Monday, March 24, 2014

Masquerade and Civilization

Over the course of a very busy weekend conference meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, that scholarly society had a ball.  Literally.  The Masquerade ball was the first of its kind, hosted by a small group of women from the Women's Caucus as a fundraiser for our scholarships and prizes for independent scholars and lecturers, graduate students, and those working on translations or editions. All these groups tend to be long on talent and short on cash. The event was an overwhelming financial success, thanks to the generosity of many donors, big and small, and the scrappy efforts of the organizing committee and volunteers who sold lottery tickets, masks, eye-patches, wigs, costumes, photo booth privileges, and admission tickets that evening. We should be able to fund our scholarship prizes for the next seven years. These are small amounts of money, but they make the difference between being able to go to a research library to look at documents, or to afford illustrations for your book, or not. It is an accomplishment that will have lasting, material effects in the lives of gifted scholars among us.

Financial success is, as ever, nice. But having my heart warmed, indeed, deeply moved by the energy and joy of so many brilliant minds gathered to celebrate each other and our shared interests took that evening outside the circuits of exchange, irreducible to values and equivalencies. Priceless. It was, for me, one of those rare moments of pure flow, presence, and communion with others. The collective I.Q. and knowledge in that room threatened to blow off the roof at any moment. That may sound like a mystical description of a dance party, but it's true. Ask anyone who was there. I saw (and all parties shall remain nameless) Mary Wollstonecraft, a Methodist minister from the cover of my last book, Belinda from Pope's The Rape of the Lock, and a full head-to-toe domino out on the dance floor.  I saw King Charles II with his spaniel shaking it to Rihanna and the Jackson 5 (this alone qualifies as a Christmas miracle). I saw handsome men in crushed velvet suits, in bright silk topcoats with lace, masked and unmasked.  I saw gorgeous women with powdered wigs rising 2 feet into the air, graceful in their watered silks, tiny-waisted, big-skirted, bolsters brushing on the dance floor as these visions, brilliant inside and out, laughed together. I saw graduate students, senior scholars, junior scholars, with their eyes all aglow because we took this leap together, bringing fantastic period clothes and other costumes along with our usual staid professional duds, packing lace and furbelows beneath the copies of our lectures and flattened by our laptops, and setting aside one night to enjoy the fact that we love the things we study and the privilege of studying them together.

Usually, Beyoncé isn't a part of that conversation, but that night, she was. The music, provided by a team of fantastic volunteer DJs (hey, this was a fundraiser on a shoestring budget--we even strong-armed the hotel into giving us the dance floor for free), moved from Telemann, Mozart, and Handel at the very beginning to Annie Lennox, Devo, Cyndi Lauper, then Pitbull, Scissor Sisters, and beyond. When those of us who organized the event were first making our plans, we wondered if anyone would come, and then, if they would dance, dress up, or participate at all. Let's just say that after a point, if you wanted space on that dance floor, you had to be pretty determined.  Hands went up in the air both because DJ Lauren was spinning Macklemore and Lewis and because, well, we could squeeze in more people that way. When we tried to make Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" a last song, it turned into a gigantic, throat-ripping sing-along performed by the best minds of my generation. But unlike Ginsburg's, they were refusing to be destroyed by the madness of our times: the attacks on higher education that describe the humanities as elitist or partisan and undercut our ability to educate the rising generations; the shrinking budgets that outsource the professoriate, tenure's quiet vanishing act; the difficulty of teaching our students to read the great novels, poems, plays, and essays of the past that will make them better critical thinkers, especially when they write about them with clarity and grace.

You could look at this night and say "sounds like a bunch of geeky academics having the prom they missed in high school." Go ahead; we made the same joke ourselves. But hear this as well: we were (and are) gorgeous, graceful, and fierce in the cause of a joy that comes from the life of the mind lived for the love of teaching and learning. And our feet hurt. But we'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Magic Words

The exchanges I've had with Senator Campfield this past weekend and the very strong response they generated have me thinking about words and how powerful they can be. Stunning as it may sound, I have come to believe that Senator Campfield and I may agree on something: that words are "magical." We disagree starkly, however, about how that magic works.

The Senator has been on the receiving end of the late-night comedy shows for a while now, a drubbing that began with the "Don't Say Gay" bill, otherwise known as S.B. 49. The bill would have restricted speech about homosexuality in schools, evidently on the premise that, as Stephen Colbert said, "if you don't talk about something, it disappears." Colbert's bit dialed into something about Campfield's talismanic approach to language, which grants words a terrifying degree of power over us. Our speaking (or not speaking) makes things happen in some primitive, mystical sense.  Like the origin of the curse, which retains its trace in our references to "curse words," an utterance is enough to strike down, raise up, or unleash horrors.

Here's the funny thing:  I agree that words have awesome power. Words have changed my life.  Reading George Etherege, Alexander Pope (shout out to my 18thC peeps), Judith Butler, the Bible, and Gloria Naylor were experiences that transformed me and that continue to transform me, as I bring new experiences and insights to the endlessly hermeneutic process of reading. Likewise, I've had conversations with students, with my teachers, and my colleagues that have made me see things differently. But those texts and conversations didn't change me because of some voodoo in the words before which I was helpless. They changed me because they allowed me to interact with other people's imaginations, perspectives, and ways of being. Through that process of interaction, I was able to discover new things about myself: what I thought, what I valued, what I love.

