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Archive for January, 2011

Empty-Bubble Caturday

My Grey Kitty had a way of staring into space that might have been deeply philosophical. My husband, however, always suspected that if you could see a cartoon depiction of her thoughts, it’d be an empty bubble. Other cat-owned humans have likely seen this in (in)action. Those who knew GK will know precisely what I mean.

GK had white highlights on her face and more of a sprawling belly, but otherwise the likeness isn’t too bad.

(Philosopher kitteh from ICHC? of course.)

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Usually I try to blog on topics where I can offer a smidge of expertise or experience. On the Middle East, I have neither (beyond the Iranian exiles who befriended me at my first post-college job, and a rudimentary knowledge of their history). Tonight, I write only because I am moved by the courage of the people taking to the streets, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt and Yemen. I am frightened for their safety. I am awed at the transformative potential they are unleashing for their countries and for the entire Arab world.

Perhaps Iran circa 1979 isn’t such a poor comparison? In a lot of ways, the situation in Egypt reminds me of the Iranian Revolution that brought the Ayatollah to power. A dictator long supported by the United States is challenged by mass uprisings. A people long yearning for self-determination takes to the streets. Islamists waiting in the wings. A substantial secular opposition.

Will the U.S. learn from our mistakes in Iran?

Back in 1979, Jimmy Carter openly professed American loyalty to the Shah. Obama has not done the same for Mubarak, though Joe Biden has proclaimed Mubarek “not a dictator.” I suspect Biden was running off at the mouth with about as much forethought as when he called Obama “clean and articulate.” Thoughtless pronouncements could cost lives. Might this be a good time for Biden to be called up for jury duty again?

As for what the U.S. should do, Goldblog’s take seems about right to me:

President Obama would be standing for American values if he encouraged Hosni Mubarak to leave office now. Mubarak (and his son, it is almost needless to say) have no credibility, and the U.S. will have no credibility if it doesn’t support the aspirations of these frustrated protesters. Will the Muslim Brotherhood follow in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall? Not necessarily. But the U.S. will make that possibility less remote if it doesn’t stand with the people now.

I’m not downplaying the threat the Muslim Brotherhood poses, to America or to Israel. And I fear for the future of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. And there is a chance this regime could survive, for a while. But these facts are overwhelmed by the reality on the streets.

I’m not sure it would be prudent for Obama to call publicly for Mubarak to step down. I’m queasy with fear that the protestors could be massacred, Tiananmen-style. But couldn’t the U.S. quietly arrange for Mubarak’s safe passage out of Egypt to a friendly third country? Not to the U.S., please! Iran convulsed with rage after the Shah was allowed to come here for medical shelter. We don’t want to embolden the theocrats in Egypt. It’s bad enough that they can rally just anger against the U.S. for its thirty-year policy of supporting Mubarak despite human rights abuses. It doesn’t help, either, that the tear gas canisters used against the protesters are labeled “Made in the U.S.A.” Mubarek also can’t just emulate the Shah, whose first and last station in exile was … Egypt.

But surely we still have no shortage of despots among our friends? One or the other ought to be open to a bribe for harboring Mubarak. We can just call it, y’know, foreign aid. If the U.S. eased Mubarak’s departure , we could then provide succor to the more secular and democratic-minded protesters. As long as Mubarak remains, open U.S. support for the protesters risks triggering a crackdown.

On a less analytical note, I was floored by the fact that the Egyptian government could just shut the whole damn Internet down. I thought the distributed nature of the net was supposed to prevent such centralized censorship? Evidently an oligopoly of ISPs existed, which enabled the Internet to be shut down by taking those ISPs offline. The proximate cause was apparently government intimidation of the ISPs. I still don’t claim to understand it fully, but the graph of Internet usage in Egypt is stunning:

(Via the Daily Dish.)

The sun is rising on Cairo, Suez, Alexandria. I hope that Egyptians – and Tunisians and Yemeni – are waking up to a day when no protesters will be gravely harmed. A day that brings them a little closer to democracy and self-determination. A day that repeats itself until it becomes months and years. May it someday be remembered as the dawn of a new era.

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I happen to have a truly wonderful boss, who’s been supportive in ways I can’t even catalogue here. Suffice it to say I’m lucky, and I know it. Thanks to her efforts, it even looks like I’ll be employed next year (though if Governor Kasich decides to drive his famous “bus” over the university, all bets are off).

But not all bosses are so exemplary, as my last post reminds us. That’s why a former professor of mine, Bob Sutton, created a diagnostic test to sort the gems from the jerks. Actually, he wrote a whole book about it, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

His online test is the Asshole Rating Self-Exam (ARSE). It’s actually meant as a self-assessment, but you could take on behalf of a co-worker or boss – or ex.

