Monday, April 30, 2012

Road Trip, Days 5 and 6, April 28 and 29, 2012

Road Trip, Days 5 and 6, April 28 and 29, 2012

It was cold as hell on April 28 and hot as that same brimstone place on April 29, For festival purposes I'll take the cold, even the really cold. The cold was garnished with the odd sprinkle of rain and was covered by an overcast sky that at most let the sun peek through from time to time. It being Saturday, and in the shank of the festival, the cold, though quite hard to take, seemed to give people buoyancy in their step and a sharp good feeling. Contrarily, the beating down heat of Sunday, so hard to take, became one leg of a three legged stool of melancholy, the other two being the gloomy day of Sunday itself with the Monday work week beckoning and the it being the last day of the festival, a festival in the works for a year, with so many people dreaming it for a year. 

Again on Saturday Sharon tended to stay put while I went into the Wilkes Community college buildings to see a thumb picking workshop and then a slide guitar workshop. They were fine and directly after I caught part of a day's worth of acoustic blues bannered, "The Greatest Acoustic Blues Show On Earth" which had been organized by the non pareil guitarist Roy Book Binder. He looks like he's a waiter in a New York Deli or your waggish Uncle Morty, his face festooned with an oversized mustache and marked by a perpetual wry and knowing New York style  three quarters grin and one quarter smirk. He's got a gravelly voice and a tough street smart sensibility. He studied under the famed Reverend Gary Davis,  a Piedmont country blues guitarist who migrated to New York where he became the beloved mentor to a whole list of aspiring young white blues guitarists. For all his street roughened ways, Roy Book Binder plays the acoustic blues guitar like an angel when he wants to and like the rocking devil too when he wants to.

Stefan Grossman then took the acoustic blues stage, a good friend of Roy's and also a pupil of Reverend Davis. Both he and Book Binder are entirely unadorned, entirely without pretense, both wryly funny, at complete ease with an audience and knowing of their own extraordinary musical competence. From that knowing--and of course from that competence--come an emanating strength and self assurance, an equanimity that allows them to be effortlessly playful and commanding on stage with no need to prove anything to anybody. On stage together they might seem Borscht Belt Wise guys with their Yiddish inflected New York humor. But then they start in to playing and it's "Oh My," the audience to a person wishing they could just play on and on.

 I then go back to the  to see the grizzled Tony Rice and his band. He's an icon of what's called the "Newgrass Revival" revival brought about in the early seventies by that generation of artists who began playing what might be an analogue to bebop in jazz, a kind of progressive bluegrass in which they departed from tradition to play whatever they wanted with whatever configuration of instruments they wanted. A lot of these Newgrass guys were hell raisers too. And Tony Rice looks as grizzled as a man whose wild ways have overtaken him can look. Five years younger than me--I'm 39, he looks at least thirty five years older, with no speaking voice left to speak of, let alone a singing voice. But he's no less a player and he surrounds himself, as do all the main artists at Merlefest, with world class musicians. I enjoy his time on stage.

After Tony Rice comes a rather sad scene. Doc Watson, now 93, and a klatch of his former play mates, so to speak, and former friends of Doc's son Merle, including Sam Bush, T. Michael Coleman, Little Joe Smothers, Davis Holt, Mitch Green and John Cowan just to name a few, appear on stage together to celebrate Doc and Merle.  Not meaning to demean Doc Watson, and in fact lauding his picking at 93--it's amazing what he can still do--but still he's more figurehead than anything else among his former protégés. And, so, he soon becomes more background than foreground. While his play mates' affection and caring for him are obvious, I sense he gets in the way of their playing and, paradoxically, their celebrating of him Merle. They have to keep repeating what key they'll play their next song in till he finally gets it and he keeps looking for the picks he wishes to use, his calling to them ignored or unheard by the others. He is a spectral presence among them, a virtual ghost of himself. I wondered if it was me overreacting and over interpreting all this but, unsolicited by me, Sharon noticed it as well and said so. 

The Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile are the penultimate act of the very cold Saturday night. I can only say I has never heard of them before but  maybe they performed at the highest level of musicality of the whole festival . They played both inside and outside but their outside, unlike Bela Fleck's, made intuitive sense to me, for its exploration, humor, sheer musicality, and vibrantly compelling playing and singing. There was for me no sense of outside playing merely for the novelty of it. And unlike Bela Fleck's group, they moved seamlessly between each mode of playing and played traditional bluegrass with love and sincerity while also exuding an attitude sharply foreign to bluegrass, even in the innovation and "progressiveness"  of the Newgrass Revival, and that attitude is unimpeachable ironic cool.  

What is it about bluegrass that since its inception, like jazz, it attracts such brilliant musicians who can play any kind of music anywhere they want?

If it was cold Friday night, what with Sharon turning blue and all, Friday's cold had nothing to say to Saturday night's cold. I talked to our lodge proprietress, Ashley, who has a B.A. in anthropology from Appalaichan State University and an MA in Appalaichan studies and is now making it in high country real estate, and she put it well in her Carolinian drawl: "I'm a mountain girl but Saturday night was cold. I couldn't hardly take it." And so a dilemma attacked us: abiding the cold or leaving matched with staying to hear the superb Tedeschi Trucks Band featuring the great blues and soul singer Susan Tedeschi,  a rocking singer with a raspy big voice filigreed with honey and her husband Derek Trucks a blazing electric slide virtuoso who channels Southern Rock as per the Allman Brothers, not least because he's the nephew of Butch Trucks a drummer for the Allman Brothers Band and one of its founding members.

To digress some, about 15 years I was in a record store in Florida and saw a CD by her called Just Won't Burn. She looked blonde and pretty on the CD cover and I liked the selection of tunes. I had never heard of her but I figured "What the hell." I bought it and was blown away buy her ferocious singing. As for Derek Trucks, he was making waves in blues and rock circles as a teen age electric guitar pheenom. I took my whole family, my kids weren't quite yet teen agers, if I'm remembering correctly, to see him at Toronto's infamous El Mocambo and, needless to say, his fiery playing was sensational. Whenever either of them came to Toronto, I tried to take them in. And then I heard they were performing together and then I heard they were married. I saw them both at the Bishopstock Blues Festival in Exeter in the early nineties with my running buddy James Rose. Their appearance there was unexpected and an absolute delight. Seeing them headlining Merlefest this year was an equal surprise and thrill and represented to me a certain circle in my experience nicely closing.

That booking, by the way, is a proof of Merlefest's festival brilliance. Tedeschi  Trucks is pretty far from bluegrass in that band's full on, electric, hard driving Southen rock complete with horn section. But I take the position that authentic rock and authentic rock and roll, including classic doo wop, are all folk musics and as such are part of good American popular music, as distinguished from the ersatz crap that gets so much attention and as distinguished from the effete purists who got upset when Dylan went electric and maintain their quaint purity to this day. Merlefest and its musician revel in rock and roll, jazz and the blues. Doc Watson in a North Carolina minute would do a BB King tune or a work of art that some of his celebrants said was written by America's greatest poet Charles Berry, also known as Chuck Berry.

Anyway, digression over, we balanced the cold against Tedeschi Trucks and split things down the broad middle, suffering for their art but only to a point, leaving after the band had done a few good long numbers. I guess you could say we were chillin' but literally. And then we were gone. I had to admire the freezing-be-damned of the tens of thousands who stayed to see the band to its end. Maybe in my younger years, maybe being there with a guy like I did in 1991 with James Rose, I would have stayed till the end too and for the partying after too. But not now at 65 and not now with my wife. Truth to tell I was happy to get outta' there when we did.

