Canceling Subscriptions & Supporting Institutions

I cancelled my subscription to Foreign Policy yesterday afternoon, spurred by an email from FP about an upcoming auto-renewal charge. The quality of the print journal has been in decline for several years, no doubt due, at least in part, to structural challenges the publishing industry faces. I am sympathetic to that; I know firsthand (though at much smaller scale) how hard it is to keep a print publication going in 2018, especially when other outlets are giving similar articles away for free online. In that respect, I feel bad about this parting, because I believe sound, sensation-free journalism & well-informed editorial opinion matters, now as much (or more) than ever. Publications, like FP, that present issues in detailed, yet plain, language have an important place in our culture and provide valuable service to our society.

To cancel, the email indicated I had to call an 800-number during US East Coast business hours, Monday–Friday only, in order to deauthorize the recurring charge to my credit card. There was no way to cancel my subscription through my FP account, or through any other online account service portal. And that, I think, offers a counterpoint: FP s embrace of the web’s digital-first reality has been, well, modest. Yes, FP sent email digests from different desks.” Yes, FP is on social media. Yes, FP eventually started a podcast — in October 2018. (Mid-October 2018.) Yes, FP destroyed its RSS feeds (wait, that move was aligned with contemporary trends in web publication). FP s website redesign, hitched to a brand update, surfaced some content” & buried other pieces & voices while chasing the digital equivalent of glossy visual appeal. Despite being managed by the same publishing entity as Slate, FP wasn’t exactly giving me a compelling sense that it understands how an indispensable, yet boutique, publication needs to evolve in order to survive.

Striking a balance between supporting vital institutions and holding them accountable is never simple, especially in an era when our institutions seem particularly vulnerable. When the person who took my call asked why I was canceling, I said the journal’s quality had really slipped in the eighteen months. How do you send that message in a supportive way that still holds a publication to account?

What good could those subscription dollars do, diverted elsewhere?

media subscriptions

The President’s Lie

The President’s deceitful insistence that the death toll from Hurricane Maria is orders of magnitude lower than the Puerto Rican government’s official total of 2,975 deaths has me thinking about the following lines from The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,” the great anti-war poem by Robert Bly, published in 1970:

The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies,  
        the priests lie… .  
These lies mean that the country wants to die.  
Lie after lie starts out into the prairie grass,  
like enormous caravans of Conestoga wagons… .

And a long desire for death flows out, guiding the  
        enormous caravans from beneath,
stringing together the vague and foolish words.  
It is a desire to eat death,  
to gobble it down,  
to rush on it like a cobra with mouth open.  
It’s a desire to take death inside,
to feel it burning inside, pushing out velvety hairs,
like a clothes brush in the intestines—
This is the thrill that leads the President on to lie

        *   *   *

Now the Chief Executive enters; the press  
        conference begins:
First the President lies about the date the Appalachian  
        Mountains rose.
Then he lies about the population of Chicago, then he lies  
        about the weight of the adult eagle, then about the  
        acreage of the Everglades

He lies about the number of fish taken every year in the  
        Arctic, he has private information about which city is  
        the capital of Wyoming, he lies about the birthplace of  
        Attila the Hun.

He lies about the composition of the amniotic fluid, and  
        he insists that Luther was never a German, and that  
        only the Protestants sold indulgences,

That Pope Leo X wanted to reform the church, but the  
        "liberal elements" prevented him,  
that the Peasants’ War was fomented by Italians  
        from the North.

And the Attorney General lies about the time the  
        sun sets.

Bly’s poem was a scathing, too-true-to-be-surreal condemnation of Nixonian America. Reading it today, the poem seems less of a portrait of a bygone era, and more like a glance in a continent-spanning mirror.

45 America Nixon poetry politics Vietnam War

Butchering Badgers: Public University or Abattoir?

On Saturday the president of AAUP Wisconsin tweeted the draft of a revision of University of Wisconsin System’s administrative policy on program productivity,” a revision which mandates the obligatory elimination of academic programs not meeting certain productivity” criteria. The only criteria detailed in the draft policy is a minimum average number of graduates within a five year period1; it does not include (for example) total enrollments, total credit hours of instruction by program faculty, or high-enrollment service courses taught within the program’s array of courses that are subscribed to by multiple programs or that satisfy campus-wide requirements.