I scored in the low range: “You don’t sound like a certified asshole, unless you are fooling yourself.” I’d like to think that’s right, but I’m guessing most people score themselves lower than other people would rate them. (Cue Zappa.)

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Yesterday, the student newspaper on my campus, The Post, told an amazing story that reveals once again how upper-level administrators are shielded from the consequences of wrongdoing, while whistleblowers are punished. It’s an old story, but the details are freshly repellent with each retelling.

Howard Lipman was VP for University Advancement (aka fundraising) before he left earlier this school year, returning to his old employer, Florida International University. (This and subsequent facts come from the The Post’s account.) But evidently he thought one of the job’s perks was the chance to act abusively toward at least one of his subordinates, Molly Taylor-Elkins, who is now filing suit with the EEOC. The Post reports:

Molly Taylor-Elkins spent almost two years as Lipman’s executive assistant. She says she felt harassed and bullied by Lipman and that on multiple occasions he made inappropriate sexual comments to her and other female employees.

A university investigation conducted last year agreed Lipman created a hostile work environment but couldn’t find enough evidence to substantiate the sexual harassment claims.

The investigators didn’t find that Taylor-Elkins had fabricated the sexual harassment claims, only that there was not evidence of them being “pervasive” enough to rise to the standard of creating a hostile environment. The investigators determined that Lipman’s bullying behavior violated university policy on workplace violence. He is accused of shouting at employees and belittling them. The Post provides detail on an encounter after Lipman’s yelling reduced Taylor-Elkins to tears:

Elkins says Lipman approached her desk and said: “Some people make up by having sex and since we can’t do that let me buy you lunch.”

She says she denied the offer.

In his interview with the OIE investigator, Lipman acknowledged that he was frustrated after having worked an 18-hour day. He said he was disappointed Elkins defied his orders not to schedule or cancel meetings without his approval.

But Lipman insisted he never made the comment about make-up sex.

At FIU, Lipman makes more money than he’d earned here at OU. His old salary here was a measly $232,000. He was never suspended or put on leave while the investigation was underway. He never faced any substantive consequences before he left for FIU.

Taylor-Elkins was first put on administrative leave, but then moved onto sick leave, which – if I understand The Post’s article correctly – has been unpaid. This switch was made directly after Taylor-Elkins took her case to the EEOC last July.

Her son, who had been admitted to a grad program at OU, had his admission revoked after his mother filed her original, internal complaint. Taylor-Elkins has letters to substantiate this, according to The Post.

This is absolutely stunning. I have never heard of admission being revoked unless there were a proven charge of fraud or cheating in the application. You really have to wonder who brought pressure to bear on the faculty who’d admitted Taylor-Elkins’ son, and what form the pressure took. No faculty would be willing pawns in a game of revenge.

The whole thing stinks. I do not know if Lipman is guilty of everything as charged. I do not know him or any of the other principals in this personally; the chief investigator is an acquaintance, and I know enough about her that I would not impugn her integrity.

At the very least, Lipman was a first-class bully at a top-flight salary. He came in for a soft landing. Meanwhile, a vulnerable female employee who blew the whistle on his bad behavior has suffered. There aren’t many other employers in this town, apart from Wal-Mart and a couple of wonderful tech start-ups that mostly require tech skills.

I know rotten things like this happen all the time. It’s how Wall Street works. Our universities are supposed to stand for loftier ideals. Instead, they are aping the corporate structure, giving sweet deals and institutional protection to a small and not necessarily deserving elite, while janitors, secretaries, and adjunct faculty are losing their jobs. Blatant mistreatment like Taylor-Elkins alleges is just the whipped cream on top of this sundae of inequality.

(Actually, if we’re going to wander into food metaphors, “pigs at the trough” might be more fitting, but the next thing you know, we’ll be talking about making sausage, and I feel grody enough already after writing this post.)

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Most of the students I teach, I never hear from after the final exam. The exceptions are almost always utter delights – the folks who sincerely took interest, who liked to learn, who were kind and thoughtful and real. Every once in a while one will re-emerge from the ghostly wisps of the past, reminding us that our work isn’t ephemeral, even if it usually feels that way.

Two former students resurfaced this weekend. One, whom I taught in 2007, wrote me for a reference – no, not a recommendation letter, but the title of an essay! A piece she’d remembered and wanted to reread! Turns out she’s well on her way to a Ph.D. in psychology. She tells me my class made a lasting difference in how she views the world. Judging from her request, she’s got an abiding interest in sexual assault. I hope she’ll be able to marry that with her psych skills. She says she’s developed an abiding “passion” for women’s issues. Words like “powerful” and “inspirational” were bandied about. Let’s just say I’m the one who felt most energized and inspired.

