has to be one of the most politically tone-deaf public figures in recent memory. I think it is charitable to call his gubernatorial record mixed: while, for instance, he admirably opposed the death penalty on principle in a traditionally left-of-center state, he plunged headlong into a flurry of stubbornly stupid policy decisions (e.g., a 4% 'personal services tax' on haircuts, beauty salons, health clubs, and weight loss efforts) that earned him historically low popularity ratings. Then, after both he and the head of the New York State Police were caught personally intervening in the domestic abuse charges filed against one of his top aides, prompting a cabinet member to publicly quit in disgust, Paterson had the non-presence of mind (or perhaps the hubris) to try to stave off the avalanche of calls for him to abandon his election campaign before he, at last, yielded to reality and announced he wouldn't run. I don't know whether the guy has a hyper-inflated ego or a compromised capacity for reasoning. Either way, I think New York will be better off without him.
is now estimated to have killed more than 300 people and affected more than 2 million. Although far more powerful than the recent Haitian earthquake (8.8 versus 7.0), it is far is far less deadly because its epicenter was both deeper and farther away from densely populated areas than the Haitian quake, which to date has killed more than 200,000 people in that desperately poor nation. Chile, though, was the site of the strongest recorded earthquake in human history, a 9.5 monster in 1960.
With the wave of strange and extreme weather in recent years and its implied links to global climate change, the rash of recent earthquakes might also have you wondering about human damage to the planet. But a piece in Slate refutes this, saying that earthquakes have been relatively consistent for ages and that human activity has had minimal seismic impact. You can't blame we consumer bipeds, though, for feeling more and more these days as if the planet is trying to shrug off the influence of modern human industry.
The Hawaiian tsunami warning was lifted without significant damage to the islands. A friend of mine in Hawaii told me earlier that 10-foot waves were predicted. But the actual waves were reportedly much smaller, and the islands have apparently dodged the bullet.
of 8.8 magnitude has caused devastation throughout the central part of the country: collapsing bridges, roads, buildings. The death toll, already above 100, is expected to increase. There is also a tsunami warning for the entire Pacific Basin, including Hawaii. I am trying to touch base with a friend in Hawaii to get some direct information; nothing yet.
This conversation about what to think about the Alabama campus shootings has grown legs. In an email exchange over the past couple of days, a friend of mine who is a retired university department chair wrote this:
1) The University of Alabama violence has much less to do with tenure than with America's love of guns and with the political shills bought and paid for by gun manufacturers. One of the faculty murdered was the murderer's champion for tenure, and all reports indicate that Amy Bishop knew fully in advance that she'd be denied. These things are almost never a surprise. What's remarkable is that guns can be easily carried around into such settings, even by lunatics.
2) What could the University have done beforehand? More diligence in hiring, I suppose, and in evaluation, which had degraded, for teaching, to student questionnaires only. The old-style Chairships/headships, for all their occasional paternalism, did assign responsibility to a real person, who had to get to know the faculty both professionally and personally.
3) Although I don't think this case depends on it, tenure is surely an outmoded doctrine that serves only a very few. It now justifies the wholesale abuse of academia's "temps," the part-time and full-time contractuals who teach the clear majority of college students and do so without decent pay, security, health insurance, or retirement benefits. Tenure protects the incompetent, oppresses the many, results in bad teaching, and makes intellectuals easy targets from the right as "elitists."
4) I suppose that, as at VPI (Virginia Tech), more directness in dealing with bizarre behavior would have helped, but I don't know how to encourage that. I'm loathe to think of the problem as merely an excess of political correctness about mental illness, but maybe that's involved: who has the courage to call a crazy person crazy, especially given the false god of collegiality? Perhaps professionally trained personnel at counseling centers -- i.e., not M.Ed's -- to whom faculty and administrators could refer troubled people....
5) A British friend -- Ph.D. from Cambridge U. -- remarked to me that the Brits have nothing like tenure, nor do other countries, other than Canada, perhaps. Years ago, when I first became interested in that "peculiar institution," I read key documents from AAUP (American Association of University Professors), discovering, for instance, that tenure was originally codified in the 1940 AAUP "Red Book," where tenure was advocated as a means to insure 1) that teaching at colleges would be economically attractive to talent (remember, this was at the end of the Depression, and academia was just beginning its explosion) and 2) that academic free speech would be protected. I probably don't need to argue that university teaching is TOO attractive now, drawing faculty into the ranks for what I consider to be the wrong motives (love of subject and love of teaching are irrelevant in many cases), resulting in faculty who are often too much interested in security and status. Amy Bishop, by all accounts, was such a person, all wrapped up in the prestige, insisting on being called "Dr.," for example.
6) Academic freedom? Tenure, I find, works insidiously against freedom, since if only tenured faculty have it, non-tenured faculty (the majority, again), by extension, do not have it, and the tenure process almost guarantees that faculty not exercise freedom for the probationary period prior to tenure. If they do, their chances of gaining tenure are lessened, as they'll offend someone in power. A better system would be multi-year contracts, like Maryland's St. Mary's College, which has a 1,3,5,7 process, so faculty eventually get 7-year contracts, surely enough security for most people. And academic freedom can be protected through other means easily enough.
in Huntsville on February 12, in which neuroscientist Amy Bishop allegedly killed three faculty members (including her department's chair) and wounded three others after she was denied tenure, raise so many questions. Pouncing on retroactive conclusions in search of immediate blame is too easy at times such as this. This is one of those horrible cases that seems to open up a boxful of issues.
