Saturday, August 21, 2021

When Will a Show Get Today's Students Right?

I'm watching The Chair, because I'm an academic so of course I am (the Sandra Oh top billing isn't necessary, but it's nice). Most of the commentary I've seen on the show has come from academics, who give it the usual lovingly mixed reviews one expects when one's own profession is placed on the big- or small-screen (lawyers do this so often we've given up). The offices are absurdly big. There are no contingent faculty. Nobody is teaching an oversubscribed first year writing class. The old White men of the department would have gone to grad school in the late 70s and 80s -- they are far less likely to be scandalized by the teaching of sex in a novel than they are to be a little too enthusiastic about it. Being a department chair is less of an "honor" and more of a "massive headache someone has foisted upon them unwillingly." And so on.

But I want to ask a different question, and one not limited to The Chair: when will one of these shows stop doing today's students dirty?

The Chair isn't even the worst offender here -- that would be the current(?) season of Billions -- but it is certainly in the family. Hollywood has gone all in on a very specific caricature of the modern Gen-Z student: a bunch of whiny, self-indulgent and self-righteous identity activists who willfully take things out of context in order preserve a posture of angry, confrontational grievance. Every class includes some student yelling out "when are we going to talk about patriarchy!?" in a tremendously sanctimonious voice, to murmurs of agreement meant to evoke the incipient formation of a mob. Rallies feature speeches and chants that are pulled straight from a tumblr thread and any challenge is derided as verbal bullying or silencing.

It sounds familiar because it's the portrait of today's student one gets from reading any Free Beacon article. As always, it's not entirely coming from nowhere -- no caricature does -- but it's already grown intensely tiresome. I've said before how little it tracks my own experience with Berkeley students (a place where one might expect such a caricature would be most accurate). It's the epitome of a cold take that still thinks it's hot -- story after story of student boots stomping on Erika Christakis face, forever.

Is there any show set at a college that doesn't fit this template these days (putting aside those going with the far older template of "college students" are engaged in one giant party/orgy/frat rush) -- one that actually tries to deal with and present today's students as actually thoughtful, considerate, nuanced individuals -- at least normally? The closest I can think of -- and I haven't seen the most recent season -- might be Dear White People, which is not perfect on this front either, but certainly is putting forward a far more genuine effort. Beyond that? I'm drawing a blank.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Thinking of Refugees First

A not-so-modest proposal:

The next time the United States commences a large-scale military incursion into another nation (and let's be realistic, that will happen again -- perhaps because it will be genuinely necessary, perhaps because we never do learn our lessons), someone in Congress should attach a rider to the authorization bill that preemptively opens up America's immigration process for persons fleeing from that country in the wake of the hostilities. The longer we're there, the more migrants we agree to accept -- as a pre-commitment, not a slapdash farce as we race out the door.

It probably won't pass -- hubris is a hell of a drug -- but at the very least when Congress votes to begin a war members should be forced to think about what happens when it ends.

Monday, August 16, 2021

For the GOP, It's Trolling All the Way Down

Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), responding to the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, asks what he calls a "serious question": "Is Joe Biden capable of discharging the duties of his office or has time come to exercise the provisions of the 25th Amendment?"

Biden can justifiably take his share of lumps for the Afghanistan pullout. We can talk about how Trump set the wheels in motion, we can talk about how the military leadership screwed the pooch, but Biden is President right now and so the ultimate buck stops with him. But saying he's mentally incapacitated and needs to be involuntarily removed from office? Seriously?

Well, not seriously, but perfectly expectedly coming from someone like Rick Scott. Yet not everyone agrees with me on that score. CNN reporter Ryan Nobles, for example, says that such a call is "startling" coming from Scott: "Scott is a major Biden critic, but not a flamethrower."

For my part, I'm startled that Nobles, who watches politics for a living, is startled. As Brian Beutler notes. Rick Scott tried to overturn the election -- this isn't even the first time this year he's spuriously decided that Joe Biden cannot be allowed to serve as President because he doesn't like him. What could be less startling?

That Rick Scott is trolling is utterly unsurprising, because trolling is all the GOP is capable of at this point. To be clear, I don't think Scott actually thinks Biden is mentally incapacitated. That's not what's happening here. Rather, it's "I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I" directed at the calls to invoke the 25th following Trump's encouragement of the January 6 insurrection. Those were serious, this is not, but that's the point: the fundamental unseriousness of Scott's call is meant to make the entire discourse unseriousness -- the sort of thing only trolls do -- and so retroactively make the suggestion that the 25th might have to be invoked to stop Trump from literally destroying American democracy the stuff of trolls too. Tit-for-tat, both sides do it. 

The same logic applies to the resonance with the "sleepy Joe" narrative Trump ran on in 2020 (and the parallel claim that Kamala Harris would be the true power behind the throne): it's meant to be absurd, smirking, winking, because in doing so it suggests that everything is absurd, smirking, and winking -- even that which should be deadly serious. That was Trump's genius as a political actor, and the GOP is nothing if not Donald Trump's party. What Sartre said of the antisemite applies to Rick Scott, and virtually the entire Republican Party, as well:
Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

Perhaps Nobles is surprise because he views Rick Scott as falling pretty far down the line of the GOP troll depth chart. He might be right -- the competition is stiff -- but that only illustrates just how deep the GOP's bench is on that axis. Rick Scott doesn't stand out as a GOP troll, but that's only because among the GOP trolling has become so normalized being a troll doesn't stand out anymore. 

In short: when it comes to frivolous, unserious taunting, the GOP is trolls all the way down. A political reporter like Ryan Nobles should have figured that out by now.

UPDATE: Paul Campos makes essentially the same point.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Squad and the Afghan Interpreters Bill

For obvious reasons, the past few days have seen a lot of people making hay over the fact that "the Squad" voted against a recent bill which, among other things, funded an emergency visa program for Afghan interpreters to come to the United States. Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Jamal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) were the only Democrats to vote against the law, joined by five Republicans (Chip Roy (R-TX), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Bob Good (R-VA), Tom McClintock, (R-CA), and Ralph Norman (R-SC)).

I imagine it is probable that the Squad voted against the bill to make some sort of statement against the increased appropriations for Capitol security (which was the primary purpose of the law), not because of anything to do with the Afghan interpreters. That doesn't mean I feel especial sympathy for them taking bad press today -- they were clearly engaging a protest vote and, well, live by political theater, die by political -- but I am curious what exact point they were trying to make. Was it a "defund the police" bit -- opposing responding to the January 6 insurrection by funneling more money into security programs? Or else what?

In the meantime, I get the idea that America couldn't stay in Afghanistan forever even as the exact moment we left would always be wrenching. But the absolute least America can do for the people we're leaving behind -- not just the interpreters, but basically anyone associated with and friendly towards the American presence -- is to ensure our doors are open to Afghan refugees. Remonstrations about leaving or about having stayed too long can have their moment, but they need to take a back seat to a far more urgent need.