, since (he said) the former outweighed the latter, “inaction was not an option.”  In other words, he needed to attack peaceful protesters in the middle of the night, while they slept, because they posed a danger to the public.  This sounds a bit like George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war: the protesters may pose a danger, and so Bloomberg had to attack them before they did.  It also echoes the U.S. Army Major in Vietnam who, speaking to a reporter in 1968, said, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The accidentally fascist overtones of the mayor’s purposefully thuggish order may be the greatest gift he could give the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Not only is the violence of this nighttime attack likely to galvanize the Occupy Wall Streeters, but it may also persuade others to join them. When you wage war on a library, you wage war on all who read, write, and think. When you attack books, you attack democracy.  And when you do these things, people fight back.

As Ben Chappell observes, “If corporations are people, tents are definitely speech.” And libraries are both.

The Occupy Wall Street Library (before the raid)

Image sources: “Urgent: Raid of Occupy Wall Street” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 15 Nov. 2011); “Occupy Wall Street Library Removed as NYPD Evicts Protesters” (School Library Journal, 15-16 Nov. 2011).

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Senseless Violence: The NYPD Destroys Library. UPDATE #3

Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)
Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)

“I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 10 June 1815

“Knowledge is power.”

Thomas Jefferson to to Joseph Cabell, 22 January 1820

“Let me conclude by thanking the NYPD, FDNY, and the Department of Sanitation for their professionalism earlier this morning. Thank you.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 15 November 2011, after the NYPD and the NY Sanitation Department evicted Occupy Wall Street, destroying 5000 books.

“Apparently the NYPD have destroyed the donated library at #ows – I don’t think you need a metaphor, but crushing 5000 books might be one.”

— Simon HB (@norock on Twitter), 15 November 2011

 UPDATE as of 5:30 pm Central Time.  All of the Library has not been destroyed.  It’s being “held captive” by the City.  Here is a photo, courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg’s Twitter account (and The Observer).

Occupy Wall Street Library: "Property from #Zuccotti, incl #OWS library, safely stored @ 57th St Sanit Garage; can be picked up Weds"

UPDATE as of 11:30 pm Central Time: Occupy Wall Street Library asks, “And where is the rest of it?”: “We’re glad to see some books are OK. Now, where are the rest of the books and our shelter and our boxes? Nice try guys, but we won’t be convinced until we actually have all our undamaged property returned to us.”

UPDATE as of 12:30 pm Central Time, 16 Nov. 2011: Occupy Wall Street Library reports “that their claim that the library was ‘safely stored’ was a lie.”  About half of the books are missing; many others are damaged or destroyed.  Initial reports that books were thrown into dumpsters seem, in fact, to be accurate.  And this blog’s initial claim that the NYPD destroyed the library is also accurate.

Books from Occupy Wall Street Library.  They were damaged during the NYPD raid.

Image sources: “Michael Bloomberg Destroys a Library to Shut Down Dissent in New York City” (Irregular Times, 15 Nov. 2011); “URGENT: Raid in Progress” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 15 Nov. 2011); OWS Library Safe and Sound; Held Captive By City” (New York Observer, 15 Nov. 2011); “UPDATE: State of Seized Library” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 16 Nov. 2011).

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Telemarketing Kills Charity

Do not call.  This means you.Unless I am expecting a call, I try to avoid answering the home phone.  9 times out of 10, it’s a solicitor — telemarketer seeking funds for a charitable organization usually, but sometimes a company conducting a poll.  If I have the energy, I ask to be taken off the organization’s call list (a strategy that does not always work).  If I don’t, then I hang up in the 2-second silence preceding the telemarketer’s voice.

I wish charitable organizations would not punish their supporters with these phone calls.  As a “thank you,” I’d much prefer to be contacted via mail or email.  Wouldn’t you?  In response to such rudeness, I’ve stopped giving to organizations that phone me at home. (I maintain a list by the phone.)  This isn’t an entirely effective strategy.  First, some organizations refuse to stop calling you even after repeated requests. The most egregious is the Sioux Nation Relief Fund / Council of Indian Nations (according to the American Institute of Philanthropy, these two groups are affiliated). While I support the rights of First Nations peoples, I will never give to these charities ever again.  We’ve been asking them to take us off their list for years.