 Sunday, as noted, was a hard day for the heat, for it being Sunday, in Camus's sense of Sunday as the loneliest, gloomiest day of the week and for it being the festival's last day. We leisurely got to Wilkesboro around noon. As the day wore on, the late afternoon lengthening shadows seemed precisely to measure the lengthening melancholy setting in. And so a certain double mindedness struck me as being evidently in the air. There was the same boundless enthusiasm for the big name closing acts--penultimately Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives  (who live up to their name); and then last, but arguably most, Alison Krause and Union Station featuring perhaps the world's greatest, seemingly effortless, and understated, Dobro player, Jerry Douglas and featuring too, at least to my mind, the wonderful voice of her mandolin/guitar player Dan Tyminski. (Another YouTube suggestion, check out his haunting Man of Constant Sorrow, classically done by Ralph Stanley.) Tyminski's version is its own thing of beauty. 

All that is one of the mindednesses.

aBut the other simultaneous attitude was the sheer sadness of the festival ending, mitigating what would have otherwise been the unalloyed appreciation of these magnificent closing talents. But I shared none of that double mindednesses. I loved the festival but for whatever reason was not a whit sad that it was ending and was quite pragmatic about leaving before Alison Krause finished, albeit to my tolerable regret, to make sure we got to our car and  outta' there without getting hopelessly mired in the departing tens of thousands.  As to my essential single mindedness about the festival's closing, well Sir, what can I tell you?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Day 4, Road Trip, April 27, 2012

Road Trip, Day 4, April 27, 2012

So I've told you a little about Merlefest and our first partial day at it. Now with landmarks deeply set in my head, and me the master of our mountain, so to speak, driving to and fro's a snap.  So we make a leisurely morning of it, grabbing a small complimentary breakfast in lodge, making some small talk with our lodge mates, a scaredy cat retired secretary and her software selling husband from the outskirts of Raleigh in North Carolina's "Triangle" consisting of Chapel Hill, and a couple of other towns., They were so unnerved by the prospect of driving at night they for $150.00 hired a limo service to take them and bring them back from Merlefest.. That never entered my mind so there was no need for a visit from my mother to the inside my head on that score.

Before hitting the festival we did a quick drive around Appalaichan State University, and we're again impressed by its expanse and the fine buildings harboring its wide offerings from a magnificent gymnasium to the fine arts and theatre building, with all sorts of diverse academic buildings in between. The campus again fortifies my sense of the amazing state by state college and university structure within the United States, from the humblest community college to the great American universities of world repute.  Sharon noticed how when we drive along how often we are met with so many signs proclaiming college or university  X or Y is just so many miles away. We have nothing like that in Canada and we both theorize it spells how inveterate universities and colleges are to American life, something quite different to how we take them in Canada. I think American collegiate sports play a big role in this. Canadian collegiate sporte are as nothing in comparison.

Merlefest we get around 11:30 am and take our reserved seats and set ourselves up. I'm not going to describe parking about 1/2 mile away and paying " taiyn" bucks a day for it because it's not that interesting including me parking beside the guy with the modest Volkswagen, who was so stressed out at the possibility of me banging my door into his when I opened it that that occasioned about 5' of my time reassuring him and calming him down (and that I'll never get back no matter how many lifetimes I live.)

Sharon tends to stay put and watch whoever comes on the main stage. I'm slightly more adventurous. I take in James Nash of the Waybacks giving a workshop on "Making the Acoustic Guitar Rock." He's a good looking kid in his thirties, I'd bet, who has trouble meeting women the way I have trouble drinking water. He does a lot of technical talking that's beyond me but he's engaging and a clean, fast picker and I enjoy the tunes he plays. 

Then it's back to the main stage to see Wylie and the Wild West, featuring the cowboy singer Wylie Gustafson who sangs, yeah sangs, and plays cowboy songs, a distinct genre, beautifully. He does a few songs that he wrote, trying in his words, "to capture his Montana lands and life in words and music." One of his songs, about how he needs to get away and just commune with the wild isolation of the land and how he gets intoxicated and high and stoned too on what he apprehends. Absolutely resonatingly beautiful.  And he's a yodeler to boot. It's rather wondrous the yearning and sadness he evokes, especially after explaining a bit different styles of yodeling and what each style intends to convey. 

Then we see Peter Rowan and The Free Mexican Airforce. How good a singer is he, you ask. Here's the answer: he was a lead singer with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. As they say here in the high country, "Well Sir, that ain't bubkes." He and his band sang and played beautifully. (The song I could've lived without, mind you, was the extremely long one lamenting the land stolen from the North American Indians, accompanied by a tom tom rhythm and some simulated Indian chanting.) I rather insistently and persistently recommended to Rowan after his show, "How about a song about  expropriating their asses, so they can fit into North American society and live equal to the rest of us schmucks." He said,   "I'll get back to you on that. Don't call me. I'll call you." Then I heard him talk to someone about how quickly could they get a restraining order. I wonder what that was about and who may have been bothering him.

I after that caught a little John Hammond who sang the blues and told stories in his inimitable way. He's a Hammond of the Hammond Organ Hammonds and isn't too worried about where his next meal is coming from, especially in his typical cashmere pants, multi thread soft Egyptian cotton shirts, alpaca sweaters, brown alligator skin loafers and hair, thick and gray, by Gucci. So you'd think it funny him singing and playing about the dirt poor country blues. But he absolutely pulls it off, with a passion that belies how wealthily dressed he is, really how wealthy he is. In a sense, he's the Mitt Romney of the living bluesmen: he's absolutely unashamed of how wealthy he is and believes that any concern over it is a distraction from his art. And he's both right and a snappy dresser.

Now Bela Fleck, I don't get. He was next on the main stage. He's playing with his original quartet including him. I'm tired of saying, with fake enthusiasm, "Yeah, he's really great." I'm sure it's me not him but all I hear, for the most part, is a bunch of weird sounds that have no melodic line I can make out, no perceptible rhythm, no hook, nothing lyrical, nothing emotional, nothing I can remember. I'll concede the chops, but to my ears it's essentially outside playing for the sake of novelty and sounding different, as if the only good road is an untrodden one. "Bela," I say to Bela, "tell me Bela, what's wrong with a little trodding?" Then I saw him and Peter Rowan exchanging knowing looks. "What's that about?" I wondered.

I will say there were two superb things about Bela Fleck's appearance. The first was the phenomenal playing of his returned to the fold harp player the world class Howard Levy, whose unmitigated blocking technique lets him on a small diatonic harmonica play in any key, what other players need a chromatic harmonica to do. What he can extract from what used to be called a "Mississippi Saxophone," beloved by bluesmen for its sound and its simplicity and cheapness--treat yourself and go tomYoutube and listen to anything by Sonny Boy Williamson--is jaw dropping. So that was a marvelous delight.  The second was a solo, finally, by Bela Fleck himself in tribute to the recently died Earl Scruggs. It was sensitive and lyrical and even impish with a little of the Beverly Hillbillies theme thrown in, which Scruggs was famous for having played for the show. It's to lament that Scruggs is far more widely known for that than for his high art and innovative banjo playing.