Worse, the draft policy appears to be crafted in a way that skirts any vote by the UW System Board of Regents, to which authority over the UW System’s program array is reserved by state law. According to Nick Fleisher, AAUPs state president & associate professor of linguistics at UW-Milwaukee, the positioning of the policy as a revision of UW System Administrative Policy — rather than as a Board of Regents policy — means it would need approval by only the System President, Ray Cross. Cross was appointed by Scott Walker in 2014, and has since presided over a $250 million cut in state funding, the gutting of tenure from state statue, and a contentious annexation of the UW System’s two-year colleges by some of the System’s four-year universities. This last project was planned in secret, or, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UW System president intentionally kept his plans a secret from campus governance groups so they wouldn’t be thwarted.” The chancellor of those two-year UW campuses found out about the planned elimination of her institutions not from Cross, but when the story leaked statewide ahead of Cross’ announcement. Cross has received no confidence” rebukes from several UW System institutions, including the faculty of both Research I universities (UW–Madison & UW–Milwaukee). Cross received another unambiguous upbraiding from UW-Madison’s chapter of AAUP earlier this year.

As AAUP president Fleisher observed, this policy is a major, direct attack on the faculty’s authority over its curriculum, and an end-run around faculty termination strictures already hollowed-out by the elimination of tenure provisions from state law. As former UW-Madison professor of Educational Policy Studies Sara Goldrick-Rab observed when she left the University in 2016, this is part of a larger plan to vandalize Wisconsin’s greatest asset: its public universities.2 Indeed, taken with the new tenure policy adopted by the Board of Regents in 2016 that included an unprecedented provision to lay off tenured faculty of discontinued academic programs, this draft policy appears to be the next step in a premeditated-in-secret, coordinated assault on Wisconsin’s public universities. Cross’ past actions, particularly his demonstrated contempt for shared governance & his secret planning of massive alterations to the public university system, suggest he should not be given the benefit of the doubt.

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge

And when he occupies a college,
Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

— W.H. Auden, Under Which Lyre”

Among the programs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison alone that would be targeted for elimination if the draft policy were in effect today (B = Bachelor’s degree program, M = Master’s degree program):

  • African Languages & Literature (M)
  • Afro-American Studies (M)
  • Agronomy (M)
  • Art History (M)
  • Biochemistry (M)
  • Biophysics (M)
  • Botany (M)
  • Cancer Biology (M)
  • Cellular & Molecular Biology (M)
  • Comparative Literature & Folklore Studies (B & M)
  • Engineering Physics (B)
  • Entomology (B)
  • Freshwater & Marine Sciences (M)
  • History of Science, Medicine, & Technology (M)
  • Horticulture (M)
  • Jewish Studies (B)
  • Languages & Cultures of Asia (M)
  • Latin (B)
  • Linguistics (M)
  • Music (M)
  • Music Education (M)
  • Neuroscience (M)
  • Plant Breeding & Plant Genetics (M)
  • Plant Pathology (M)
  • Polish (B)
  • Portuguese (M)
  • Poultry Science (B)
  • Scandinavian Studies (M)
  • Slavic Languages & Literatures (M)
  • Zoology (M)

Were this policy currently in effect, UW-Madison would be expected to submit a plan of action to remediate the low producing [sic] program” within one semester; if that deadline were not met, UW System would begin the governance process for program elimination.” Under the current administrative rules referenced in the draft proposal, UW System could then eliminate the program with as little as four weeks’ notice. Should UW-Madison submit a plan of action to remediate a program, the program would receive a stay of execution for three academic years. Should the program not met the criteria after that time, the draft policy’s guidance is bleak: If after three years, [sic] the program still does not improve, UW System will communicate with the institution to eliminate the program using its governance process… .”

