The Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.


Self-Promotion And Failures Of Generosity

Like most authors today, I am expected to hustle a great deal–to ‘market’ my books.  I am supposed to set out a shingle on social media–like a Facebook page, or a special Twitter account. I should post news of reviews, flattering things that people have said about my writing, and provide updates on podcasts, interviews and the like. I have to solicit reviews and blurbs and kind words, hope for retweets and ‘Likes’ and status shares, ask friends on Facebook to spread the word on their pages, and all of the rest. When a favorable review goes into print, I bring it to everyone’s attention: my Facebook friends, my Twitter feed. According to those authors who self-publish, and I am not one, except for here, this work can take up so much time that there is little left for actual writing. C’est la vie de l’auteur.

This constant hustle is more than a little wearying. You are constantly aware of being a supplicant with an outstretched bowl, a nuisance of sorts; it is all too easy to spiral down into a bottomless pit of self-loathing and diminishing self-esteem. Even worse, you can become awfully self-centered, coming to regard all around you as potential avenues for the exploration of marketing pitches. Your hammer is the marketing pitch, the marketing plea, and everyone is  a nail. In behaving so, you can easily forget that reciprocity remains a virtue.

I’ve just concluded an email conversation with a senior journalist whom I’d approached–after I’d seen him mention my latest book on Twitter–to perhaps write a review of it. (Yes, I did search for my name on Twitter, hoping to find a mention of my book. It’s like googling yourself; we do it all the time.) We chatted, and in the course of this conversation, which included some kind words about my writing, he told me how, on several occasions he had been approached by other writers for similar ‘favors’. Sometimes he obliged; sometimes he didn’t. But without fail, none of the authors he thus helped ever reciprocated the favor; not one said anything about his writing in a similarly public forum. He concluded with a laconic ‘People are like that.’

I wonder if I have been ‘like that.’ I wonder, if this constant hustling of mine has made me blind to the duties I owe those who have deigned to help me. In my constant, anxious hustle to hawk my writing, to self-promote and aggrandize, I might have committed many failures of generosity–the kind that bothered my interlocutor.

I’ve written, here on this blog, on the need for writers in this brave new social media dominated world, to take care of each other. I’ve also written about the need for academics to send encouraging and appreciative words to their counterparts when they read something by them that they like. I have tried to live up to the standards I have sought to promulgate. But I have no doubt I have failed.

Time to relearn those lessons.

The Cruelest Cut Of All: Punjabis Are Not White

In 1921, a certain John Mohammed Ali became a naturalized citizen of the US. In 1925, this grant of citizenship was contested (United States v. Ali 7 F.2d 728 (1925) by Martin J. Kilsdonk, a United States naturalization examiner. His affidavit:

[A]lleges in substance that said defendant was born in Karpurthala, in the province of Punjab, India, on January 10, 1875, arrived in the United States on June 2, 1900, and has resided in the state of Michigan, in this district, since April 1, 1911; that when the said certificate was issued to him he was not a free white person nor a person of African nativity or descent; that such certificate was illegally procured, within the meaning of section 15 of the Naturalization Act, as decided by the United States Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 S. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616, on February 19, 1923; and that, therefore, good and sufficient grounds exist for the cancellation of said certificate.

In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind the Supreme Court had ruled that Thind, an Indian asking for naturalization on the grounds he was a Caucasian, and therefore eligible, was instead ineligible on the grounds he was not ‘white.’ The Supreme Court rejected the ‘scientific’ classifications of ‘race’ that ran together ‘White’ and ‘Caucasian’ and instead relied on the ‘common knowledge’ that Asian Indians, ‘Hindoos’, were not ‘Whites.’

Ali, for his part, had attempted to circumvent the impact of this ruling by claiming that he was of Arabian descent and therefore not Indian, not-not-White:

[H]e is not a “Hindu” of full Indian blood, but is an Arabian of full Arabian blood. While admitting that he is a native of India, as his ancestors for several centuries have also been, he contends that originally his ancestors were Arabians, who invaded the territory now known as India, and settled and remained there, but have been careful not to intermarry with “the native stock of India,” and have “kept their Arabian blood line clear and pure by intermarriage within the family.”

The court rejected this line of reasoning:

I am unable to follow the argument thus sought to be made. No reason has been suggested, and I can discover none, why the mere fact that the early ancestors of the defendant came to India from Arabia, where they had been called Arabians, renders the defendant a white person. His skin is certainly not white, but unmistakably dark, like that of the other members of his race.

The court ruled for the plaintiff, and stripped Ali of his citizenship, concluding:

He is a native of the continent of Asia, specifically of the country of India, and more specifically of the province of Punjab, the place of the nativity of the alien held, in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, supra, not to be a white person. Clearly, all of the conclusions of the Supreme Court in that case, as well as the reasons on which they are based, are equally applicable to this defendant.

