On Trump’s Election

This is my reminder to myself, that before the election I was concerned that Trump was ill-prepared to be president, and that his words and actions were consistent with attitudes that I find abhorrent. Because I am an academic, I think of these attitudes with formal terms: as misogyny, which is contempt for women; as racism, the most pertinent of which in his case is that the white race is superior; as chauvinism, an uncritical love of country; as xenophobia, an irrational fear of people from other countries. I know further than these are not just personal characteristics and private matters (separate from public policy) because such attitudes inform government and social policies when they are written into law and enforced. In the case of Trump, those attitudes were combined with other worrying qualities, that lack of humility that people who are interested in service usually profess, such as his convention claim that he alone could save the country, a lack of interest in or knowledge about political and constitutional norms (his threats to the press), and little or no knowledge or respect for values that are associated with religious belief, including, for example, the humility mentioned earlier. Is Trump capable of ennobling ideas, like sacrificing his own good (financial, political) for the good of the people of the country–and would he include all his country’s people if he were to invoke the idea? Ideas like sacrifice and service and humility are not ones he seems ready to invoke.

Then he won the election, which was dismaying to me. Academics who study repressive regimes see many worrying signs, and I see them also because I follow such academics on social media. I think it’s foolish to disregard those signs, some of which I mention below, and I assume the academics on social media have seen these widely shared posts. I have also spoken with a few people around me, local community people who are not academics, Trump supporters and one who supported an independent candidate and others who supported Clinton, and they seem in general to doubt that Trump will be highly effective. By contrast, the academics and activists around me are fearful that many horrible things will come to pass and possibly quite soon, although others suspect a process of normalization will take weeks or months.

So in trying to understand why he was elected–and I do not dismiss those earlier concerns, biases associated with misogyny, racism, chauvinism, xenophobia–I remind myself of reading  some weeks before the election a few of the stories that sought to make Trump supporters sympathetic. I almost never watch TV as I don’t have cable or satellite (only HD antenna), so I should say right here that I often read mainstream publications like the Atlantic, the New York Times and  Washington Post, and they tried hard to make Trump supporters understandable, in their “you should have sympathy for these people” way.  Also, these same publications believe it is fairly easy to teach you sympathize with lives of young urban men or women, whether of Asian or Middle Eastern descent,  African American, or Hispanic. That is, they are elite East coast publications with employees embedded in highly cosmopolitan cities, in which a wide range of languages, ethnicities, and cultural ways are within easy reach.  I think the matter of with whom you are able to sympathize matters, and I think there is a subtle difference from Clinton’s term “deplorable” (which once refracted through media served to highlighted her lack of sympathy to anyone who considered being a Trump supporter) and what mainstream publications try to do.

In elite news and opinion media,  sympathy for the first group (Trump supporters) was something that should be hard for you, the highly educated and cosmopolitan reader, because those Red State people are conservative, which you are not. I was myself born in the rural South, but not all such people are conservative, though some who I talked to are. Nevertheless, sympathy with cosmopolitan variety is assumed to be somewhat easier for the reader of an elite publication, because well you’re a good person and relish the opportunity. In sum, those publications try harder to achieve reader sympathy when it’s Trump supporters, because they treat them as more fundamentally alien, a version of maybe “us” but one which we don’t recognize. The underlying message is that sympathy for Trump-supporting people is difficult. When such publications wear their disdain on their sleeve, the vanity of these publications is that such people will not be able to detect it (or are not their readers).

But they are real journalists, who reported what Trump supporters said, and some details about Trump supporters were odd to me, as they conflicted with the attitude toward supporters that was implicit. One was  that several of his supporters were attending multiple Trump events and spending thousands of dollars to do it. That is consistent with an oft-shared graphic on Trump’s supporters, that he ran stronger among higher income groups. In sum, several people who attended Trump rallies had money and time, far more of both than I, an associate professor at a university, do. Second was the difference between his words and how his audience understood them. There were two basic tendencies. First was that his words expressed things that his audience did not feel permitted to say (a version of being hemmed in in public by political correctness). And the second was that the audience believed that they knew what he meant, even when his words lacked clarity.