After the solo, I turned back to my overarching Fleckian question: why play all the emotionless outside playing, when a thing of such beauty is so right there to be played typically and not atypically? It was getting very cold. I could tell as Sharon only seldom turns blue. The deep, dark North Carolina mountain night was upon us.So we missed Sam Bush and then Los Lobos and I drove us back to our lodgings with nary a problem except for bouncing off a bear and making a baby deer so mad from almost hitting her she gave her baby deer's version of the finger. Where do these kids come up with these things when they're so very young? I'd  really like to know.

But so ended another day.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Day Three, April 26, 2012 Continued

Road Trip, Day 3, April 26, 2012 Continued 

A post script from day 3: we finally got to Merlefest as I noted. It was its first day and after the long, hairy drive, inertia had beckoned and we were tempted to skip the first night of the first day and just stay in this lovely lodge we'd lucked into in Boone, North Carolina, home to, and doesn't this sound poetic, Appalaicha State University, originally Appalaicha State Teachers College, now a 17,000 student state university and a good one. We had a beautiful room at the inn, a common sitting room with a working fireplace; it was cold and dark with night hinting it was coming. Something wrong with a little reading by the fireplace, or, heaven forbid, watching television?

But NOOOOOO! The lovely, soft spoken, slow drawling, slightly matronly, more sexy, middle aged blonde lady behind the desk who checked us in--I was wishing the check in would've taken hours, so much did I like her way of talking--had to go and tell us Vince Gill was headlining that night at 10:00. At $100.00 per day for the tickets, my mother's "stop fucking around voice" got the good better of me, and to Sharon's imperceptible chagrin--her mother wasn't my mother--off we went, driving down our new found correct mountain road to the highway and another 35 miles to Wilkesboro, home of Merelefest, noting landmarks--blue lit car wash sign, Bubbles Car Wash, a Country Inn, a Toyota dealership--to guide us a back, a return trip that was an altogether shaky proposition.

Well sir we got to Merlefest and had our reserved seats for the Watson Stage, named for Doc Watson, a 93 year old, blind, popular music musician, a multi instrumentalist and fine singer, whose head should be data mined for all the tunes and songs and lore and stories he knows and stored in the Smithsonian. The festival itself is named for his son Merle, a superb musician in his own right, who, in 1985, died from his tractor overturning in the Wilkesboro area. (Doc Watson lives in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Watauga County, here in the Blue Ridge high country, more crossroads than town, just to give you some specific local favour through the magic of naming.)

Doc and some of Merle's friends in 1988 decided to do a small bluegrass and roots festival in Merle's honor on the campus of Wilk Community College,a junior college, and the players shifted between the indoor Walker Center to a grassy field where players set up on flat bed trucks and used the flat beds for their stage. From that humble beginning it has evolved into perhaps the world's biggest blue grass and popular music festival. The festival allows no liquor, Wilkes is a dry county, no tobacco, is insistently kid friendly and families oriented, and is brilliant for that. 

The crowds in the main are friendly and happy, VERY predominately white, and span class and age, mixed of a lot of what we used to call "granola crunchers," working class men and women, and upper middle class professionals essentially populating the reserved seats. What seems to bind them all to a man and woman is their love of the music. Nearly everybody is happy and genial, most from the immediately surrounding area. So I'm in talk heaven, stirring up any conversation I can with anybody willing to talk to me about any little thing. That southern way of speaking, slow and easy and gentle, captivates me. I can't get enough it.  And matching the audiences' love of the music is the pervasive excellence of the many performing musicians, the best in the world at what they play. As if Merlefest is a living, breathing, organic, dynamic Hall of Popular Music Fame.

So, as I say, we got to Merlefest and mother's banging in my head faded away. We were blessed to hear Dudley & Vincent, a fantastic and fast rising bluegrass band, with a bass singer Christian Davis of Alabama, who has the deepest bass singing and speaking voice I've ever heard. The musical aplomb was extra terrestrial: the mandolin player, a fat man, Jeff Parker,  played the mandolin faster than any man I ever heard; the banjo player, a 21 year old kid, whose name escapes me, didn't, blessedly, play too many notes too quickly, and so was a tasty player; the group harmonies were just a lovely thing; and the country stage patter was self deprecating, easy and funny. 

Then Vince Gill in his all laid back, comfortable-in-his-own-skin glory and fame. After one particular song, he said, "Thank God I can sing in high register here, something that doesn't go over well in country these days. But I don't care. I live in a real nice house paid for by me singing like a woman."  Trouble was driving back to our lodge was starting to freak us both out and the effects of this extraordinarily long day really took hold of us. So we left about half way through Vince Gill's fine set and set to getting back. We were the only ones on the unlit highway save for the gleaming cats' eyes in the middle of the road. And then wouldn't you know it, it started raining, yet again, and hard. Jesus, you'd think we were being punished for something, and I'm stressed out trying not get to lost yet again and trying to find the lodge. 

But guess what?

The landmarks worked. We found the tiny, winding mountain road running off the highway and crawled along till we got to the lodge road, fought like wild beasts whether to turn left or right, turned right, right was wrong, we yelled at each other some more, I turned around, SOMEHOW, on that sliver of a road with ditches running beside it on both sides, and got us blessedly back, got in showered, and slept in fresh sheets on a good mattress in a comfortable room, and felt GREAT.

Road Trip, Day Three, April 26, 2012

Road Trip, Day 3, April 26, 2012

Today the theme was driving under radically imperfect conditions. We drove from Morgantown to Boone, North Carolina, going east and south through West Virginia, hitting the Appalachians, then east and south through a thin, long Appalachian slice  of Virginia, then along a spidery web of connecting country roads in Virginia and North Carolina before we got to Boone. 

An upside of this truckin' along was the spectacular vistas of spots along the Appalachian highways that overlooked expanses of green and treed valleys and bodies of water. Also fantastic were the concrete ongoing glimpse into American backwoods life as it's lived, the ramshackle houses, the patches of lawn being worked over by by some wiry skinny, hunched over, grizzled, massively bearded old guy, his dog chasing the car as we drove by, school buses dropping of clutches of kids in front of several of these houses, the kids scrambling off the buses and into their homes thrilled to have done with school for the day, like all kids everywhere, Baptist church after church, sign after sign proclaiming Jesus as savior, stepping into a tiny shack of a structure to pay for gas eked out rusted pumps that had seen better days,  wondering if the place even handled credit cards, standing in a short line behind overall clad guys paying for tobacco, pork rinds, and a few bottles of sugary soda pops, with all the by playing drawling, soft voiced chatter friendly and gracious, stepping up myself to pay and noting the woman behind the counter was typically obese, but very much liking her on the spot for her smile, the kindness and nice sense coming from her, her solidity, the twinkle in her eye, and all this just from her taking my credit card, processing it and asking me to sign. Come to think of it, these scenic vistas and concrete instances of local backwoods life were wonderful upsides.

The downsides included massive rainfall, sometimes chased by high mountain winds and outstripping our wipers' ability to give us functional  visibility, none of which was helped by patches of wispy fog which fortunately never blanketed us or lasted too long, or not helped by the narrow, twisting and winding mountain roads for that stretch of our route, for which we slowed to a crawl. Also tough were the constant road changes our route imposed on us with the names of the roads barely made out, or not at all, or changing as we drove them, compelling our occasional guess work. But we made our destination and only got lost, mildly ironically, trying to find our hotel, the Yonahlossee Lodge, buried in the mountainside just off Poplar Grove Road, with a 300 yard turn to the left on the Schuller Mills Road. But eventually we found it in all its resort splendor, with a large, tree clad mountain expanse forming the acreage as its grounds, only after stopping four, count em,' four different nice North Carolinians for directions and one even kindly checking the location on her computer. 