The other ex-student was more of a monster rising up from the deep. [Edit: That comes across as unduly harsh: The ideas she espouses are the monster, not the ex-student herself.] Technically I’d never taught her; I’d only read her column in the school paper, marveling at its wingnuttery. I also listened to the venting of colleagues who had the dubious pleasure of teaching her in WGS and journalism. There, she was intermittently hostile to her feminist teachers and consistently too cool for school. I always thought her ambition was to become the next Ann Coulter.

Surprise! She’s publishing cheek-by-jowl next to Coulter at Town Hall! (Via Renee at Womanist Musings who braved the ooze of the far right – a far more intrepid gal than I.). Now that our young alumna is halfway to her goal, it’s fair to name names: Meet Ashley Herzog, recent Ohio University grad, proud denizen of wingnuttia, author of Feminists against Women. Oh, and she’s also making those lists of “top conservative women who are HAWT!!” (to which we owe the following photo).

In her latest post at Town Hall, Herzog takes aim at my university’s new gender-neutral housing option:

The idea that college life is so tough for gay and transgendered students that they need separate housing is preposterous. Far from being uniquely oppressed, the LGBT contingent is often the most catered-to of any group on campus. Administrators go to great lengths to satisfy these students while simultaneously nurturing a victimhood complex.

(Read the rest if you think it could possibly get better. I promise it won’t.)

Hahahaha! You’d think gender-neutral digs would feature jacuzzis, wall art by Robert Mapplethorpe and Judy Chicago, and surroundsound cycling through Liberace and Elton John, Holly Near and Bikini Kill.

No. Dude. It’s just a dorm room. In fact, said rooms won’t have any extra features. It will merely lack one simple furnishing that used to come standard: a roommate harboring homophobia and transphobia.

As for a “victimhood complex,” Herzog’s been nurturing her own for at least half a decade, spurred on by silly instructors who insisted she work for a grade. By now, her wounded victimhood is festering quite nicely. I’m sure she’s finding that what failed in the classroom will stand her in good stead at Town Hall. Ann Coulter, prepare to move over.

Me? I reserve the right to snark at Herzog in the future when she deserves it. (And she will, she will.) In the long run, I’m far more interested in what becomes of my smart, altruistic former students who don’t see self-promotion as their best quality.

Update 1-27-11, 4:30 p.m.: I want to make it crystal clear that I will never, ever mock students for statements they make in class. That is a zone of privacy, a safe place for exploring ideas, even (or especially!) half-baked ones. I will occasionally blog about interesting things they teach me, but I won’t publish their names. If a student places themselves in the public sphere by publishing views that are reprehensible, criticism is fair play. I still wouldn’t call him or her out for anything that happened in class. By the same token, I’ll link to any student who publishes something interesting, and I’ll do so with great pleasure. All of this goes for former students as well as current ones.

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It’s tempting to imagine that if we lefties and liberals ignored the likes of Ross Douthat and Will Saletan and Caitlan Flanigan, their influence would wither. Aren’t we the core audience for their publishers: the New York Times, Slate, the Atlantic? True, they provoke smart takedowns – I’m thinking of Jill Filipovic’s response to Saletan framing abortion as an abstract moral problem, or the way Amanda Marcotte decimated Douthat’s willingness to view women as mere incubators – but we end up making the same arguments again and again. It starts to feel like deja vu on Groundhog Day all over again.

How much more tempting to think we could wish Sarah Palin away! Via Skippy, we hear that Dana Milbank is calling on the rest of the media to break the Palin addiction. He’s pledging to not mention her for the entire month of February. (Ironically, Milbank is taking a cue from Douthat, of all people.) And the movement is spreading:

(via Leslie Savan at The Nation)

Skippy says he’s on board. Granted, I haven’t said much about Palin recently, but her name appears in 68 of my posts, which is about 7% of the total. Way back on September 7, 2008, I wrote a post called “Palin, the Object of Our Obsession.” Might I be due for Palin detox, myself? Besides, Skippy’s graphic is irresistible.

All bets are off, though, if Levi drops a bombshell or Todd runs off to Vegas with a showgirl dressed up as a sled dog.

Also, just for the record, even though I’ve got six more days before the pledge kicks in: I am positive Palin had no fucking clue about the origins of the phrase “blood libel.” She’s not bright or curious enough to even know what she doesn’t know. She thus wouldn’t have bothered to look it up. And once she knew (assuming she even knows, now!) she didn’t care.

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Maybe it’s just the lighting on the State of the Union podium. Maybe it’s too much tan-in-a-tube.

Whatever the cause – John Boehner’s skin appears several hues darker than Obama’s tonight.

(Photo of my TV doesn’t quite do justice.)

I keep thinking that with a tan like that, there must be pictures of Boehner in a bikini somewhere on the internet. So far, the google is failing me. If he were a female politician or a Kardashian, I’m sure I’d hit the jackpot.

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