The second reason that this approach isn’t entirely effective is that I end up withholding support for truly outstanding organizations.  It truly pains me that Doctors Without Borders phoned me last September.  To provide medical care to those in need, this group goes into countries that the Red Cross deems too dangerous. For their work, Doctors Without Borders won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.  I’d been a regular donor for years, and then after this call… I stopped.  To their credit, the group has honored my request not to be phoned at home — I’ve received no further calls.

So.  What to do?  Before you suggest the national “Do Not Call List,” I’m already on the list.  Read the fine print: Charitable organizations to which you have given are exempt.

I think I need to institute some sort of review period.  Egregious offenders will remain off my giving list indefinitely, but those organizations who honor my request not to be contacted at home should have a second chance.  If, say, a couple years pass without a call from the offending organization, then I could put it on probation — that is, I resume giving, but let them know that further phone calls will result in the termination of my support.

Finally, I realize that it may strike readers as a bit churlish (or just downright mean!) to withhold support in order to discourage unwanted phone calls.  I’m sure that some — indeed, probably most — of you have more patience and charity than I do.  Beyond the rudeness, the issue for me is time.  I get at least one of these calls (and usually more) every single day.  And I’m very, very busy.  I don’t have time for all of the important things in my life, much less the unimportant ones.

Final note: I wrote this post about six weeks ago, but debated whether or not I should post it.  (I do not upload every blog post I write.)  I didn’t want to discourage charitable giving.  Nor, for that matter, did I want to encourage selfishness.  But, just now, I received two telemarketing calls at the same time — I had to put one on hold to answer the other.  And, so, I thought… you know, perhaps this method of solicitation has gone too far.  Thus, I’ve posted.

Image source: Switched.com.

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Why Meghan Can’t Read

stack of booksIn an op-ed piece that the Wall Street Journal published as an article, Meghan Cox Gurdon criticizes contemporary young adult fiction for its darkness. As she writes, “it is … possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.”  In other words, reading about troubled teens may not help console the troubled, but may in fact create more troubled teens.

Rebutting this claim, one Meghan Cox Gurdon wisely notes, “Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code.”  In other words, reading about troubled teens will not create more troubled teens.  Since Gurdon makes this point earlier in the same article, one wonders whether there are two Gurdons at work here — say, Gurdon (who deplores darkness in lit for teens) and Gurdon Prime (who recognizes that darkness need not beget darkness).

Gurdon Prime makes a strong point. Representing anorexia, bullying, rape, racism, or any of the host of challenges that teens face is different from endorsing any of those things. For this reason, Gurdon misses the mark when she accuses the “book industry” of using “the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into … children’s lives.”  As Gurdon Prime knows, representation is different from endorsement. Since Gurdon does not appear to be in as close contact with her (former, I presume?) collaborator, I’d like to amplify Gurdon Prime’s point with a few tips on how to tell the difference between representation and endorsement.

1) Which characters does the novel represent sympathetically?  With which ideas do those characters seem aligned?

2) Since detecting sympathy seems a challenge for Gurdon, here are some literary terms to keep in mind:

A. Point of view.  Whose points of view does the book represent?  If it is a third-person narrative, does it tend to align itself with particular characters?  Which ones?  When?  Why?  If it is a first-person narrative, is the narrator reliable?  Or do the narrator’s perceptions and interpretations of events fail to coincide with the implied opinions and norms of the author?  If a book gives you reason to doubt the veracity of its narrator, then you have an unreliable narrator — and you’d be wise to view this character’s words with skepticism.