When she was 21, for instance, Bishop killed her younger brother with a shotgun. Authorities officially ruled it an accident, but, according to the New York Times, questions have emerged about whether Bishop's mother, influential in their town, intervened to impede the inquiry, and whether higher-ups yielded by quashing an investigation -- against the will of police on the case -- that could have led to a psychiatric evaluation of Bishop. You know where this line of thinking is going: if Bishop had been found, at that time, to be in need of compulsory therapy, what might have been prevented in the years afterward?
Bishop also had a reputation among colleagues and friends for throwing hair-trigger fits over things she took as insults or attacks. In 2002, she was charged with punching a woman in the head at an IHOP after the woman, whose child was using the restaurant's last booster seat, refused to give it up to Bishop. According to the police report, Bishop yelled, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!” as she demanded the seat. At the university, graduate students reportedly fled her laboratory over the years. Neighbors told stories about her temper. In 1994, investigators questioned Bishop and her husband about a plan to mail-bomb a doctor at Harvard (she received her Ph.D. there and spent years there doing postdoctoral research).
So we have questions about whether small-town authorities squelched an investigation of a young woman's possible mental illness years before she allegedly shot six people; whether a university that hired her and ultimately denied her tenure could have known more about her history or responded more effectively to her problematic behavior; and whether a privileged child was raised with a distorted sense of entitlement and sheltered from the ramifications of her possible mental illness.
Looking into the potential cover-up of Bishop's shooting of her brother makes sense to me, whatever it may or may not reveal about covert favoritism in law enforcement. Blaming the university could quickly become a witch hunt; it's questionable whether the university should have known more about legal incidents in which Bishop was never convicted, although I think it's worth asking whether Bishop's behavior was erratic enough to merit more university attention (e.g., suggested therapy, scrutiny in performance evaluations) in the years prior to her being denied tenure. The parental question is one we cannot know the answer to, but it reminds us of the damage that overprotective parenting can do.
The one thing about which there is no doubt, however, is this: If a handgun were a very hard item to acquire in the United States, a person in a vengeful rage would not be so readily equipped to walk into a faculty meeting and kill three people and wound three others. Easy access to guns turns many a lovers' quarrel, traffic argument, or insane tantrum into a quick and efficient murder. Sooner or later this country will have to face that.
a reader commented about the public's condoning their dysfunction. It's an important issue involving what I think is a crucial misconception, and I want to air it here along with having posted my reply in the comments section.
Samantha Joy wrote (beginning with a quote of something I wrote):
"If public service is about being committed to the public interest, isn't it the job of a public servant to fight for the public interest when it is endangered rather than quit to take an easier job?"
I think the point you're not considering is that it is "the public" who is creating the problem in the first place. As much as "the public" insists that we don't like the nastiness of partisan politics, we continue to re-elect the worst offenders on a regular basis.
Not quite, I'd say. "Partisanship" is the officially-approved tag for what is wrong with Washington, but in truth there is remarkable bipartisan unanimity on what topics to keep off the table (e.g., true single-payer health care) and what kind of "partisan debate" to have (showboating shoving matches within the allowed range of policy topics). Both are results of the overwhelming influence of corporate money in determining who can mount a visible campaign for national public office, which is why Congress and the Senate are filled with posturing hacks who lack the stomach for actual leadership. Public acceptance of the notion that "partisanship" is the problem constitutes a kind of manufactured consent for a false idea, as Chomsky and Herman told us. It's true, of course, that any change will ultimately have to come from an informed citizenry. But I think Jobs One and Two for getting there are media reform and campaign finance reform. Happily, we have growing grassroots movements for both.
the latest Democrat to quit the game. Bayh (D-Ind) was more explicit than most in explaining why he is bailing. He said, in essence, that being a U.S. senator these days is pretty much a waste of time, with a super-majority needed to pass even a five-cent bill and an obstructive paralysis having gripped the legislative branch. Bayh is now looking, he said, to perhaps become a college president.
It's hard to know how to take this. Bayh, having a relatively solid grip on his Senate seat, doesn't look as if he's running scared, as do some retiring Dems who are being seriously threatened from the right. With Bayh, it looks more like a quality-of-workplace issue: This place has gone to hell and I don't need this shit. He's got options, and he's exercising them. It's his right, of course. But there is also something about it that, to me, feels very wrong.
If public service is about being committed to the public interest, isn't it the job of a public servant to fight for the public interest when it is endangered rather than quit to take an easier job? Isn't now exactly the time when we need such a person to actually fulfill his or her purported commitment to serve the public? Okay, so corporate campaign financing and short-term economic thinking and wedge-issue posturing have broken Congress and the Senate. What's a caring statesman's or stateswoman's response? To say, "Dammit, I'm fighting to rebuild government, even if I lose," or to mutter, "This sucks. I want a better job"?
Today's procession of diving Dems and retiring Repubs strikes me as the logical outcome of a money- and poll-driven system within which many spoiled and over-coached politicians have entirely forgotten the meaning of leadership. Since they lack a gut drive to fight for the collective good at a time such as this, their reflexive response is to simply leave the company and find another gig. When the going gets tough, the smart get new jobs.
Of course, another way to look at all of this is to see it as a slew of legislators basically giving up on American government. Silver-haired senators in expensive suits taking, without meaning to, the same line that the Yippies and the Black Panthers did 40 years ago: Fuck the System. It's too screwed up to be saved. You could call it the Silk Tie Revolution.
Any way you look at it, things will get interesting.