Text of eulogy for my dad.

I want to say first, thank you for being here to celebrate my father’s life.  As the poet Khalil Gibran wrote, “You would know the secret of death.  But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?”

 

He is right.  Death is impossible to understand by itself, unless we understand it as something defeated.  It is defeated by the life we all remember, and we remember my father as so many things: a man of the world, a consummate businessman, a man who would always choose what is right over what is easy, the most loving and fun dad that two kids could ever wish for.  Most of you know that my dad never got terribly flustered by anything — he once was upgraded to business class on British Air for being such a cool customer during a two-day delay — and he would just tell the story of what happened to him with his inimitable, gentle irony.  So in the last couple of days after his sudden departure, I’ve been unable to shake the feeling that he will be at the kitchen table the next morning drinking coffee, and saying of his passing: “Wow, that was weird.”

 

These memories ensure that, for us, he will never truly be gone.  But these memories depend upon our own existences, which are as tenuous as his was.  I know that my dad’s true hope was in something beyond just the remembrance we give him today.  In the Gospels, Christ tells us that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Once again, we can only understand death in its relation to life: it is the beginning of something infinitely greater than the life we have known.  We down here cannot know what that country is like, but my dad knows.  The last time I spoke with him on the phone, he sounded truly happy; he sounded like a man who understood the way the world works.  How beautiful it is to think that that was not his final happiness, but rather a mere foretaste.  

 

I wish we could do him justice with our words, but I know it is impossible.  So I will leave you with the last thing my father ever wrote to me, in a perfectly businesslike email: “adios mi amigos.”  It’s in the plural, so I like to think it was for all of us.  Please remember him in your prayers.  Thank you.

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Political Correctness?

I’m teaching Argumentation to my students this unit, and one of the things I’m emphasizing is definitions of terms.  In interest of that, I want to talk about this issue of “political correctness.”  I discussed this on another blog, but the issues surrounding this election (specifically the recent racial tensions on Baylor’s campus, on which more later) force me to break my silence again.

Let me make one thing clear.  One of the definitions of political correctness – which I suppose we could circumscribe as “mandated castration of vivid language to remove possibility of offense / dissent” – describes something truly vile, truly Stalinist.  When language as such is “policed” for conformity to a state-defined ideal, then language has died.  I could not agree more, and I oppose such silly coinages and “sanitation engineer” or “vertically challenged” as much as the next person.  They’re patronizing and not seriously used by the interest groups they are supposed to flatter.

However, I feel that something else is at play.  In the wake of Conservative punditry’s revolt against some of the sillier neologisms of the Left (and/or the academy – let’s talk about rhetoremes in homosocial discourse communities!  Anyone?) and of the election of Barack Obama, heralded as a neo-Marxist jacquerie even by members of our own Senate, some individuals are using this heroic stance against “political correctness” as a justification for all sorts of xenophobic slurs.  Uttering a non-politically-correct phrase becomes such a holy grail that pundits are now willing, from time to time, to simply throw (say) the entire population of the Middle East and North Africa under the culture-wars bus.  “Barack Obama is a terrorist,” they say, crying “foul!” when somebody tries to tell them that dark skin and passing acquaintances with U of Chicago education professors does not a Fedayeen make.  “Just look at the mandarins of PC trying to shut me up.  Well, I’ll tell it like it is, blah blah blah …”  No, you won’t.  You’ll inflame the passions of the electorate on both sides, making it more and more difficult to reconcile after the dust has settled.

“Barack Obama is an Arab,” they ignorantly declare, only to be told “no.  No ma’am.  He’s a good family man.”  The irony of that statement is intense, considering that values-focused white middle class “real Americans” have a divorce rate that dwarfs that of Arab nations.  That’s not supposed to be a value judgment on the two cultures.  It’s just ridiculous that “family man” is now the opposite of “Arab” in our culture.  It really, truly alarms me how much the American mind has united “Arab” and “Muslim” with “terrorist.”  It’s a hideous piece of xenophobia absolutely unworthy of polite discourse, the discourse of the “polis,” which is the ultimate root of that Political in Political Correctness.  Speech that is gelded by thought police is one thing; speech that is decorous and apt for the agora is another thing entirely.