Campfield's desire to restrict speech, which is at the center of his most public bills, presupposes a scary verbal landscape in which one must take a defensive posture, or an excessively aggressive one, in order to be protected from words. It is a world of "avadacadabra," of verbal talismans and taboos. What that fearful stance shuts down is the beautifully arresting possibility that we might engage in conversations that change us, or clarify things, or make us think. We are desperate for civil discourse in this country so that we can renew civic discourse, in which we engage with actual ideas and wrestle with them, not each other. Our national discourse needs both respect and clarity in a condition of freedom. Yes, words shape ideas. But to fear this process is to fear thought itself and to alienate ourselves from each other.

Campfield seems to think there's not quite enough human agency to withstand words, or perhaps that freedom is too scary and overwhelming for mere mortals. So he responds to free speech as fundamentally threatening; ironically, he talks about it as "tyranny" and is willing to shut it down out of fear. I'm a good bit more optimistic about words, and I try to teach people how to use them well, with style, grace, thought, and yes, kindness. My teachers, Austen, Addison, Shakespeare, and Sterne, among others, along with those teachers I had the privilege to know in person, helped me to understand how to put my thoughts into words. They weren't magic words, but the experience of discovering them was magical. Jane Austen's matchless eye for human frailty, the chiasmus of the psalm that weaves together praise and lament, the elegant balance of the Johnsonian line, Sterne's fabulous brand of zaniness: they all matter to me deeply, both because of what these voices had to say and because of how they said it.  They brought me into the drenching rain of language that nourishes my heart and reminds me every day why I do what I do. Free speech is the guarantor of that project.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wrecking Balls: Campfield's SB 1608 and 2493

Hello world.  I'm new to blogging, but I was inspired to give it a shot after a recent exchange with Senator Stacey Campfield (R-TN), who represents the University of Tennessee, where I have been a professor for 18 years. Out of both frustration and a desire to educate others, I posted that exchange on my facebook page, and it proved to be very popular. With the bills going forward this week and Sen. Campfield up for re-election this fall, I felt that I should share it with a wider audience.

First, let me offer a little background on the exchange that follows. Campfield has been the sponsor of several questionable pieces of legislation, including the "Don't Say Gay" bill, a bill that would require school officials to inform parents if their children are gay, and reducing welfare payments to families whose children are not doing well in school. In light of these past efforts, Campfield's current bills, SB 1608 (which would allocate funds for university speakers by "proportional" membership in various groups, also known as the "size matters" bill) and SB 2493, a more comprehensive bill that would eliminate and ban all university money for speakers, might seem like garden-variety, anti-intellectual hostility to universities.  But as with so many other pieces of his legislation, these bills were motivated by objections to "Sex Week," a sex education week at UT that happened this past week. Sex Week seems to represent what Campfield fears most: the free exchange of ideas and perspectives, protected by the First Amendment. That fear is so great that he is sponsoring a bill to shut down money for all speakers; were it in effect, UT would not have had visits from Tom Brokow, Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, Bill Nye, Dr. Paul Farmer, and a host of other luminaries from architecture to zoology. No one would agree with every single speaker; indeed, I know no one who has the time to go to every speaker who comes to campus. The point is that UT is a university and hosts a vast array of conversations, with specialists from many fields. Hosting a range of conversations is part of what a university should be doing.

I contacted Campfield along with other TN Senators to express  my concern about these two very shortsighted bills, and I received these replies from Senator Campfield.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am a professor of 18th-century literature and culture, so Campfield was somewhat ill-advised to include a decontextualized quotation from Thomas Jefferson, which he appears to have found on BrainyQuotes or some such site.

And now, the email exchange:

Dear Senators,
I write to you as a parent of a college student as well as of a middle schooler, as a Tennessean, and as a teacher to ask you to oppose SB1608 and SB2493. These bills are far too sweeping and undermine the project of inquiry, First Amendment rights, and the kind of professional development we try to offer our students at UT.  Just this academic year, for instance, we were able to host Tom Brokaw.  Two of my students had the opportunity to interview him about his career as a journalist, and he was generous with both his advice and time.  This was a crucial professional development opportunity that would have been completely unavailable to them under the terms of these bills.  

Students at UT have chances to weigh in on what kinds of speakers and activities take place, they have chances to participate in a wide array of learning opportunities, and to debate with significant voices in a range of cultural conversations: novelists, political scientists, religious leaders, philosophers, business innovators, and more.  That is as it should be.  It's part of the strength of our American education system, and it encourages students to debate, develop their perspectives, and become better citizens. Please don't take that away from them.

I realize, Senator Campfield, that you are the sponsor of both of these bills, but I'm including you in my appeal nonetheless. I urge you especially to reconsider your position and to consider the free and secure future of UT.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.  I will be watching with great interest to see how you all vote, and I implore you to vote down both bills.