The court also noted:

He admits that his ancestry, like that of other races residing in India, originally sprang from Caspian Mediterranean stock. It would seem that the most that could be claimed by him, by reason of Arabian ancestry, would be membership in the Caucasian race.

And so we have it folks, the official holding: Punjabis (whether Hindu or Arabian) are not White. We just can’t seem to catch a break.

Lon Fuller On The Inability Of The Judiciary To Police The Police

In The Morality of Law: Revised Edition (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1969), Lon Fuller writes:

In this country it is chiefly to the judiciary that is entrusted the task of preventing a discrepancy between the law as declared and as actually administered. This allocation of function has the advantage of placing the responsibility in practiced hands, subjecting its discharge to public scrutiny, and dramatizing the integrity of the law. There are, however, serious disadvantages in any system  that looks to the courts as a bulwark against the lawless administration of the law. It makes the correction of abuses dependent upon the willingness and financial ability of the affected party to take his case to legislation. It has proved relatively ineffective in controlling lawless conduct by the police, this evil being in fact compounded by the tendency of lower courts to identify their mission with that of maintaining the morale of the police force. [pp. 81-82]

There is little need to emphasize the topicality or relevance of these words, originally uttered in 1964 by Fuller, during the delivery of the Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. Still, one is almost unavoidably drawn to the last sentence of the excerpt above. The considerations raised there are especially worth revisiting. (Fuller’s larger project, of course, is to argue that law-abiding behavior is better ensured by a consideration of the moral weight attached to any injunction of the law.)

In the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, both of which resulted in acquittals and failures to indict the police officers, it was transparent to most dispassionate observers that the judiciary did not see its work as upholding the law, as much as it saw it as supporting the police force, a ‘partner’ in the work it was engaged in elsewhere. Prosecutors and district attorneys work with police forces to enforce the law; they were not interested in bringing any of their ‘co-workers’ to justice, to subjecting them to the same standards employed on other legal subjects.

These facts are worth keeping mind when we think about the developments in the latest case of murderous policemen: the shooting, in South Carolina, of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, supposedly for grabbing an officer’s stun gun. The police officer, Michael T. Slager, who shot him in the back as he ran away–and then planted evidence, the allegedly stolen stun gun, next to Scott’s body–is now facing murder charges. My first reaction to this story dipped deep into a constantly replenished well of cynicism:

My guess is, the new strategy is go ahead and indict, and avoid the fuss that will be made if you don’t. You can always acquit later with the right kind of jury.

Hours have passed since I wrote the comment and I see no reason to reconsider. Video evidence–the kind that led to the formulation and pressing of the initial murder charges–has never been considered probative when it comes to assaults on black men by police. And as always, the enduring and transient members of the judiciary–like the jury–will, in all likelihood, worry more about the hit the morale of the good police officers of South Carolina, and perhaps nationwide will take. Such dangerous work, such little reward; surely these men in the line of duty, standing shoulder to shoulder with us in the administration of the law, should be forgiven their minor transgressions?

Melting Glaciers And The End Of Civilization

These are the days of grim warnings about climate change, about an overheated, crowded, polluted planet, slowly cooking in a noxious stew of greenhouse gases, its rivers and oceans clogged with plastic and crude oil, its animals dying, its cities drowning, as floods and famine and hurricane and arctic freezes deliver blow after blow to its staggering frame, bringing it slowly to its knees, to an undignified and premature death.

I have become used to these warnings, to the visions of catastrophe and desolation they induce. Rather, my imagination has tried and failed to reckon with the dimensions of the disaster that is supposedly foretold.  It has retreated to lesser challenges, to conceptualizing and grasping situations more easily brought within its confines.

There are times though, when the evidence for climate change strikes the right chords, when its associated images stand out, brighter and starker than ever. A few days ago, as I watched a documentary on the Alps, I learned once again about the phenomenon of The Receding Glacier: that sad, familiar tale of how these mighty rivers of ice, which once filled valleys and crept up their walls with their accumulated mass, dragging millions of tons of ice, mud, rock, and assorted debris hundreds of miles, forming striated bands of grey, black, and white visible from space, before terminating in lakes and bays and calving off into icebergs. were now melting, drying, and receding, becoming diminished and marginal and pathetic versions of themselves, forced back up the valleys that held them, slowly threatening to disappear, leaving behind scars and tracks of their once mighty presence.

I had heard this all before. It was happening in the Himalayas, in the Andes, in the Rockies. Every mighty mountain range on this globe was diminished. But that was not all.

As I watched the mouth of a glacier give birth to a small stream, which thanks to all the tributaries from other melting points joining it slowly turned into a mighty, frothy cataract speeding down one rapid after other, bringing life and seed and color to mountaintop and meadow and down-valley field, I realized what had happened. The glacier had given birth to a river, one which would become grand and ponderous, heading for its flood plains and delta flats before flowing into the ocean. On the way, it would play its part in sustaining the human communities it made its way through.