The only option to appeal provided to an institution placed in this position is to UW System — under this draft, a self-appointed judge, jury, & executioner. In his above-linked tweet thread, AAUP president Fleisher noted this appears to be an unprecedented power grab by the UW System’s president:

So we have a draft policy in which Ray Cross/UWSA propose to establish criteria for *obligatory* program closure, on the basis of powers it’s not clear they actually have, using a process that requires only appropriate levels of consultation with affected stakeholders”

Curiously, UW System has not elected to comment directly on the draft policy:

A spokesperson for the system initially referred requests for comment to Greg Summers, provost at the Stevens Point campus and architect of its new plan to eliminate 13 programs, including English, history, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish. Via email, Summers said he supported the policy and its inclusion of shared governance and an appeals mechanism. Hesitant to comment in much detail on something that is still in draft form, Summers said that carefully monitoring program enrollments has always been a fundamental responsibility of the [Wisconsin] system.”

Fleisher points out UW System’s authority is bounded by Regent policy, which specifies its limitation to monitoring and analyzing the current program array, including degree productivity, distance education offerings, and modes of delivery; working with UW institutions in identifying gaps in the current array to address changing and emerging workforce and societal needs,” among other duties. Final authority over programs rests, under state law, with the Board of Regents.

Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

— Auden again

I am disgusted by the revelation of this draft policy, but I am not surprised. As I remarked yesterday, to work in public higher education in Wisconsin since 2011 is to work in institutions being sabotaged, deliberately & acutely, by the state’s own leadership. The vandalism is unrelenting & ever-worsening, amounting to an absolute looting of a century-plus of public investment in a world-class university system by resentful, obdurate, contemptuous hatchet men. The goal: the extirpation of faculty & staff dedicated to the search for truth, in favor of the narrow vision of a university intended merely to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs.

There aren’t enough tourniquets for the wounds inflicted by these butchers.

  1. The criteria specify metrics at the bachelor’s & master’s levels; doctoral programs are assessed separately accordingg to specific criteria established by the doctoral granting [sic] institutions.

  2. UW System’s crass evaluation of the value of the importance of its institutions to the state by an economic impact study is nonetheless breathtaking: $24 billion.

academic freedom higher education University of Wisconsin Wisconsin

Society starts at dawn.”

I’m not sure what the Styles Desk is, but The New York Times recently published one of the Styles Desk writers’ reflections on the experience of delayed sleep phase syndrome:

My father, who was an extreme lark, would wake up by 6:30 a.m. and storm into my room, huffing, Society starts at dawn,” as he yanked off my bedcover.

Growing up, I endured a similar perspective shared by one of my parents.1 I’m willing to bet the author’s father, who uttered the statement in the title, was not only a lark, but an extrovert. I can’t think of a statement more wholly encompassing both modes of being.

I suffer chronic sleep deficit. That is, I have a so-called sleep problem, although technically, that is not accurate.

I sleep fine. It is everyone else who has a problem with it.

My wife, who sent me a link to the piece, says this is me. She’s not wrong.

Williams’ experience of the working world mirrors my own. I don’t find much comfort in that, though it’s nice to know someone out there with a larger platform is willing to engage the problem.

By necessity, much of my life has occurred on lark’s hours. We all, larks & night owls, are shoehorned into them during our school years.2 Even the relative freedom of graduate school was a double-edged sword. I did most of my reading, and almost all of my writing, during the late night hours. This was ideal from a working perspective; the problem was that my days were a jumble of courses and teaching, and I taught every semester. There were definite times for certain kinds of work, but there was always additional work with the potential to be done at all times.3

[A]bout 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between. Night owls are not owls by choice,” he writes. They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”

There have been three times when I’ve felt my hours matched my chronotype: working a factory’s third shift in high school, working afternoons/nights in a high-end restaurant, and overnight watch in Iraq. All three point to a reason why I feel less sanguine than the author about traditional 9-5 workplaces’ accommodations for chronotype.