That anyone would resort to this way of making sense of Trump I honestly found disturbing. In the times I listened to him speak, Trump often trails off, seems to lose track of what he’s saying, switches topics without connections, and contradicts or reverses himself, often because he seems to lack command of details, as if he did not study it. His go-to strategy is to return to some projection of strength and power, which he associates with the powers of personal charisma and policing and military strength, not the powers of political norms or democratic institutions. I suspect that many of his supporters are confident in American exceptionalism and doubt that such exceptionalism will lead to excesses in policing or detention. Because of the many worrying qualities that I associated with him, I had already started to worry precisely about that.

So after the election I stay concerned. I understand that because I’m an academic and an English professor  watchers and followers of Fox News will recognize me as seeking political correctness. I hold by contrast that respect and decorum–agreeing that free speech does not extend to regular threats to jail your opponent–are a necessary accompaniment to civil society. The 18th century of the founders was an era with great faith in manners, though one’s sympathy was usually expected to extend only one’s social equals. Reformers from that era wanted to extend sympathy further, to those excluded from the immediately sympathetic group of white landholding males. In the early 19th century, voting for white men was gradually extended, state by state, to those who did not own property. But to return from this history lesson on who receives our sympathy, because of the influence of respect and decorum, we should not say we will jail our  opponent for political speech because we won’t do that. We should not say “white power” because we believe in an inclusive society. We do not say “grab them by the pussy” in good fun because that phrase describes an assault.

I believe that the purpose of words is to tell the truth and to try to make the world a better place, and one should try to do good and achieve justice, social and economic, for the least advantaged among us, just as religious tradition calls us to, including the working class and the poor, as well as the elderly, children and injured or disabled who are unable to care fully for themselves. I think that doing a good job at anything takes hard work, and even then you may fail. I don’t see many hints that Trump relishes difficult and tedious work, things I enjoy as an academic, so I continue to be concerned that that he will resort to simplistic solutions such as identifying certain people as bad and policing and punishing them, through policies that are contrary to democratic  and humane values. In reasonably normal times, such impulses are worrying. But what will he do after a major economic disaster or terrorist attack, when core beliefs are shaken and people look for quick answers?

Trump’s election has emboldened some. As days pass, the Southern Poverty Law Center has gathered reports of an alarming rise in hate crimes, Newt Gingrich,  at time he was said to be on list for potential Secretary of State, has proposed a new House Unamerican Activities Committee to bring journalists and academics to heel,  journalists who report on Trump face threats and continuous harassment, Trump has selected Stephen K. Bannon, whose Breitbart web site traffics in antisemitic, misogynist, and racist innuendo, as a planned counselor and senior strategist, and Ben Carson (for a time being bandied about as potential education secretary) has proposed tying university funding to speech codes for faculty. Maybe everyday people, who have jobs, cannot keep up with all this stuff. But dear everyday people: these are worrying hints about priorities for a Trump administration. As daily news traffics in tidbits of information, many of these may represent ill-thought comments that will not come to fruition. But they deserve active condemnation so that they do not. What concerns me now is the frequency with which attitudes that ought to be beyond the pale are discussed as one among many possibilities, because it means that some will get through into policy.

Therefore, I have a job to do. I resolve to serve those close to me (students and colleagues and community members) and bear public witness, to contact public officials, local and state and national who may have the influence to curb the president-elect’s worrying tendencies. And I resolve to know better, by attending more closely to scholars who study the history and legacies of white supremacy and who document both achievements and sufferings of America’s historically discriminated against peoples.  Faced with a barrage of harassment up to and including threats to one’s person and family, journalists and academics, and loyal opposition politicians will have to pick their battles. But that also means that standards of decorum and access that ensure open and vigorous debate, bedrock standards like first-amendment protection for free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and due process, need to be advocated for and defended more vigorously than ever. My attitude has changed: I can no longer enjoy jokes that make light of this.  And speaking of that necessary work, I need to return to my own work of research to write a book, grading papers, writing lesson plans, advocating for better quality employment at the university, devising new training for students in present-day skills, and serving on committees that do the everyday work of the institution. But I had to pause from my weekend on that work to say this in public, to remind myself to bear witness and resist threats to humane and democratic values, because bearing witness and resisting threats to those values are also parts of an academic’s job.