I love the soft spoken drawl of of people here and will talk to anybody about the smallest anything just to hear its music. Now a day later, rested and settled into Merlefest, I wouldn't 't trade that sometimes harrowing 8 hour drive for anything on the world except the return of my youthful good looks. Too tired now to talk for the moment about Merlefest but I'll try to if I can this daily account going.

I'll only say that I watched a little tv before I went to sleep and heard Jay Leno describing how Joe Biden always puts his foot in his mouth. He was speaking at NYU about Teddy Roosevelt walking softly but carrying a big stick. "I can guarantee you, " says Biden, "Barack has a big stick." 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 2, Road Trip, April 25, 2012

Road Trip, Day 2, April 25, 2012

No driving today, thank the powers that be, just a day to do whatever we wanted in the cool college town of Morgantown, West Virgina, seat of the two main campuses of WVU, West Virginia University, the town's biggest employer and whose student population of about 22,000 undergrads and about 8,000 graduate, post graduate and professional school students are equal to the about 30,000 non school Morgantownians.

It turns out that our hotel is just across from a building housing the WVU administration office. And the kid who drove me to Walmart yesterday so that I could buy the belt I forgot to pack--don't ask--as hotel service and who was a senior at the university suggested we take a college tour. So at 10:10 am after having roused myself from my lair--changing history is tiring; and, it seems, it's not made in a day--and before my breakfast I sauntered into the admin office and signed up for the 2:00 pm tour, deciding that the 10:30 am one just wasn't doable. 

So breakfast was had and I'm stunned at how healthy it was: hot oatmeal garnished with dried red cherries, egg whites, a plate of fruit, and then less healthy a side order of burnt bacon. I felt squeamish telling our black waiter that I wanted the bacon so crisp that it was as black as night. But I went for it. And it was good. We then walked briskly on an ascendingly warm and sunny day on pathway running alongside the Monongahela River, quite the other end of the river spectrum from, say, the mighty Mississippi River, for at least Morgantown's portion of it. Polluted and fetid it was and host to only one item of wildlife, a solitary duck who seemed quite downcast and alienated from his habitat and wishing for clearer streams and maybe a few female ducks to make things lively. 

At a certain point, we climbed from the path up a steep walkway to the street where were immediately adjacent to the university. Afternoon tour notwithstanding we walked up to the campus, wandered about a bit, found the bookstore which housed a Starbucks, got some $8,000.00 drinks and sat in the sun observing life's passing student parade.  I started a conversation with some kids sitting near to us and rediscovered that it was "dead week," a week of no classes before exams to allow for studying and finishing due papers. Rediscovered because my Walmart driver had mentioned it the day before. I also had a copy of the student newspaper, The Athenaeum, which I believe is a daily.

One of the articles had it that dead week is the most stressful week of the student year and that:

...Several classes are administering exams this week, even though the WVU dead week policy forbids it. Since most finals are comprehensive and worth more of a student's grade than previous exams, there should be ample time for preparation. Studying for a comprehensive exam takes more effort and time as compared to regular exams given throughout the semester... 

 If students are having trouble during finals because of exams, quizzes and major projects being due the week prior, then more students will perform poorly and will be more likely to drop out. If the University were to strictly enforce a dead week policy it would be for the benefit of the students and WVU. Students don't need to be babied and given special treatment; they just need a fair opportunity to succeed...

An argument ensued: my position was, "You've got to be kidding me, complaining about other academic things going on during this week. You've got all semester to do all your studying and get your essays written. What's with leaving things till the last minute and then complaining that the last minute--isn't pure enough free time for you? Think of how much time you waste during the school year partying and what not and then tell me about the unfairness of some work and test piled on during "dead week.  I told them that when I was in school we had no dead weeks and not only that but I walked 10 miles to and from school without shoes in the rain and and snow, and that was for courses I was auditing, so much did I love learning. My disputants really had no answer to my substantive point and rather believed my story about my barefoot trekking.

We hustled back to our hotel after that intense polemic just in time for the two o'clock tour led by a heavy set, black junior named Charyssa, who spoke so quickly and indistinctly that it was very hard to understand her. We took a two hour tour of the two campuses about a mile between them and I must say the student amenities, athletic facilities, libraries, department diversity, and school spirit were most impressive.

A preponderance of students were waring sweat or tee shirts adorned in the school colors, gold and blue, many of them celebrating the twin princes of football and basketball. West Virginians, having no  professional teams, make a religion out of their college teams and sports has a royal place of pride in the university's pantheon of what is prized.  I occasionally read articles in the New York Review of Books about the blight on academics of college sports, how non academically performing athletes are pampered and greased through their schooling, how sports drains away valuable dollars and resources, how they're a distraction from the university's core academic mission. 

Clearly these authors have never been to WVU and like schools where sports reigns supreme. For all their arguments, the sheer and overwhelming reality of sports on campus means "like there's no way" their arguments will see the light of any foreseeable day. And I must say after a couple of hours of immersion in the intensity and pervasiveness of school sports and the school spirit it generates, the articles, their arguments and their authors seem somewhat desiccated to me. 

An interesting topic on the tour was college costs. West Virginia, a very poor state, has in state tuition for undergraduates of about $6,000.00 a year, with out of state tuition at triple that. Just by comparison, UCLA resident tuition is $12,686.00. Maryland in state tuition is $8,000.00. Princeton tuition, a private school, is $38,650.00.  I've been to Ivy League campuses and there's no seeming comparison academically to what's available at a Princeton and a WVU.  But for my money, barring near to full scholarship or something so extraordinary about my kid that only a Princeton or a Stanford or a MIT or a Cal Tech would do, I'd pick a state school in a New York minute, and I'd pick the school of the state I was in to avoid the trebling cost. Graduate school or professional school may present different considerations. But for an undergraduate education, private school costs radically to my mind outweigh their rather intangible benefits. 

So, in a nutshell, I came away impressed by WVU and what a small poor state could put together and on offer. I remember once being on of these trips to Rhode Island, which has Brown University as well as its state university. WVU reinforces my impression of what a wondrous American thing it is that all 50 states have their state schools, each with tremendously trained faculties of scholars an teachers spectaculourly offering the enlightened diverse wonders of the world to their state's and other states' and really the world's youth. For all the problems with American student debt and with all the challenges coming from the on lining of higher education, I still think what's on collegiate offer in America is a miraculous achievement.

Tour ended, hotel bound we were.

She who must be obeyed stayed put and I met an on line commenter from The New Republic, who lives in Morgantown, for a pleasant dinner filled with intensely interesting conservation, which my energy level compels me to leave simply at that. Tomorrow it's on the road again heading for both Wilkesboro North Carolina for Merlefest and and Boone, North Carolina, half an hour away for a place to stay for the next four nights.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Day 1 Road Trip, April 24, 2012

Road Trip, Day 1

I thought I'd keep a log of a sort of my days on the road so that future historians might mine them for treasures of historical understanding of our life and times and how history is being made as I eject my few humble utterances. So at 8 am on April 24th, when I had planned to leave at around 7am, my wife--here named Sharon, which is code for Sharon--woke me by telling me it was 8 and had already left and driven for 20 minutes till she remembered I was to go with here.