During my senior year in high school, I took a job (through a temp agency) working in a factory that screen-printed labels on bottles for major cosmetic companies. It was, in some ways, a great job — it planted seeds that grew, with sufficient fertilizer, into more thoughtful perspectives later in my life. In some ways it was a lousy job — I was working a minimum-wage gig from 11pm–7am, then going to school from about 10am–3pm, then engaging in after-school activities until 7pm or later. I didn’t do this for the full year, thank goodness; it lasted some number of months, but I no longer remember how many. Had I not still been in school, my hours outside work would probably have been filled by a second (also hourly) job. As it was, by that point I’d already given up on going to a four-year college after high school, so it was a good introduction to the life that lay ahead of me in the restaurant world. Second and third shift work schedules are a reality for many folks who have little choice but to simply endure it, whether or not they would choose it for themselves if given the opportunity.

When I was working in the restaurant — typically 4pm-midnight Monday–Thursday, 3pm–1am Fridays, & 10am–2am on Saturdays — my hours were actually set by lark-driven society. I simply had the luxury of working in a service industry that catered to larks’ desires for their leisure time. This is good work for a night owl, assuming a sustainable position can be found.4 I was a full-time student at the same time I was a full-time line cook; it was simply unsustainable.

At one point during my deployment to Iraq, I was assigned the 6pm–6am watch shift. I was the only one awake on our tiny FOB for the entirely of that time; the platoon commander, the sergeant of the guard, even the squad on watch all would sleep for part of those hours. Once I got over the eerie feeling of being the only one awake through the night within hours of our FOB, I came to love it. The most analogous roles in US civilian life are the folks who care for & keep watch on us overnight: emergency services, night staffs of hospitals & care centers, & infrastructure workers. Again, these are good gigs for night owls, provided they fit with the rest of one’s life.

Society likes morning people. Loves them, actually. Early risers tend to be more punctual, get better grades in school and climb up the corporate ladder. These so-called larks are celebrated as the high achievers, the apple polishers, the C.E.O.s.

The author of the Times piece focuses on hacker hours,” revealed by shifts in the tech industry & creative sectors” that suggest the new workplace culture is less about punctuality and more about creativity and breaking the rules.” That may be the case in these spheres of labor, and shifts there may drive shifts in related industries. But I think there’s an inescapable gravity to the point made by the author’s father: whether or not the larks’ hegemony over society’s work-time structure is total or partial, our society will continue expect that certain kinds of workers will always maintain daytime hours — including healthcare practitioners, workers in the trades, and educators — especially elementary & secondary teachers. While some people might be happy to be able to see their optometrist in the evening, or have access to a plumber’s services at midnight, elementary & secondary teachers will be among the very last to see a significant change in their workday.

In a world where a dual income has become necessary to simply fall behind less rapidly, schools preform the vital function of caring for children’s needs during the hours claimed by many parents’ employers. A work hours shift by employers will not immediately precipitate a shift in school schedules, which have proved remarkably resilient to broader societal changes, including the dwindling necessity to peg the school calendar to the seasonal demands of agrarian life. Should employers liberate their workers from the hegemony of the larks — either out of benevolence, or velvet-gloved coercion — workers with children will feel the strain of reconciling their new work schedules with the schedules of their children. No doubt some affluent, voucher-cashing private schools will market themselves as accommodating the modern schedules of their equally affluent client families. But can one seriously imagine the public school system, with its constituency of middle & working class families stretched ever thinner, shifting either quickly or uniformly? Perhaps the unchecked rise of service sector jobs, and the continued atrophy of industrial labor, will drive such a change. It could happen.

The trends I’ve observed in my lifetime don’t support such wishcasting. What I’ve observed is life becoming economically more untenable for most of us, while our labor is demeaned & devalued. What I’ve observed are major economic & quality-of-life gains being realized by an elect few, while the rest of us are coerced to go along with the fiction that their success & the country’s gross economic production has some relevance to the majority’s increasingly marginal existence.

Until something is done to address the fundamental inequity of our economic system — something that frees everyone to find work that recognizes their dignity, matches their skills & experience, and fits the tempo of their life — I’m afraid any implication that most folks — night owls as well as larks — could find work that embraces their genetic makeup is purely pie in the sky.

  1. It had a corollary: Nothing good happens after midnight.”

  2. It seems that school schedules have become more ridiculous than when I was in school, to the point where there’s pretty broad consensus much agree that they’re unhealthy for kids. At the same time, thanks to the working world that has become so warped, we’re also unwilling to do a thing about it.