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Memo I will Not Send to Students, on Proving “Academic Presence”

Dear Students,

I am not sure how to say this without sounding like an idiot. However, Kent State university, under a federal mandate, is requiring us to play a game called “academic presence,” which is related to children’s game of charades. You can read all about it at the following web site:


If I cannot prove you have been “academically present” in the class, you will lose your financial aid eligibility. As we are in an all-online class, you cannot prove your “academic presence” by showing up in a physical classroom. However, you can prove that you have been “academically present” one of several ways: writing a discussion board post, sending the syllabus quiz, taking the reading quiz at end of three weeks, watching my class lectures or slide presentations, posting the blog at end of three weeks. If you skip everything in class for 3 1/2 weeks, I will not be able to show that you have been “academically present,” and you could lose your eligibility for financial aid. Just logging into the online class is NOT enough to prove academic presence. Just reading assigned texts in anthology is NOT enough. But as syllabus explains, I will contact you long before “academic presence” criteria kick in, because we are in an actual class, even if it is online.

This game of charades is serious in the following sense. If Kent State were a fake university and taking your financial aid, not offering classes, and later handing out a piece of paper with a credential printed on it, falsified data about “academic presence” would probably be a crime, and students at charade-playing universities would be ineligible for federal financial aid. I suspect all faculty at legitimate universities will be playing some version of this game of academic charades so that the feds (in theory) can go after fake educational institutions. Those fake educational institutions will simulate this game of “academic presence” charade with paperwork, because if they are willing to perform charade of holding classes, having assignments, receiving student work, etc., they are probably willing to perform charade of academic presence verification too.

But in a real sense, this game is an absolute waste of everyone’s time, because a sensible option would look more like this. The Education Department would hire 200 well-qualified professional investigators and systematically hunt down obviously fraudulent educational institutions and turn over names of executive officers for prosecution by the Justice Department. Unfortunately, that would upset members of Congress who get campaign contributions from fake educational institutions, and would also upset former congressional and executive department colleagues who serve on boards or lobbying firms and are paid handsomely by fake educational institutions, which defraud students and the government. So instead, we shall waste the time of 10s of 1000s of faculty members and several hundreds of administrative staff nationwide at legitimate colleges and universities. Doing things the sensible way, with enforcement actions against fraudulent educational institutions and their administrators, is simply too hard, so we shall do this nonsense of “academic presence” instead.

The reason I am not sending you this memo is that I am already furious that I must fill out an asinine database form after week 4 of classes. 45 minutes of my time will be wasted, but I will not waste 5 minutes of yours. But you are paying for this game of charades, indirectly, with your tuition dollars, so I thought you should know.

Wesley Raabe
Associate Professor
Department of English
Kent State University

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Why punctuation, which doesn’t matter, might matter

In the well-known Jewett edition, this is the sentence that describes Eliza in chapter 1, when she arrives in the room to retrieve her son Harry from Shelby and Haley, and the slave trader sizes her up as merchandise.

There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes; the same ripples of silky black hair. The brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration.

In the National Era, rather than two sentences, there is one:

There was the same rich, full, dark eye, with its long lashes, the same ripples of silky black hair; the brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush, which deepened as she saw the gaze of the strange man fixed upon her in bold and undisguised admiration.

The differences are the comma (Era) or semicolon (Jewett) after the word lashes and the semicolon (Era) or period (Jewett) after the word hair. The purpose of the description, in either  style of punctuation, shifts between Eliza’s appearance as echoing little Harry’s (same eye, lashes, hair) and Eliza’s value in Haley’s eye as a “fine female article,” as next sentence reiterates.

In my thinking, the Era version, is much more effective, as her appearance (formerly within context of being Harry’s mother) is re-contextualized entirely by Haley’s gaze into sexual chattel, because it is one sentence: eye, lashes, hair–her Harry’s-mother qualities–have their polarities reversed. In the Jewett edition, with two, the link between Eliza as mother and chattel is attenuated, as Eliza’s embarrassment rises to the fore to counter-act Haley’s gaze, to separate it from the description of her as Harry’s mother. There are two sentences, a “Harry’s mother” sentence and a “Haley’s gaze” sentence.

The key phrase is “brown of her complexion gave way on the cheek to a perceptible flush,” and the reader has two possibilities for why that is happening. When one sentence, in the Era, the reader may be lulled into assuming that she is still Harry’s mother, her embarrassment arising because of her child’s antics. When two sentences, her flush (embarrassment) is more likely to arise because she recognizes Haley’s gaze upon her.