She says she thought about it and decided, finally, after weighing a number of pros and cons, to go back and get me. At her clarion summoning, I neck sprang out of bed at 8:23 am, spent 10 minutes soothing the sprain in my neck from the spring, and then packed, dressed, washed up, had a bit of a bite, loaded my car, and at 9:15 am we were on the road again.

This first leg of the trip proved uneventful. It seemed to take forever to get out of Ontario and into the great state of New York. I seem to have met up with everyone known to drive a truck in and to Ontario. The U.S. border guy looked formidable packing heat and wearing his Cool Hand Luke, prison guard Ray Bans. Naturally, I was as polite and timid as I could be, not letting on my intent was to change history. Eventually he let us pass but not without the subtext that we had better "watch it." I mentioned these impressions to Sharon. She thought, as she usually does, that I was out of my mind.

We drove South to where the 190 meets the 90 and then headed west towards Pennslyvania and turned south on the 179 just before Erie and drive and drove. I talked Sharon out of stopping at mallish conclave of restaurants and gas stations and we drove some more looking for a similar mallish conclave but found none and finally turned off the road for some gas and a bite, got the gas but the fast food choices in dirt track Southern Pennsylvania were so depressing that sitting in a MacDonalds for even 15 or 20 minutes was 15 or 20 minutes were never going to get back, no matter how many lifetimes we lived. So we got our boot heels wandering outta' there.

We were past Pittsburgh anyway. Getting past it breaks the back of the trip from Toronto to West Virginia, so it was, so to speak, all downhill from there. So we turned east a spell and finally got to the beautiful rolling hills and forest clad piedmonts of West Virginia and at around 4:45 pm got to our first destination, Morgantown. But I have to backtrack a bit.

What's a road trip without attending to what you're listening to. We alternated among sometimes plummy and sometimes Rachel Maddowish perky NPR, classical music and some fifties Doo wop until we listened to a 55 minute CBC Ideas interview with David Frum and then another one with Deirdre (formerly David) McCloskey.  Frum of course is a fairly well known in certain circles, as Grace Paley would say, as a moderate, thoughtful Republican commentator, thinker, pundit and writer. He traced his own movement to conservatism from his own very liberal parents, trying to put flesh on the thesis he borrowed from Robert Skidlesky that we are, if we think try to think through the world, affected more by our times than by the immediate intellectual environment of our growing up. 

Frum came of intellectual age in the seventies, he recounts, when the big liberal solutions augured in by the reaction to the Depression and the end too of World War 11 were starting to fail domestically and internationally, and the intellectual ferment was on the right. One example he cites was the victory of Friedman's monetary policy approach to Keyne's governmental spending approach to deal with the seventies stagflation.

Frum argues that intellectual policy currents move from problems to problems, solving one set of problems, inevitably ushering new problems in their consequence, requiring then new policy solutions and so this kind of proaction reaction dynamic goes on. Frum says now the intellectual ferment seems on to be on the left but holds that ideas on the right--limited government, individual initiative, innovation, entrepreneurial genius fueled by markets, the bourgeois virtues,  strong national defence and the like- are best for the long term. Frum said the reason he doesn't move to Canada is that he's steeped in the American debate and fulfills himself arguing for, and trying to lend his influence for, his conception of a moderate conservatism and Republicanism.

From Frum to McCloskey is a natural transition. She's a plain spoken full professor at the University of Illinois teaching, what a bouquet, economics, English, communications and history. She was at the University of Chicago in the days when the monetary policy Frum describes took began taking hold. She's a self described libertarian of the motherly type, not each for himself type but one, like Hayek, wants a social safety net to buoy the worst off but insistently wants to escape the tentacles of a entitlement prone, welfare society. So she doesn't have, as Frum doesn't have, doctrinaire views about keeping taxes excessively low on the wealthy or about never raising them. 

She makes two specific arguments of note, the first enhancing the conditions for the second. More, I suspect, economic historian than pure economist, her first point is that even before the enlightenment Northern and Western European countries made what she calls the " bourgeois deal." Under it society increasingly accorded farmers and laborers and tradesmen dignity and freedom to do as they would in all the "lys"--personally, culturally, socially and economically. Other areas of the world had comparable economic conditions to Northern Europe but no such deal was then struck. The deal was a unique and contingent happening. It arose, inverting Hegel and Marx, in virtue of the increasing rhetoric of freedom and individual humanity. Her argument is that that, and any such, rhetoric comes into the culture via the arts and given the proper contingencies prevails. So the deal was struck: the according of dignity and freedoms to the bourgeoisie led to there payment in return: the unleashing of their innovative genius. Innovation is

McCloskey's second point. It is unleashed by the space given to them by their side of the bargain and as described by the classical liberalism. Innovation, and hence it's enabling conditions, form McCloskey's "golden goose." She is optimistic about its possibilities today and heralds Schumpeter's idea of "creative destruction."  While expressing compassion for those bearing the brunt of economic transformation in the lessened need American need for "strong back labour," she sees relentless innovation as the engine of broadening economic possibility. 

Her argument continues that the bourgeois deal led to the growth of what she calls the  "bourgeois verities," values such as thrift, trustworthiness, enterprise, diligence, risk taking, innovating and the disciplined forbearance to implement innovation and like virtues which are necessary to productive commerce and capitalist success. Hence her recent book, the densely argued The Bourgeois Virtues.

In heralding them, she joins Frum's extolling of the values and ideas which he argues underlie conservatism and neo classical liberalism. Finally,  consistent with her argument, she fears the present public rhetoric of doom and gloom as holding within itself the seeds of a self fulfilling prophecy. Andy like Frum she sees herself as fighting the doom and gloom, as fighting for a buoying art of optimism and as a voice in the army fighting for a burgeoning future.

Thus endeth the backtrack.

We wound up in Morgantown's best hotel, absolutely nice enough, settled in, went for an introductory walk about and went up and down High Street, the town's main street. There was a mix of students walking about, the legions of fast and cheap food places, mixed with a seeming impoverished citizenry, predominately white, poorly dresses, many obese, and the downtown reinforcing my impression of West Virginia as a poor state, and one particularly devastated by the recession and the loss of laboring jobs, McCloskey's arguments notwithstanding.

Overarching theory is one thing; the harshness of consequences are something else. We had a bite to eat on a deck overlooking the Monongahela River and then headed back to our hotel and not long after, around 10:30 pm were asleep afte an incredibly full day.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tendentious Account of the Humanities

Can the Humanities Be Saved? The university’s core mission has been corrupted by pedagogical and political orthodoxy.

by JANICE FIAMENGO April 22, 2012 - 12:00 am       

When I finally landed a tenure-track position at a Canadian university, I was ecstatic and full of hope — exhilarated by the opportunity to teach students about literature and ideas and to have conversations with colleagues equally in love with literature and ideas. I didn’t realize that my experience as a university teacher of English would have much less to do with these passions than with the distortion of the university’s core mission in the name of pedagogical and political orthodoxy. To begin with, the student writing that came across my desk left me aghast.