  3. I don’t think my experience was unusual in that regard.

  4. Back then, the only way one could reasonably afford health insurance on a line cook’s wages was to be married to someone with a benefits package.

health labor society wellness

When Leaders Become Followers

Yesterday morning I listened to a lengthy conversation about social media, one that left me really frustrated.1 The conversants were discussing two particular platforms — one, which we’ll call Platform X, is large & longstanding, yet increasingly beleaguered & abusive; the other, Platform Z, is new-ish, much smaller, & somewhat unproven. I came away feeling the conversation had been extremely one-sided, overly lenient (perhaps out of familiarity bias) of Platform X’s noxiousness and hard on Platform Z’s perceived shortcomings.

The comments made in favor of Platform X, or against Platform Z, struck me as curious. I thought — how would these sound if Platform X was a physical, rather than an online, space? What follows is an exploration of those comments.

Podcasters like coffee, right? Let’s take paraphrasing of comments made about Platform X & Platform Z, then pretend we’re talking about two coffee shops — Coffeeshop X & Coffeeshop Z — that have similar characteristics.2

I’ve worked hard to attract a large audience on Platform X, which has become toxic. I don’t want to leave it because I will have to start all over with my audience.

If your ability to engage your audience is limited by your participation on that platform, is it really your audience?

Let’s say Coffeeshop X has been your longstanding hangout. You’re a regular there, and you know many of the other regulars; some of them are good friends of yours outside the coffee shop. You routinely suggest it to friends & business associates as a rendezvous spot. Your previous open-mic nights have been well-attended, and people who run into you elsewhere mention how much they’ve enjoyed your performance. Lately, though, Coffeeshop X has become an uncomfortable place to be. Friendly people still show up to see you, but so do others who heckle all of you, grabbing the mic & hurling abuses, sometimes directed at specific people, sometimes people you care about. Despite the disturbance & hurt caused, the management of Coffeeshop X shrugs its shoulders. They’re not going to ask the mean people to leave as long as they keep buying coffee.

You have a choice: do you keep showing up at Coffeeshop X, hoping the mean people go someplace else, like some Mean People Coffeeshop?3 Do you keep asking people to meet you there to catch up, talk shop, or make a deal? Do you post a note near your usual chair, saying you’ve decamped to Coffeeshop Z — which isn’t so well-established, but is run by good-hearted people you already know — and invite your friends & associates to find you there?

The choices made by Platform X’s terrible management don’t affect what I get out of the service.

What about your audience? Do those choices affect them? What is their mental state while on the platform? What does that portion of your audience dealing with those effects think of your continued support of Platform X?

Let’s say Coffeeshop X has decided to allow its patrons to bring in their own boomboxes. A group of people have decided to abuse this policy and routinely bring their boomboxes in and play a ten-hour loop of TV static at high volume, with the speakers pointed at the plate glass windows to maximize the reverb. The management doesn’t take any action to stop this — they say everyone can form their own opinion of the white noise. Besides, these white noise boombox people are buying coffee.

Basically, if you want to keep patronizing Coffeeshop X, you can sit there with your noice-cancelling headphones on, perhaps in one of the alcoves where it’s a little quieter. Is this the kind of environment you want for a coffee date with a friend? Would you invite someone to Coffeeshop X to meet you for the first time? Or to discuss something important?

I conduct business on Platform X; leaving Platform X will hurt my business.

Platform X is counting on you to feel like you have no recourse but continue to use it. That might be true in the short term, but what long term harm is Platform X causing to your business?

Coffeeshop X has been an important venue for your work. You advertise your creativity, technical skills, & products there. You have meetings there. Your partners & patrons frequent it, too. For a good while, Coffeeshop X was a good place for all this business activity. Many of your partners & patrons still seem to be showing up to Coffeeshop X, but you notice they’re looking less enthusiastic & more harried with all the white noise boomboxes blasting. Your conversations are becoming more guarded, and you are less interested in openly engaging new folks who wander into the coffee shop. Other old partners & longtime patrons don’t come in anymore, so they don’t know about That Cool Thing You’re Doing Now.