Americans, our “polis” is made up of a lot more than white-bread, bourgeois, mainline Protestant four-person families.  Almost everyone I know drops out of these categories at some point.  Some of you don’t like this; some of you (and I am addressing pundits here, because I’ve only heard this from them, not actual friends of mine) wish that this were otherwise, that immigration had been restricted to white Europeans because they accommodate to our “values” better.  Check out the writings or statements of Tom Tancredo, Pat Buchanan, Rep. Virgil Goode, and others for this idea.  It’s quite real.  But listen: first of all, this is unjust because the Native Americans never got polled as to whether our Mayflower forbears adhered to their “values.”  Second, this is manifestly ridiculous from a historical perspective: I think it’s safe to say that more than half of my readership is Catholic, and have you heard of the Know-Nothing party?  They hated Catholic immigrants because guess what?  They didn’t conform to American values (and were probably spies for Catholic monarchies to boot).  But I’m willing to bet that you are glad to be living in the US now, and glad moreover that the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants have brought so much richness (and so many Cathedrals) to the cities of America.  I certainly am.  So: to push the boundaries of the debate to reflect skin color or some even more nebulous set of social memes, instead of religion, is madness.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction of fear on the part of whites: fear that someday, somehow, they will no longer be the dominant voice of the American Polity.  Well, I have news for you: cultures change.  People move.  Birth-rates adjust themselves.  But if you really think you’re going to be ruled by some Black Panther Politburo or a revanchist Aztlan-themed Mexicocracy, you might just want to consider being a little nicer to your future masters.  They may eat you second-to-last as a thank-you.

I think I just got onto a rant.  Oops.  Anyway, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re at least interested and will leave a comment.  I honestly don’t think anybody I know thinks this way.  If you happen to have written odious editorials, though, please take this to heart and think about the historical lunacy of your exclusivism.  And please, everyone, don’t use the anti-PC mantle of Orwell to justify odious things.  Right now Baylor students are using that very argument to justify the instigation of a shouting-match with African American students after the election.  That’s not anti-PC; that’s horrible.  Overtures toward our own mini-Kristallnacht.  Please join me in speaking up against these backward ideas, and oppose the real Political Correctness, not the kind that just means being civilized.

History and its discontents …

I was truly happy at the election results last night.  I think that our nation truly has made history, reached a landmark of tolerance, and rejected much of its racist past.  This may be the most important part of the 2008 election.

Furthermore, I am confident about foreign policy.  No, Barack Obama’s presence will not prevent other countries from acting like jackasses, but whichever way you slice it, America has a new face.  Even the tolerant young people of my generation tend, consciously or subconsciously, to “otherize” non whites in a host of (often offensive) ways, and by declaring with our votes that what we had considered “other” we now consider “us,” we also tell the rest of the world that there is hope for their marginalized status.  And by electing a man who values common ground so deeply, we have a chance to kick out the neoconservative hawks that have driven us into costly, irrelevant wars once and for all.  Hopefully neoconservatism will just go away before 2012; if so, I might remember why I was a conservative for so much of my life (even if I don’t exactly renege my apostasy).

A quick perusal of Facebook will show that I’m a minority voice among my friends.  That is, of course, what a democracy is all about — sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  But honestly, these status updates are killing me; we’re hearing things like:

X is lamenting the death of a Free America

Y is kissing all of his money goodbye

Z is lamenting the 30 billion babies Obama is going to murder

Q’s cells have been liberated from the Strong Force and have flown apart into the galaxy

W is pissed off and moving to Ireland/Italy/Canada (?) / Europe in general (?????)

Honestly.  What?  A couple of things I’d like to say: (1) your opponents have had to live through eight years of a decisively neoconservative president, and four of them were dubiously granted him by the Supreme Court.  Calm down.  It’s someone else’s turn. (2) The loss of your candidate is not the end of democracy.  It is, in fact, an inevitable part OF democracy.  (3) If you object to Obama because he is a liberal, good luck with the rest of the western world.  The United States is dramatically further right than any European country (with the possible exception of Poland).  If it’s social conservatism you’re looking for, may I humbly suggest Qatar?  Forget gay marriage; you won’t even see ladies shamefully exposing their ankles there. (4) You are not going to lose any money!  American leftist fiscal policies do NOT involve “taking everyone’s money” and “giving it to bums.”  It involves a graduated income tax, which we already have; increasing the grade will mean — considering that you are all young and probably middle class — that you pay LESS.  Okay?  Your savings is not going to be raided for the Soviet Common Larder.  Honestly, get over these puerile equivalencies between Stalinism and Nancy Pelosi.