I had taught before, but I was unprepared for the level of illiteracy, the stunted vocabularies, near-complete absence of historical knowledge, and above all the extraordinary apathy of many English majors. The most basic of expression rules — the difference between it’s and its, the incorrectness of “would of” for “would have,” the role of the apostrophe or semi-colon, the fact that “a lot” was two words — were beyond the grasp of the majority, no matter how often I reviewed grammar or devised mnemonic devices. And the sheer sloppiness and muddled thinking in the essays, where the titles of poems and authors’ names were frequently misspelled and dates were wildly inaccurate, suggested a fundamental indifference to the subject matter.

Not only was my students’ writing appalling, but I soon encountered their resentment at being told about it. “Who are you to tell me I can’t write?” was the attitude — once expressed in those very words. More than one student insisted that her other teachers had always rewarded her with high marks for her “creativity.” Most believed themselves more than competent. After sitting with one young woman explaining the cause of her failing grade, I was befuddled when her only response was a sullen: “This doesn’t exactly make me feel good.” When I responded that my job was not to make her feel good, she stood haughtily, picked up her paper with an air of injury, and left my office without another word. In her mind, I later realized, I had been unforgivably cruel.

I was up against it: the attitude of entitlement rampant amongst university students and nurtured by the utopian ideology that permeates modern pedagogy, in which the imposition of rules and identification of errors are thought to limit student creativity and the fostering of a hollow self-esteem takes precedence over the building of skills on which genuine self-respect might be established. In the Humanities subjects in particular — and in English especially, the discipline I know best — such a philosophy has led to a perilous watering down of course content, with self-validation seen as more important than the mastery of specific knowledge. With this philosophy has come a steady grade inflation.

The majority of students in English courses today can expect a B grade or higher merely for warming a seat and handing in assignments on time. The result, as I soon discovered, was a generation of students so accustomed to being praised for their work that when I told them it was inadequate, they simply could not or would not believe me. They seemed very nearly unteachable: lacking not only the essential skills but also the personal gumption to respond adequately to criticism.

When I mentioned my dismay to fellow teachers, a number were sympathetic, sharing stories of student resistance and unwarranted smugness. One told me of her humiliation at being hauled before the department head by a posse of disgruntled students who alleged that the grades she had awarded were at least 5% lower than their average, and must therefore be raised to correspond with their accustomed level.

Rather than laughing them out of his office, the department chair undertook to investigate the matter, informing the instructor that if the allegation was found to be correct, her marks would have to be revised. In the end, the case was not as straightforward as the students had claimed and my colleague’s marks were allowed to stand, but the damage to her sense of authority — and the outrageous notion that a professor’s marking could be determined by precedent and forcibly harmonized with previous grades, regardless of quality — had already taken effect. Other professors with whom I spoke were not so sympathetic.

They stressed the personal challenges students faced at university, the need to consider so-called alternative pedagogies to pique student interest. In other words, the problem was mine if students did not “feel good.” One colleague suggested — when I complained that not a single student had read the assigned novel on the day we were to begin discussing it — that I should show a film on a related subject for a change of pace. At a professional teaching workshop designed to re-ignite one’s teaching passion, I was told that group discussion need not be stymied by the fact that students came to class unprepared; a student who had done the assigned reading could explain the reading to the others in the group so that all could participate and benefit.

The message was clear enough: being hip and cheerful and expecting little and demanding nothing were the keys to happy classroom encounters. And student happiness — not commitment to the subject — was unquestionably the goal. As Mark Steyn analyzed in his recent book on the decline of America, the emphasis on a vacuous therapeutic empowerment of the student body has led to a drastic lowering of expectations in North American post-secondary institutions. Students now read less than ever before for their courses, and professors are under increasing pressure to evaluate students in non-traditional ways (i.e., outside of tests and essays). 

The burgeoning number of students who register with a disability complicates evaluation: teachers are expected to accommodate invisible learning problems — their nature undisclosed due to privacy considerations — which mandate that they provide extra time on in-class tests, refrain from imposing late penalties, provide their lecture notes to students, or allow them to write exams on a word processor. The emphasis in hiring decisions on student evaluations of teachers — see, for example, the public website “Rate My Professor,” in which students’ often crass assessments are posted for all to see (“She’s hot!” “His voice puts you to sleep”) — makes it increasingly attractive to instructors to earn popularity, or at least to avoid attack, by giving high grades and making their courses fun rather than demanding.

As traditional content is removed from courses, it is often replaced by non-academic material, specifically a devotion to “social justice” that masquerades as critical analysis despite the fact that the impartial weighing of evidence so necessary to such analysis is largely absent from its championing of victims. In books such as The Professors, David Horowitz has shown the dominance of Leftist activists at American colleges and “the extent to which radicalism at the very edges of the American political spectrum [has] established a central place in the curriculum of American universities.”  A recent report by the California Association of Scholars laments the widespread politicization of teaching, pointing out the extraordinary imbalance of liberal to conservative scholars at California universities (29:1 in the Berkeley English Department, for example), a situation that certainly applies across North America.

Many professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences devote themselves less to teaching their particular disciplines than to decrying the presumed crimes of the United States, sympathizing with Islamic terrorists and other violent dissidents, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist world order, and condoning plans for the destruction of Israel. As Horowitz explains, the radicalization of the Humanities and the decline of academic standards are closely related, with political commitment often necessitating the abandonment of scholarly integrity. Many teachers of English no longer care much about prosody or literary history or correct grammar because such subjects seem trivial beside the grand social struggles that claim their allegiance.

It may well seem more urgent to combat racism than to combat the comma splice, to analyze patriarchal privilege rather than Jane Austen’s irony; and when right thinking is more important than rigorous thinking, details can be overlooked in the cause of student enlightenment.  Combine this with an administrative emphasis on filling seats and a state commitment to student access, and one has the perfect academic storm, one that sweeps away scholastics and whirls in crude social engineering.

That many of my colleagues seemed sincere in their commitment to history’s underdogs cannot excuse the damage caused by their policies and by their skewed teaching practices — for their ideological convictions were often imported into the classroom, where a balanced overview of course material was sacrificed to the politics of “race, class, and gender.” Students learn quickly enough in such courses that success requires them to adopt approved positions: to be skeptical of Western nations’ claims to equality and justice, to understand their country’s history as a record of oppression, and to look with ready admiration at non-Western cultures, which they are taught to see as superior. 

 Young white men learn early on that history’s villains are usually white men. Lesbian identities, Aboriginal culture, and Sharia law are protected from critical appraisal by charges of homophobia, genocidal racism, or cultural imperialism. Instructors often choose the texts on their syllabus not to represent the traditional scholarly consensus on the important and best literature of the period but rather to represent a range of victim groups presented in noble conflict with the forces of social prejudice. Literature is taught not because it is valuable in itself but because it teaches students to denounce inequality and to empathize with victims, and to feel appropriately empowered in grievance or guilty by association. Indeed, some students become so immersed in

Leftist ideology — a kind of secret society whose code language they have learned in fear and trembling and now exercise with pride — that they believe it the only possible view of the world and have never seriously considered alternatives except as the deplorable prejudices of the hateful unwashed. Their conviction of rightness has revealed itself in a multitude of anti-intellectual and repressive behavior on university campuses across the country. What is to be done? De-radicalizing the Humanities will be no easy task, for the ranks of the professoriate are filled with instructors who see their primary responsibility to be that of advancing ideological goals.