Misty Anderson

On Mar 8, 2014, at 11:04 AM, Stacey Campfield wrote:

While I support diversity of thought at the university. What is currently in place is not diversity. Sadly, when you look at a list of the paid speakers for the university the vast majority are from one point of view and balancing points of view are minimized.

Truly, more balance is needed.  The current committee that decides who gets funding is @35-4  from one point of view. And they fund accordingly. The current system also does not allow for changes to the committee because new members to the committee are picked by the current members on the committee. It is impossible for diverse points of view to get a fair hearing. Instead, It is "two lions and a lamb deciding on what to have for dinner." That is not a system that creates a diverse menu. In fact it eats the minority points of view.

To make sure all points of view get a fair opportunity to be funded I have proposed two bills.

The first would say all fees for optional political type speakers should be optional to join or not. No one should be forced to pay for speech they find objectionable. Current student tuition and fees are high enough. People are graduating in incredible debt. There is no need to heap insult on top of injury. If they wish to hear speakers let them decide by joining and paying the speakers fee. If not, they should not be forced to do what they find objectionable. Forced speech is not free speech. It is the oposite.

As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said I couldn't agree more.


If a student wishes to pay the optional student activity fee for speakers then those fees should be dolled out on a fair basis so all points of view get a fair hearing. To do this, I think the best way is to allow the students themselves to decide by joining clubs that interest them and allowing funding to be dolled out on membership basis. That way, if say college Democrats have 50 members and college Republicans have 50 members both would receive a fair share of the funding. If it were to tilt to 60/40 democrat leaning, the democrats would receive a larger proportion but not a 100% per portion. Diverse points of view would be heard and have a fair shot at receiving funding.

As I have said from the beginning, I still stand ready to negotiate the system details but leaving things as they currently are is a non starter. We need diversity of thought and not tyranny in action.

Yours in service,

Sen. Stacey Campfield

On Mar 8, 2014, at 12:12:09 PM EST, "" wrote:

Dear Senator Campfield,
With all due respect, I had a hard time following your reply because it was full of sentence fragments that did not make clear how one idea flowed from and logically gave rise to another.

Your claim that the current committee is "35-4 from one point of view" is a mystery to me.  What is that one point of view? And how is it that you can claim that the vast majority of speakers on campus are "from one point of view" when they have addressed so many different issues and topics? How can one say that points of view are to be calculated? Most thinking people hold a range of points of view on many subjects.  Are you alluding to two-party politics? If so, I would submit that such a designation hardly summarizes all possible points of view, and to imagine a world where it does is deeply disturbing to me as a citizen and an educator.

You then say that all fees "for optional political type speakers should be optional." How are we to determine what speakers are political and which speakers are not?  Was Tom Brokaw political? Is a visiting novelist like Elizabeth Gilbert political?  How would we calculate the "interest" represented by such speakers? I would hate to restrict that representation to the number of journalists or novelists in the student body. The bill pertains to all speakers, who can hardly be screened only on their party affiliation.  But on that subject, let me offer an analogous question: I often find your speech objectionable, yet my tax dollars fund your salary.  May I opt out of paying the portion of your salary that I pay, particularly since your speech is not only objectionable to me but has binding consequences on my life as a citizen, unlike open debates in which I can choose to participate or not?

What was it that Thomas Jefferson said?  Because that sentence is actually a fragment and not a complete sentence, it is not at all clear. I am  not being a mere grammarian about this fact; it is significant because it is fundamental to clear meaning. Thomas Jefferson said many things I cherish as examples of wise and thoughtful statesmanship, in spite of his actions as a slaveholder.  Here are a few of my favorites:
    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
    "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people.  They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
    "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
    "Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty."
I would hope that we could find a zone of agreement on this important Enlightenment thinker, who was a staunch supporter of both education and free speech.

To conclude, I am writing back to you because I am distressed both by your approach to micromanaging the process of speakers at UT and other universities and your failure to comprehend the consequences of your own bills, which seem to have more in common with a totalitarian nation's approach, rather than a free country's approach, to public discourse.  Curiously, you claim the opposite is true, calling the current system "forced speech" and even "tyranny in action."  But you, sir, are the one in the governing position.  I would suggest you reconsider the language of tyranny and how it reflects on your own position in the legislature.

Misty G. Anderson

On Mar 8, 2014, at 12:49 PM, Stacey Campfield wrote:
To compel a man to furnish money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical

March 8, 2014 2:00:02 PM EST

Dear Senator Campfield,
Context, so often, is everything.  The short quotation you have pulled is from Jefferson's 1779 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (not passed until 1786), which was an argument for more free speech, as well as freedom of religion, by prohibiting the state support of the clergy and state tests for office based on religion or lack thereof. Accordingly, it proposed that "the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical" not "assume dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible."  Jefferson's own position as a Deist inclined him strongly to realize that both the state and the church can conspire to compel and restrict speech and behavior in ways that are anathema to free people.  I quote the 3 sections of the act for your convenience, with some of the more relevant selections bolded:

 SECTION I. Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
SECT. II. WE the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
SECT. III. AND though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Misty G. Anderson
Professor of English