Whether the flush on her face is visible to Haley’s gaze is highly significant in the nineteenth century because a conventional racist tropes is that black people lack embarrassment, because the flush of embarrassment is one of the marks of highly refined sensibility. The racist gaze denies the possibility that refined sensibility is visible on the black face. Eliza, of mixed race parentage, has skin light enough to pass as white, and her desirability (within this conventionally racist trope, having white-like features) raises her monetary value as a sex slave.

When the reader views Eliza’s flushed face from both directions–as one does more readily in the Era–her transition from mother to sexual chattel is even more devastating. That’s why punctuation, which doesn’t matter, might matter.

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Finding Uncle Tom in Lutz’s Programming Python

I am working my way through Mark Lutz’s Programming Python (4th ed., section “Step 1: Representing Records”). The example seeks to explain different types of records, by building a database of employees, both in form of lists and of dictionaries. And I think I found Uncle Tom, or at least a very curious Tom in the employee class.

In most examples, the two sample employees are named Bob and Sue, they work in technology, software and hardware, and Sue is paid better than Bob, always. Except, of a sudden, another “employee” appears. His name is ‘Tom’, and his data is used to illustrate the append and extend function for lists.

people.append(['Tom', 50, 0, None])

Compare to the original examples of people, Bob and Sue:

['Bob Smith', 42, 30000, 'software']
['Sue Jones', 45, 50000.0, 'hardware']

What these records mean is that one person named Bob Smith, age 42, earns $30,000, and has software as his job title; Sue Jones, age 45, earns $50,000, and has hardware as her job title. They are both people. (Note: Please excuse the salary numbers as both integers and floats, the choice of lists to represent data when other forms like dictionaries could do so better. That is kind of the point, and all of these matters are addressed soon.)

When another person is appended to the people set, his name is ‘Tom” (he has no last name), his age is 50, his salary is $0, and his job has no formal description, None. In one sense he’s appended to the set of “people” too, but he does no really fit (probably because the “None” category will come back later to haunt us).

Lutz has a footnote to software developer Bob, which says “the world is stranger than it seems,” because Lutz met a software developer when teaching a Python course, whose age and job description were described perfectly by the fictitious Bob. He can add another addendum to his note, that his fictitious Tom happens to match strangely the most famous fictitious slave in American culture, the stereotypical slave Uncle Tom, who is always about 50 years old in the American cultural imaginary, who gets paid “0,” and has the job title very close to “None,” a non-person, a nihil, a nothing.

Tom (no last name) rejoins Bob Smith and Sue Jones in the people crew for the example of the dictionary version of the same set of data:

db['tom'] = dict(name='Tom', age=50, job=None, pay=0)

Still no last name. Still no pay. Still aged 50. Still “None” as his job. Whereas in other two cases (Sue Jones and Bob Smith), there is more effort to simulate reasonable data, there’s no effort with throw-away Tom. He has no reason for being here in sense of being paid: he just is. I think it’s supposed to be a joke.

There’s another joke, but it’s far more insistent. Sue Jones, who is older and works in hardware, is paid better than the younger male Bob Smith, who works in software. That is, this joke is really insistent, repeated over and over, so you can’t miss the intimation that a woman getting paid more than a man is… kind of funny perhaps? Tom, by contrast, just floats in and floats out, being a nothing, a throw-away example.

Technology ideology occludes gender, age, race, and cultural history (outside of technology) as meaningless, a nihil, a nothing. This is one example of how it technology ideology borrows from a long history, and treats that history as invisible and meaningless, when it does it.

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Moral Precepts and False Spelling

This is from a mid-19th Century spelling textbook entitled Exercises in Orthography, by   John Epy Lovell. It was issued by New Haven publisher Durrie and Peck in 1847. The purpose of the book is made reasonably clear in lesson 1:

This littel book of lesons in falce speling, has
bin made to help boys and gurls to spell rite. It
is hoped that it will be usefull to menny. It con-
tanes sum pleesing facs and a stoar of good pre-
septs. Let the pupel try to ficks thees in his mind
wilst ho takes grate panes to korrect evry mispelt-

Or in facsimile if you prefer.