Platform Z is interesting, but nobody is there.

Measuring the strength of a platform by its gross tonnage of accounts & number of reactions per post or updates per minute is certainly one way of guessing at its potential reach. Measuring the strength of a platform by the quality of engagement is more difficult — it takes time, resists easily-mined raw metrics, could be more subjective, & requires asking fundamentally different questions — but strikes me as a better way of determining whether the people who use it are thoughtful, respectful, & supportive.

Coffeeshop Z opened just a little while ago. You poked your head in the door and noted the coffee brewing smelled pretty good. But you didn’t recognize any of the faces in there. It looked like there were some open seats at the bar, some open tables, quality provided reading material, and a pretty casual vibe. Somebody you didn’t know actually waved at you, but since you were alone, you turned around and left.

None of my friends are on Platform Z. Who would I talk to?

How do your friends feel about Platform X? Would you all, as a gesture of your mutual friendship, consider trying a new thing together? If Platform Z doesn’t work out after an agreed-upon interval, could you either go back to Platform X or reassess your options?

Your friends tell you that they’re tired of the white noise boombox people at Coffeeshop X, and they’re fed up with the management of Coffeeshop X enabling — or is it encouraging? — that behavior. You’re all still going there, but you can see that everyone’s feeling the strain.

You poke your head in at Coffeeshop Z again. People at the counter are chatting with one another. The actual owner is there behind the counter, serving drinks alongside the manager. At the tables, people are reading newspapers, magazines, & books, some of which you enjoy, and some of which you’ve never seen before. A couple groups of people have pushed together some tables and are talking about TV shows, movies, & music. A couple people with shoulder bags & backpacks are at a standing bar, chatting about professional stuff while taking a break from work.

You don’t know any of these people. A few of them smile at you when they see you looking at them. You remember your friends, hunkered down back at Coffeeshop X, trying to hold a conversation while wearing their noise-cancelling headphones. You miss them.

On Platform X, I can block anyone for any reason. Platform Z doesn’t have a blocking feature — that’s madness.

Does lacking a block feature reflect negatively on Platform Z, or does it say more about the environment of Platform X, where it’s become a necessity?

At Coffeeshop X, you can prevent anyone from sitting at your table. You can even put up some smoked glass that prevents them from seeing you at your table while they’re in the coffee shop.4

When you poked your head in at Coffeeshop Z, you noticed they didn’t have this feature. Instead, you noticed, right inside the door, a sign stating Coffeeshop Z requires respectful treatment of everyone. The sign stipulates that those who cannot be respectful will be ushered out of the coffee shop & will not be permitted to return. You notice only two people are working there — the owner & the manager. What happens when the place gets busy? What happens if it gets busy and the white noise boombox people show up?

Someone in Coffeeshop Z was already rude to me.

You did not deserve that. They should not have been rude to you. You probably weren’t the only one to notice. Hopefully others — including strangers — stepped in to support you.

Should the rudeness continue, the owner and the manager of Coffeeshop Z have already said they will take care of that kind of behavior. Do they deserve the opportunity to stand by that principle?

The Notables: Following the Leader

In his recent essay on the state of social media, Smokey Ardisson coined a term — the notables” — to describe prominent users of social media.5 I like this term, because it encompasses a group of prominent users, while creating space for a distinction between types of notoriety.6 A good many of these folks are notable because their professional perspectives are widely (and deservedly) valued.

The problem is, some notables seem to sense their notoriety is predicated upon their status within a particular social media platform’s caste system. While they maintain other outlets for their work, they depend on their position in the social media caste system to attract interest in their work. I don’t believe for a moment that Notable N couldn’t attract a sizable, engaged audience if they were to leave Platform X for Platform Z. Of course, Notable N might object: An engaged audience is all well & good, but how do I quantify my notability to my partners7 if Platform Z doesn’t present engagement metrics to me?”

Inevitably, the notables become so invested in being notable on a single social media platform (attracting & maintaining an audience of followers”) that the thing they’re actually notable for — their legitimate creativity, piercing insight, impeccable memory, or astute analysis — appears worth (far?) less to them without that notoriety. In an effort to preserve gravitas, they’ve hitched their star to a black hole, and now they’re along for the ride.