B. Diction, which is a fancy term for “word choice.”  The words an author chooses convey tone, a term for the speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse.  If, for instance, Gurdon Prime suggested that Gurdon were “a narrow-minded, nattering nitwit,” one would feel compelled to note the sarcasm in such a choice of words.  The alliterative pleasures of that repeated “n” aside, this would be an ad hominem attack on Gurdon — personal and needlessly hostile.  And such diction might make us interpret Gurdon Prime as mean-spirited, even cruel.  On the other hand, what if Gurdon Prime instead said that Gurdon were “guilty only of her concern for young people, a concern which sometimes manifests itself in language that conveys passion more than it does an ability to read critically”?  In addition to suspecting Gurdon Prime of harboring an academic affiliation, we might also note the sympathy manifest in phrases like “concern for young people” and in the politic nature of the criticism: in this claim, “language” is the culprit, not Gurdon herself.

C. Narrative structure.  Who gets the first word in the book?  Who gets the last?  What impact does structure have on point of view?

3) There are of course many other literary features to consider here.  And many novels are ambiguous, requiring the reader to think about where to place her or his sympathy.  If Collins’ The Hunger Games (one of the books Gurdon cites) invites criticism of the violent spectacle in which Katniss and other tributes must participate, how do we evaluate those moments where the novel seems to invite us to root for Katniss, hoping that her acts of violence allow her to survive?  Is Collins’ novel complicit with what it strives to critique?  Or is she hoping to make the reader uneasy, by engendering in her or him the very feelings that the novel exposes as dangerous?

I suspect that Gurdon Prime understands all of the preceding points.  Here’s hoping that Gurdon is willing to listen to her erstwhile writing partner — indeed, here’s hoping that they collaborate again.  Together, they might produce some lasting work.

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Image source: “Summer Reading,” on Howdy!

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Vandalizing James Marshall

The only edition of James Marshall’s The Three Little Pigs (1989) currently in print has been vandalized by its publisher, Grosset & Dunlap.  In reprinting the book at 8” x 8” instead of its original 8.5” x 10.5”, the publisher has truncated images, altered the layout, changed the typeface, and removed the final illustration.

Here’s the original:

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): second pig builds his house (original version)

Here’s the new version, which crowds the layout, cramping Marshall’s watercolors:

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (2000): second pig builds his house (new version, as mangled by Grosset & Dunlap))

Making the text difficult to read, Grosset & Dunlap also changed the elegant Berkeley serif font to what appears to be the title typeface from Sid and Marty Krofft’s Lidsville (1971-1973).

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): front cover (as mangled by Grosset & Dunlap, 2000)

And the final image, in which the three pigs take their bow (on the back cover), has been removed entirely.  This is a shame because the front and back cover frame the tale as a theatrical performance.  It reminds us that no pigs were harmed in the making of this story; they were performing a production of The Three Little Pigs.

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): back cover (paperback edition, 1996) James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): back cover (as mangled by Grosset & Dunlap, 2000)

In one sense, what Grosset & Dunlap has done is not unique. Publishers do alter children’s books to make them fit a different format.  When they retain the original design sense, as in HarperCollins’ board-book version of The Carrot Seed, they minimize any sense of loss: the board-book Carrot Seed is still recognizably a work by Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  However, when they remove text, change layout and design — as in Random House’s board book of Dr. Seuss’s ABC — we end up with a work based on the original, but a demonstrably different book.  (For “L,” the original has “Little Lola Lopp. / Left leg. / Lazy lion / licks a lollipop.”  The board book has only “Lion with a lollipop.”)

What’s baffling in the case of Marshall’s The Three Pigs is the impetus for the publisher’s mangling of his original.  This is not a board book.  It’s a “Reading Railroad” book, and I have no sense what mandates these books being sold in a tinier size.

The practice is of course also offensive.  No one would suggest a slicing up a Rembrandt so that it would better fit in a particular gallery space.  Presumably, the fact that the art is intended for children makes a publisher feel justified in mangling its aesthetics.  Is the font intended to “kiddie-up” the text?  What possible rationale can there be for letting some alleged “designer” (who appears to have no training in design) damage the work of an artist who is no longer alive to protest?  No idea.

I wonder: Do Marshall’s heirs know that Grosset & Dunlap is defacing his artwork?  If they don’t, could someone please notify them?  And ask that they bring back the original work in its original format, please.