Apart from these rather silly accusations, I’m completely aware of good reasons to oppose Barack Obama.  Nothing is certain in a democracy; I cast a vote for Bush in 2004 and wish now that I hadn’t.  I hope that won’t be true this year.  But I hope that the country will set aside its election-season divisions, just a little, and work toward a better reputation and a more just society that leaves nobody out in the cold, either suffering without insurance or dead in a ditch in the Middle East.  And I hope that everyone realizes how much more powerful grassroots activity is than the executive branch; so get out there and work for what you believe!

Usury 101: or, The Idea of a University, 2008 anno domini

Look for some more posts from me in the next couple of days; I’ve been away for a while but not through my intention.  It’s just the usual grad school travails keeping me away from the all-important world of the ‘blog.

What cannot wait to come out of my enraged head is a little comment on some horrendous, festering trends in academia.  My friend Sarah is taking a class on what passes for “Rhetoric and Composition” this semester and she tells me, from time to time, some of the horrors from the class’s textbooks.  I’ve harped on enough in the past about my opposition to the use of the University as a glorified job-training course, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.  But seriously.  Here we go.

One of these “textbooks” was trying to make the point that the classroom should focus on computer/technological literacy.  Big deal, right?  Well, when you realize that the reason for doing this is to “secure satisfactory employment,” you might begin to see my objections.  Here’s a bit from a description of a class from Florida State University:

CGS 2100: Microcomputer Applications for Business and Economics.  Course enables students in business and economics to become proficient with microcomputer and software applications that are typically used in the workplace …

Again.  If these students voluntarily enthrall themselves to a business school (I am just being cantankerous here, I jest a little) then this is fine.  But the author also insists, later in the book, that technology courses ought to be considered a full-fledged branch of the humanities.  There’s a problem with that.  If you look at state universities today you’ll see that in fact the humanities are just a branch of the technological and, as William Zinsser would say, “pre-rich” fields.  Namely, the “useless” branch that brings some sort of prestige, like the tiny “literary fiction” imprints of the massive publishing houses.  “Look, we do literature!  We’re credible!  Don’t consider the fact that 90% of our revenue comes from trashy romance novels and faddish diet books!”  The humanities cannot survive when “profitable” pursuits are grafted on to them; the profit margin simply widens until they are devoured.  Even Barack Obama, the particularly intelligent candidate for president, harps on how he wants to expand funding “for the hard sciences” at the University level.  Seriously, just the hard sciences?  Screw history, philosophy, anthropology, english, psychology, etc.?

The same goes for my own class.  We’re kept on something of a short lead, and while that usually gives me little reason for complaint, I’ve been urged more that once to replace a reading from the classics or even just from a more “literary” source with something from the newspaper.  Nothing against newspapers or current events – I happen to be a little obsessed myself.  But the election and the subprime meltdown you have not always with you.  Art and beauty, and the quest for truth, will hound us until we are wiped off the face of the earth (well, unless the current theorists have their way, in which case we’ll just be plugged into virtual reality machines and given continuous pleasurable stimulation).

Okay.  I never thought of myself as the wrathful “ubi sunt” type or a cantankerous traditionalist.  But seriously.  Is money really the only thing that matters to anyone anymore?  I’m just amazed that credible academics tout these theories; they seem more proper to small-souled, small-time lawyers or unscrupulous petty managers.

Joe Biden matters.

Apparently a record number of people watched the vice-presidential debates on Thursday, and I’m assuming most of them wanted to see if Sarah Palin would make it through alive (which of course she did).  Joe Biden, the democratic nominee, was somewhat lost in all the attention given to his opponent.

However, I think he’s quite important – and not only because surely anyone watching the debate who does not feel that Biden would make the more natural transition to the presidency should something happen to the candidates must have an ulterior motive – but because of his rousing answer to the question of whether, as Dick Cheney believes, the vice-president can act as “part of the legislative branch.”  Now, Palin said that she and McCain see a lot of “flexibility” inherent in the office, which amounted more or less to a “yes, we agree with Cheney.”  Biden, on the other hand, completely denounced the idea as flagrantly unconstitutional and an attempt to consolidate the “unitary executive” position by the Bush administration.