The notables aren’t leading anymore; they’re followers, too.

  1. I don’t intend to reveal the source of the conversation, or who the participants were. It doesn’t matter, really. I certainly won’t be the only one to hear it, but I don’t think calling out the participants contributes to the conversation. Nor do I flatter myself to think the participants care what I think. In fact, I’m fairly certain they don’t. That’s fine.

  2. In fact, Amit Gawande used this analogy in his post Why not just quit Twitter?”, which was published the week before this post.

  3. Of course mean people like having their own spaces — but what they love is ruining other people’s spaces.

  4. If they walk by on the street, though, they can see you through the plate glass windows.

  5. Ardisson’s Can We Ever Reset the Field? expands on his analysis of the problems created by centralized, corporate social media — and some food for thought as we find our way out of those silos.

  6. See Alan Jacobs’ explication of types of notoriety.

  7. Sponsors, advertising partners, what have you. Whoever is paying Notable N’s freight and expecting something in return.

ethics social media

The Sympathizer: A Review

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer directly refutes a dominant perspective: many of its readers likely think of the Vietnam War as something that happened to America, a big mistake that started in the Gulf of Tonkin and was largely resolved when US combat forces left in 1973. In this sense, Nguyen’s novel is the best complement in English-language Vietnam War fiction to what Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 did for American histories of the war — acknowledging that war’s more distant beginning in an anti-colonialist independence movement and tracing its aftershocks well beyond the flight from Saigon. For its scope, depth of perspective, quality of prose, and its seductive, baroque narration, The Sympathizer is — along with Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn & Alfredo Véa’s Gods Go Begging — one of the three best Vietnam War novels available to an English-reading audience.1

The Captain (the novel’s otherwise unnamed protagonist) is in the tradition of the Dostoevskian anti-hero, a misfit, an outsider with divided loyalties.2 Nguyen, with deliberate care, develops a picture of a man compromised from the moment of corrupt conception. The bastard” epithet continually directed at him fits not only the circumstances of his birth, but the bifurcations that multiply as his story unfolds. While I don’t share the same identities, the Captain’s great blessing and curse — seeing the world from multiple perspectives — resonated with me on a smaller scale: my parents’ divorce in my early childhood created parallel worlds I lived in simultaneously, a Rubik’s cube of interpersonal, political, religious, and cultural identities that all shifted as I traversed the no-man’s land between parents. Nguyen’s treatment of this condition — in The Captain’s racial, cultural, political, and religious identities — is not simply convincing, it’s masterful.

In my more jaundiced Iraq War vet moments, I find myself sympathetic to various immigrant & refugee Vietnamese characters’ piercing, Solzhenitsyn-esque disaffected criticism of what they see as the US decadent society & shallow popular culture — ostensibly of the Great Malaise era, but every bit as resonant today.3 I admit I enjoyed the skewering of the Hollywood that produced not only Apocalypse Now (the primary inspiration for the book’s biting critique of American Vietnam War cinema) and The Green Berets, but — pushed forward — the post-9/11, Global War on Terror-era’s Homeland.4

The Sympathizer is a necessity for any conflict studies or Vietnam War reading list or syllabus. In fact, it’s just downright necessary — and excellent.

  1. Others in the conversation to round out the top five: Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters & Paco’s Story, Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name, Bao Ninh‘s The Sorrow of War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried & Going After Cacciato. All of these are a fair step below the top three.

  2. Nguyen readily acknowledges the influence Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a reverence underscored by naming his son Ellison); Ellison’s novel was, in its own part, influenced by Dostoevsky.

  3. I have here in mind reality” television, the primary contribution of which is the presidency of a cronyist, xenophobic, racist mediocrity, and a broad cultural bent toward escapist fantasy (e.g. Hollywood superhero blockbuster & serial dramas of palace intrigue) and narcissism. If religion is the opioid of the masses, then these must be the Ecstacy.

  4. [Americans] pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.”

book review fiction Vietnam War war literature