True believers as they are, they will not be easily dissuaded from their cause, and dissenters from Left orthodoxy often feel overwhelmed, beleaguered, and under threat.  Yet saving the Humanities for genuine scholarship has never been more urgent, and it is heartening to know that articulate champions of reform such as Horowitz and others, including Richard Cravatts, Stanley Fish, and David Solway, continue to raise their voices in dismay and stalwart hope. Some day, perhaps, if the decline is not irreversible and if more courageous professors will stand against the corruption of the academic enterprise, departments of English might once again become places where professors and students pursue a love of literature.

Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).       

Thursday, April 19, 2012

George Will on Cosmic Constitutionalism

By George F. Will


Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a Reagan appointee to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is a courtly Virginian who combines a manner as soft as a Shenandoah breeze with a keen intellect. His disapproval of much current thinking about how the Constitution should be construed is explained in his spirited new book, "Cosmic Constitutional Theory: Why Americans Are Losing Their Inalienable Right to Self-Governance" (Oxford).

A "cosmic theory," Wilkinson says, is any theory purporting to provide comprehensive and final answers. The three jurisprudential theories Wilkinson criticizes are the "living Constitution," "originalism" and "constitutional pragmatism." Each, he says, abets judicial hubris, leading to judicial "activism."

Those who believe the Constitution is "living" believe, Wilkinson says, that judges should "implement the contemporary values" of society. This leads to "free-wheeling judging." So Wilkinson apparently agrees somewhat with Justice Antonin Scalia, who stresses the "antievolutionary purpose of a constitution," which "is to prevent change -- to embed certain rights in such a manner that future generations cannot readily take them away."

Wilkinson is right that judges are prone to misreading the values of the broader society. But even if judges read those values correctly, judicial restraint can mean giving coercive sweep to the values of contemporary majorities. That a majority considers something desirable is not evidence that it is constitutional.

One problem with originalism, Wilkinson argues, is that historical research concerning the original meaning of the Constitution's text often is inconclusive. This leaves judges no Plan B.

Constitutional pragmatists advocate using judicial power to improve the functioning of the democratic process. But this, Wilkinson rightly warns, licenses judges to decide what a well-functioning democracy should look like and gives them vast discretion to engage in activism.

Wilkinson's recurring refrain is that judges should be disposed to defer to majorities, meaning the desires of political, popularly elected institutions. But because deference to majority rule is for Wilkinson a value that generally trumps others, it becomes a kind of cosmic theory -- a solution that answers most vexing constitutional riddles.

Wilkinson's premise is that "self-governance," meaning majority rule, is the "first principle of our constitutional order." But this principle, although important, is insufficient and, in fact, is secondary. Granted, where politics operates, majorities should generally have their way. But a vast portion of life should be exempt from control by majorities. And when the political branches do not respect a capacious zone of private sovereignty, courts should police the zone's borders.

The Constitution is a companion of the Declaration of Independence and should be construed as an implementation of the Declaration's premises, which include: Government exists not to confer rights but to "secure" pre-existing rights; the fundamental rights concern the liberty of individuals, not the prerogatives of the collectivity.

The Constitution is a document understood -- as America's greatest jurist, John Marshall, said -- "chiefly from its words." And those words are to be construed in the bright light cast by the Declaration. Wilkinson worries about judges causing "an ever-increasing displacement of democracy." Also worrisome, however, is the displacement of liberty by democracy in the form of majorities indifferent to or hostile to what the Declaration decrees -- a spacious sphere of individual sovereignty.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Doctrine Of Incorporation And George Zimmerman: Excellent Editorial

Zimmerman’s Bill of Rights
Editorial of The New York Sun | April 16, 2012

No sooner did the special prosecutor at Florida file her charges accusing George Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin than the controversy erupted over whether the bringing of charges is the result of a rush to judgment. Some will say that the idea of a rush to judgment is ridiculous. It was weeks after the killing before the charges were finally laid, and then only after a national outcry that went all the way to the White House. But the concerns rocketing around the internet are not only from racists indifferent to the fate of the slain youth. The concerns are also being voiced by some of the most distinguished legal minds in the country, including Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz, who is a master of due process.

The question that has been nagging at these columns has to do with the decision of the prosecutor to bypass the grand jury. The so-called grand jury right, after all, is American bedrock, vouchsafed in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. It is stated in some of the plainest language in the whole Bill of Rights: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger.” So if a prosecutor wants to charge Mr. Zimmerman, why doesn’t the prosecutor have to go through a grand jury?

It turns out that the status of this part of the Fifth Amendment is still treated by the courts the way the whole Bill of Rights was intended to be by the American founders — as a curb on the federal government. It doesn’t apply to the states. The whole Bill of Rights was originally conceived of in that way. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .” is how the First Amendment begins. The italics are ours. It was a restriction on the Congress of the United States, which couldn’t establish a religion. The states, however, could, and some did, establish religions. The last disestablishment of state religion wasn’t until a generation after the First Amendment was ratified.

Things changed with the passage after the Civil War of the 14th Amendment, which came right after the Amendment abolishing slavery and was designed, at least in part, to enforce the end of slavery. The first part of the 14th Amendment says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It set the stage for a process called “incorporation” by which the courts began applying the Bill of Rights to the states. The courts have done so on a case-by-case — or a right-by-right — basis, and the process has taken time.

The right to keep and bear arms — the Second Amendment — wasn’t incorporated until two years ago. The case was brought by a man named Otis McDonald and several others against Chicago, which had tried to deny them the right to register a handgun. The question as it was put to the Supreme Court was “[w]hether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated as against the States by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities or Due Process Clauses.” The Supreme Court decided yes, advancing the application of the Bill of Rights yet another step more than two centuries after it was ratified.

Yet the Fifth Amendment right to a grand jury has not yet been incorporated. On the contrary, as far back as 1884, in a murder case known as Hurtado v. California, the Supreme Court ruled that the writers of the 14th Amendment did not intend to require states to enforce the grand jury right. So while some states honor this right to persons accused of a crime, others do not. Some offer the right to persons accused of some crimes but not other crimes. Florida is in this category. Had Mr. Zimmerman been brought up on capital charges, he’d have had the right to a grand jury. But because the degree of murder with which he is being charged is only the second and the maximum punishment only life in prison, he is not afforded the right to a grand jury. In Florida, it's an option that, in the event, was laid aside, and the special prosecutor herself made the decision on whether to charge him.

No doubt there are those who will point out that in actual practice, the Fifth Amendment’s grand jury right hasn’t provided much protection against capricious prosecution. A grand jury operates in secret. The accused has no lawyer present. The accused doesn’t face his or her accuser before the grand jury. A chief judge of New York State’s highest court, Sol Wachtler, once said that grand juries were so pliable that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”* But the record also shows that grand juries sometimes get their backs up when a prosecutor seems too eager or the facts are ambiguous.

This happened at New York in the case of Bernard Goetz. He was carrying a gun on the IRT, when he concluded that four youths were trying to rob him and he shot them. The district attorney of New York County at the time, Robert Morgenthau, asked a grand jury to indict Goetz for attempted murder. The grand jury refused. When new evidence was adduced, a second grand jury was called. It did indict for attempted murder. A judge then dismissed the charge. An appeals court reinstated it. At trial, a petit jury — meaning the 12 men and women who actually try the facts of the case — determined that Goetz was, in fact, not guilty of attempted murder, vindicating the judgment of the original grand jury.