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It’s interesting to me that the student is expected nonetheless to “ficks” the “facs” and the “presepts” in mind despite the “grate panes” of correcting all the misspelled words. I suppose no one worried that the student would suffer from delusion that the great precepts and facts were gathered by a bunch of dunces. I cannot imagine the children were supposed to write in the book. Maybe copy it out in corrected form? Or, more likely, copy it out in incorrect form and then re-copy it corrected. That would keep the little urchins busy.

On a more advanced note, consider were one editing the book whether one could apply Walter W. Greg’s distinction between the accidentals (forms, such as spelling and punctuation) and the substantives (words themselves). In this case, making note of the accidental departure from a standard spelling is the point of the exercise, so that can’t be a difference, at least I don’t think so.  When typesetting the book, would any criterion render a word misspelled in the sense of a spelling error in the copy? Must the compositor follow copy, or can he (or she) misspell with impunity and fulfill the intention of the author? Would any change in a subsequent printing be considered a correction? On one hand, a difference in a later copy might well be considered a correction. But how would one know? Boggles the mind.

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On Nineteenth-Century Flower Language

This post is inspired by Nancy Strow Sheley’s “The Language of Flowers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Other Nineteenth-Century American Works,” Resources for American Literary Study 30 (2005): 77-103. She argues, essentially, that to read mentions of flowers in literary texts like Stowe’s novel and other writers like Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (and even male writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Waddell Chesnutt), you need to know what flowers mean. Go read the article, obviously, but RALS is not (to my knowledge) available electronically at present. Therefore, in lieu of that, below I link to several online flower dictionaries, arranged chronologically.

 There are many, many more. Flower lexicons were a standard part of 19C women’s culture, especially, Sheley notes, “among literate, social, white middle and upper classes” (77). Also, Sheley draws from following scholarly study of language of flowers:
Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Print. Victorian Literature and Culture Series.


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Rewriting Internet History: “Because it’s there.”

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith remakes the past. I think that I helped re-make the internet past in the case of a famous quotation from George Leigh Mallory, but the imaginary past is now starting to undermine my authority as the originator of the corrected version.

When opening my 2006 dissertation, I sought to trace the origin of this phrase, “Because it’s there,” which was said to have been attributed to Mallory after he was asked, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” I had thought to explain my choice to edit the National Era version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and “because it’s there” seemed like as good an explanation as any: the University of Virginia library was one of only a handful in the world with a copy.  I traced the quote back to an 18 March 1923 article in the New York Times, but I discovered that the question asked of Mallory was, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” In other words, his reply was in past tense, to explain why he had tried the mountain several times.

When I performed a quoted Google search while preparing my dissertation, on 10 January 2006, the quoted phrase with “did” returned zero results. That later became a little hook to open chapter 1 of my dissertation, and I made a little joke about Internet folklore in my first footnote: “While it is possible that folklore records the question more accurately than the documentary evidence, some Internet folkore [sic] on the do version of the question refers to Mallory’s questioner as a Times reporter, so it seems more likely that Internet folklore is immune to documentary evidence.” (2; http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/wnr4c/Raabe.Era.UTC.Diss.pdf)

Today, 4 March 2016, when I performed the quoted search on Google, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” the omnipresent Wikipedia explainer, which appears on the first page, assures me that did is the correct form of the quote.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.18.57 PM

Do I deserve the credit for fixing Internet folklore? Actually, I think I do. When I search quoted search with a date range, 1 January 2006 thru 1 January 2008, there is only one lonely Google search result returned, my dissertation.

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Which affirms what I claimed in my dissertation. The skeptical reader asks: Why date range 2006-2008? How would we know you’re the first? Maybe someone preceded you. OK, let’s do it again, with all instances before 2008.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.33.06 PM

OK, so there are earlier results. But on Pinterest, back in 1999? and on Tumblr, back in 2001? Looks like Winston from Nineteen Eighty-Four has struck again. And what about the omitted results? OK, now we have it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.42.18 PM

The correct version of Mallory’s famous quote was first reported on Pinterest, back on December 23, 1972.

The moral of the story, except when you’re scooped by Pinterest, is that open-access dissertations make the world a slightly better place. So I’m going to take credit for correcting the famous Mallory quote on the Internet.

As the kids say, Booyah!

PS: I’ve decided not to remake the past by subtly altering a quotation from my dissertation, so the [sic] acknowledges the spelling error folkore in my footnote.

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