 

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Illustrious Dunderheads

William Gropper, cover for The Illustrious Dunderheads (1942)When you wonder whether there’s a higher percentage of dunderheads in our political discourse (and, these days, who doesn’t?), a little perspective may be of help. In September 1942, Alfred A. Knopf published The Illustrious Dunderheads, edited by Rex Stout and illustrated by William Gropper. As Frank Sullivan writes in his introduction, “the book is a collection of some of the silliest, stupidest, and most dangerous statements that have ever been made by men laying claim to being leaders of the American people.” Here are a couple of examples, illustrated by Gropper’s cartoons.

On November 12, 1941, Frank C. Osmers, Jr. (Republican, representative from New Jersey) proclaimed, “The American people today are little better off than the German people under the iron heel of Adolph Hitler.”
cartoon by William Gropper, from the Illustrious Dunderheads (1942)

Rufus Holman (Republican, Senator from Oregon) — who opposed fighting the Fascists — may have unwittingly been describing himself when he said, on February 6, 1941, “Our present foes are domestic foes, not foreign ones.”
cartoon by William Gropper, from the Illustrious Dunderheads (1942)

The above statement has a contemporary ring to it. Birthers, climate-change deniers, an entire “news” network devoted to misinformation…. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo famously said three decades later, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

’Twas ever thus.

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Martin Amis, Brain Damage, and Children’s Literature

Martin Amis smokes a cigaretteOn the BBC’s Faulks on Fiction this week, Martin Amis said, “People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book. I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”  He added, “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”

It’s tempting to observe that Mr. Amis appears to have already suffered “the serious brain injury” of which he speaks.  To suggest that only brain damage could enable him to write for children implies that children are brain-damaged adults; to claim that writing for younger readers is writing “at a lower register” betrays an astonishing level of ignorance about the field.  Since both notions are demonstrably false, perhaps we should both wish him a speedy recovery, and advise him to take better care of that head of his.  Indeed, one might say that, given the pervasiveness of the injury he’s evidently suffered, the real news here is that he’s able to form complete sentences on his own.  Remarkable!

But, of course, Amis’s condescension is not the result of head trauma.  It’s a result of the arrogance and ignorance that afflict many otherwise intelligent people, when they attempt to write about children’s literature.  A.S. Byatt’s description of the Harry Potter novels as “jokey latency fantasies” (2003) comes to mind, as does Harold Bloom’s infamously lazy comments (2000) on the same series.  Like Amis, both are intelligent people — Byatt, a gifted novelist, and Bloom, a sharp literary critic.  However, hampering their ability to apply that intelligence to books for younger readers, their damaged minds struggle under cultural prejudices that consider children’s literature “lesser” and “not for serious writers.”

So, before (purely as an experiment) we thwack Mr. Amis in the head to see what sort of children’s book he might write, we might remember that his remarks are but a symptom of a larger cultural bias. He may lack sufficient understanding to perceive this, but children’s literature is, of course, very difficult to write well. As Dr. Seuss said, “I find writing for children more difficult, and more satisfying.  There are infinitely more writing tricks to capture adult readers than children.  You can’t kid the kids.  If the story or method of telling it bores them, you don’t get a second chance.  They just walk out on you.”  But another of Seuss’s comments is even more applicable here.  Asked whether he’d ever consider writing for adults, Seuss liked to say, “Adults are obsolete children and the hell with them.”

Photo of Mr. Amis from Magic and Lies.

Patricia Storms' caricature of Martin Amis as the GrinchUpdate, 13 Feb. 2011, 11 am: Patricia Storms’ Only a Brain Injury Could Make Me Draw Martin Amis (on her BookLust blog) features caricatures of Amis as the Cat in the Hat, Max, Madeline, the Pigeon, a Moomin, and others.  One of those caricatures is, I think, ideal to accompany my particular blog post — as it combines both Amis and Seuss.  I refer, of course, to her Amis as Grinch (at right)!  So. Go and amuse yourselves with her art.

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