Is this why the special prosecutor in Florida chose not to give Mr. Zimmerman the grand jury right? This newspaper is not a psychic. Nor are we suggesting that there should not be an aggressive pursuit of the question of whether Mr. Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was murder. It may well be for the best that the case will be heard in a full adversarial proceeding in open court, for no matter how it turns out, the killing has already turned out to be one of the most important criminal cases in American history. All the more reason, though, that this is precisely the kind of situation in which the right of the grand jury is at a premium. The way things are going it wouldn’t surprise us were the case of Florida v. George Zimmerman to illuminate the logic of incorporating the grand jury right to all persons held to answer for an infamous crime, even if they are being held not by the federal government but by one of the states.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

More On Sam Harris's Case Against Free Will

Suggested by a comment by Robert C. Priddy but much varied.

Harris argues:

“Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be ourselves in the world. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”

While I can’t control the contingencies framing my alternatives, I do choose among them, sometimes after deliberate weighing and sorting through them: their inherent merit, their morality, their efficacy, their consequences, their costs and their benefits and so on. Yet Harris finds physical determinism vitiating free will. For him, choice among alternatives is illusory.

Harris’ gets to physical determinism by his idea that every event has a cause leading to an infinite regress of preceding causes. I’d say, rather, we are subject to ongoing, dynamic interacting influences such that reductively isolating one event to one cause is missing the forest for one tree and is missing all the other trees by isolating only one of them. Understanding wholes—the brain, mind society, the will, free will, choice— requires transcending that isolation.

Can we not at some point without illusion speak meaningfully of freely willed human choice? After all, all explanations must end somewhere (in practice and in theory). So proving what causes what in the brain which then comes to mind will always remain an open question. But for Harris we are mindless automatons. But if we see free will as a whole with consciousness as its capstone then we need not reduce willed choice to the physical processes preceding it; and it need not make willed choice incoherent that contingencies impinge on our alternatives.

I may want to eat something but just before taking a bite I find out it’s bad for me. I then decide not to eat it on the rational calculation that the cost to my health outweighs the satisfaction of the food.

We should see the as a whole the physical activity leading up to conscious choice, which then takes into account new information that, after some simple reckoning, then alters my decision. Contingencies don’t vitiate the whole; neither do the preceding physical processes, which are inseparable from rational choice.

Harris arguing that that precedence and those processes comprise all of choice means he circularly defines free will away arbitrarily. Similarly, arguing we can never go back and do something different is no argument at all because going back is impossibility. In that sense, there are no do-overs. But there is no argument from their impossibility to the lack of real alternatives preceding choice from among them.

So free will can be seen as having options and distinguishing and so selecting one, (whatever circumstances behind the choice, including conscious intentions and subconscious predilections). That understanding makes free will relative to our control over our circumstances and ourselves.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Summation Of Allan Bloom's Closing Of The American Mind

A friend of mine's concise summation of Allan Bloom's argument in The Closing Of The American Mind:

....I would say there are two parallel themes, coalescing into one thesis.

First Theme

The first theme is Bloom's take on intellectual history. On his approach classical political thought was based on the idea that rational discourse could address questions about values, about what is the best society, the good life, and engaging in that discourse-- philosophy-- was the highest human activity.In contrast, modern thought (everything from chapter 15 of Machievelli's The Prince forward) was based an a lowering of standards--an idea that man should be taken as he is and society built not to improve him or allow the best to succeed but to allow people to live in accordance with their passions and emotions. (Machiavelli spoke of "Hannibal's inhuman cruelty and countless other virtues").

The classical view that rational reflection was the highest calling and that rational conclusions about the most important questions could be reached gave way to a modern egalitarian view that ideas, ways of life, and cultures were all equal, and that since conclusions about right and wrong could not be deduced from facts (the fact/value distinction), rational debate about values was impossible.

Bloom sees this as beginning with Machiavelli continuing through certain German thought, particularly Weber, and then being imported into North America, showing up in doctrines like historicism and behaviourism which became intellectually dominant in the academy.

Second Theme

This leads him to his second theme, the decline of higher education. An acceptance of classical thought was central to the idea of a classical education, because it was central to the idea that there could be great books (some books could be much better than others) and that we could learn about the great intellectual questions by studying the thought of great thinkers whom it was possible to distinguish from mediocre or derivative thinkers. Almost by definition, this type of education would not be open to everyone, as only some were capable of it, but a true institution of higher learning would support it as the highest endeavour, even if it was not useful and was elitist.

However the academy's acceptance of modern intellectual currents have led it to deny that there are great books and great thinkers or that the academy should be a centre for their study--in favour of a more egalitarian view that courses should be offered in everything and for everyone because there are no standards for distinguishing between them that are rationally defensible and that are not Eurocentric or gender biased, and in any event we should be suspicious of matters that cannot be acheived by all.

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten or Chicken Soup For the Soul are as worthy books as The Republic (who is to say they are not). And instead of being a place for the study of the permanent questions and values notwithstanding the passing whims of society, the modern view was that the university should reflect current tastes--it and everything taught at it should be relevant as defined by society's current fads.


Thus his thesis--the American Mind has thus closed to serious consideration of the most important questions, and higher education, by not opening minds to these matters, was failing American students...

A Note on David Remnick's King Of The World

I finished my belated reading of David Remnick's King Of The World. I thought it excellent, even though the prose didn't sing. I have a lot of thoughts about it but just to mention a few: I thought it was a great work of synthesis; I thought it excellent in its choices of what to highlight; for it being a synthesis, it was comprehensive; it showed how Clay, as he then was, was something in his style completely knew and radical; it set up brilliantly the key matches it highlighted involving Patterson, Liston and Clay/Ali; it showed Ali's tremendous heroism in refusing the draft; it was wonderfully synoptic on Malcolm X, The Nation of Islam and Ali's relation to them both; and finally I was moved to be persuaded by Remnick's indictment of boxing.yle completely knew and radical; it set up brilliantly the key matches it highlighted involving Patterson, Liston and Clay/Ali; it showed Ali's tremendous heroism in refusing the draft; it was wonderfully synoptic on Malcolm X, The Nation of Islam and Ali's relation to them both; and finally I was moved to be persuaded by Remnick's indictment of boxing.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Sam Harris's Ebook Lying

I'm reading Sam Harris's short ebook, Free Will, in which makes a case against its existence. I'm about 1/4 way through and a struggling to see something in his argument.

Like with his ebook, Lying, I find myself disagreeing right from the outset with the reasoning. But even though I disagree with Harris, as so far I do, I welcome his books and arguments and enjoy reading and thinking about him

His virtue, or rather one of them, is that he engages great themes in an entirely accessible way, making his thesis clear and then arguing for it in plain spoken and clear terms. You don't have to be an academic philosopher or an academic to get with Harris. So his books are great instances of public reasoning in a very good sense.

If anyone wants to bat around Harris's argument, I'd be happy to.

Part of my beef with it is so far that to deny free will because:

1. we don't have dominion over the brain processes and events in our experience informing them;

2. and because what we do can be mapped as interior processes before we do it;

is to reduce mind and choice to some of their constituents and thus reduce the whole to the part and is thus to embrace a denuded conception of free will.

As well, it's an odd argument that is so intensely untrue to our essential experience and conception of ourselves. Not for one minute does Harris, nor do any of us, in his gut and his true mind believe that he doesn't have free will and doesn't exercise choice.