See what he’s doing?  He is literally claiming less power for his own position than either his opponent or the incumbent veep.  Not only is this rare, but it provides the strong distinction from the previous administration, which I think almost all of us would agree that we want.  Biden is important because he understands the government – not just as a Beltway insider, but as in “he is actually educated on the division of power in this country.”  And that’s an immensely good thing, if you ask me!

And on a somewhat tangential note, what is all this business bringing up Bill Ayers again?  The loss of Michigan seems to have sent the GOP into a tailspin of negativity …

O tempora, o mores!

I would like to illustrate, from my own life, the absolutely untenable relationship between wages and prices that is the norm in this beleaguered country.  The other day, at the Elite Grille on the Waco Traffic Circle (a place known to anyone who has driven through the town), I was charged for the ice in my bourbon.  The ICE.  One dollar for, as the receipt put it, “rocks.”  

They also charged me for the dessert that they had run out of, so I got that one stricken from the record.  But mind you, I’ve seen many other people complain about their restaurant experience, only to be showered with free food, gift certificates, Circiassian slave girls, and so on.  I, however, got nothing but a pedantic manager out to explain to me, as though I were the most pathetic of country simpletons, how there is more alcohol in the drinks that have ice.  Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that that isn’t actually true, but that rather this guy hasn’t even discovered displacement yet?  “Look, sir.  You’ll see, it is manifestly obvious that when I add these obloids of frozen liquid to your potation, the booze line undergoes elevation.  So how could we remain in business in this land of Opportunity if we did not charge you for the utterly obvious increase in liquid in your cup?”

And of course, my salary remains the same even in a world that charges you to put some ice in your drink.  Oh, the sacrifices we make in these trying times: I may have to begin taking my bourbon neat (or just ordering scotch).  Bernacke and Paulson, where is your 700 billion?  Is there room in that figure to buy me some ice?

“Deliciae Baylorensis” …?

I want to register a complaint.  No, this isn’t going to be a complaining post.  This is no great moral umbrage on my part, just a failure to understand.  There is not, to my knowledge, a single building open 24 hours on Baylor’s extensive, Palladian, be-columned campus.  I know because the maintenance worker who closes up the SUB every night and I are almost on a first-name basis.  Or at least, he calls me “Chief.”  “Closing time, Chief,” he’ll say in a jubilant voice, and while I want to remonstrate that he is denying me Wireless Internet, which has got to be on the Bill of Rights somewhere, he’s just so nice that I have to smile and wave goodnight, like it or not.  So the question is: how come my venerable undergraduate institution, with an endowment approximately the size of a good tip at P.F. Chang’s, was able to keep its student center open 24 hours, even in the bitterest, most lonely lacunae between terms?  And monstrous Baylor, with a budget that includes entries like “Bear Habitats,” “Artificial Bodies of Water,” and “Columns & Pediments,” can’t do it?  Seriously?

In other news, teaching college freshmen is both incredibly rewarding and tremendously exhausting.  I’d thought that I would be a nicely hard grader – not the sort who keeps you down in the mud with one be-tasseled foot while reciting a litany of your shortcomings, but just the kind who doesn’t flinch at issuing a couple D-minuses to shock everybody into “business time.”  Actually, though, just the concept of placing an objective value judgment on someone else’s thoughts (even the “thoughts” that one manages to gather at 4am the night before class, whilst still hung over from two nights ago) is proving terrifying.  Don’t let’s even mention the negative judgments.  But I’ll manage it somehow.  And I really, really like my students in general.  Sure, some of them are a pain.  But in a promising way.  I hope they all succeed; I really do.

The result of all the time I’m allocating to grading and such is that I’m currently trying to write a paper that proves that Hemingway uses France and Spain as analogues to the spirits of Lent and Carnival, respectively, and that he simultaneously does not do so.  Ample attention is being given to the Confessional Mode in Literature, to Moral Cartography, and to Tipping Waiters.  Yeah … this one is definitely going to the ALL NEW WRITING CENTER GOONS.  Just wait until you have to edit my rough draft, newbies! 🙂

Okay, time to go to bed and wake up all too early for last-minute lesson-planning/Common Grounds therapy.  Au revoir!