And those communities and lives and cultures would be the first ones to go when the rivers that had so animated their regions, watered and fed them and brought them to life, would die once the glaciers and the snowpacks that gave birth to them, and which resupplied them every year, would dry up and vanish. Somehow, I had not realized, when listening to stories of receding glaciers, that I was also being told about rivers drying up. It was only then, when I made the leap from rivers to cities that I also made the most uncomfortable connection of all: the end of glaciers sounded like the end of civilization. 


Foucault And Kripke On Names And Rigid Designators

In ‘What is An Author‘, Michel Foucault writes:

The author’s name is a proper name, and therefore it raises the problems common to all proper names. (Here I refer to Searle’s analyses, among others.’) Obviously, one cannot turn a proper name into a pure and simple reference. It has other than indicative functions: more than an indication, a gesture, a finger pointed at someone, it is the equivalent of a description. When one says “Aristotle,” one employs a word that is the equivalent of one, or a series, of definite descriptions, such as “the author of the Analytics,” “the founder of ontology,” and so forth. One cannot stop there, however, because a proper name does not have just one signification. When we discover that Arthur Rimbaud did not write La Chasse spirituelle, we cannot pretend that the meaning of this proper name, or that of the author, has been altered. The proper name and the author’s name are situated between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link. However – and it is here that the particular difficulties of the author’s name arise – the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author’s name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way. There are several differences.

If for example, Pierre Dupont does not have blue eyes, or was not born in Paris, or is not a doctor, the name Pierre Dupont will still always refer to the same person, such things do not modify the link of designation. The problems raised by the author’s name are much more complex, however. If I discover that Shakespeare was not born in the house we visit today, this is a modification that, obviously, will not alter the functioning of the author’s name. But if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions. If we proved that Shakespeare wrote Bacon’s Organon by showing that the same author wrote both the works of Bacon and those of Shakespeare, that would be a third type of change that would entirely modify the functioning of the author’s name. The author’s name is not, therefore, just a proper name like the rest.

‘Pierre Dupont,’ therefore, is a rigid designator while ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Bacon’ are not.

I do not know whether Foucault had read Kripke at the time of the writing of the above, nor whether the rigid designator theory of proper names was already in wide currency by then (though the Wittgenstein, Searle and Strawson critique of the descriptivist theory of names certainly were). In any case, the passages above seem to suggest an intriguing connection between two theorists not widely taken to have common interests or inclinations.

Note: Michel Foucault, “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie 63, No. 3 (1969) 73-104. Originally delivered as a lecture before the Society in February 1969. The Searle reference is to his 1969 Speech Acts: An Essay in The Philosophy of Language. Kripke’s Naming and Necessity lectures were delivered in January 1970. 

Reprinted in: Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-memory, Practice, Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Trans. D. F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977) 113-38. 

Do States Have A Right To Exist?

It is not uncommon to hear heads of state asserting that other states or international judicial bodies recognize their state’s ‘right to exist.’ While I have heard this right asserted time and again, I have not been able to determine what the grounds for such a right are, whether they are coherent or can be made to appear so.

States are contingent historical entities. They come into being to instantiate particular national and political ideologies; they are, more often than not, propped up by force and standing armies. (This is certainly how they maintain the integrity of their borders and often assert their foreign policies.) Why does such an entity have a right to exist, and why does the preservation of its existence impose a duty on others? Such a right sounds prima facie plausible presumably because to argue against it sounds suspiciously like arguing for the non-existence or destruction of the state in question. That, we can all agree, is a Bad Thing. But that is a confusion. No one denying the existence of a right to exist of a state X is committed to the destruction of the same state; they simply don’t buy the idea that the state possesses some right, natural or otherwise, that guarantees its existence.

What could the grounding of such a right be? It is common, of course, to postulate the rights of legal and political subjects, to speak of the legal, political, and moral rights of citizens of states and moral communities. But what rights do states have? We normally find it more coherent to speak of the duties of states to their citizens; we are used to pondering the limitations that may be placed on their powers. We may speak of the duties citizens have to their states; we can argue argue that these states have rights accruing to them by virtue of the powers and privileges and safeties they provide their citizens; we find the grounding of such duties in some of kind of reciprocity that these citizens owe their homes.

But even then, what duties may other states or the citizens of other states have to this state? And again, how does the mere fact of a state’s existence, an almost entirely contingent historical fact, depending on many accidents to make it a reality, impose a duty on others to respect the facts of that existence? What about the nature of states, their coming to be, and passing away, makes it the case that such entities have a right to exist? More curiously: does anything have the right to exist? What sort of demand on the ontology of this world could such a right be? I do not mean to be difficult or pedantic here. It is one thing altogether to demand that one’s existence be respected, that it not be impinged on, because continuing existence ensures the procurement of certain goods. But the desire that such ends not be curtailed only supports an argument to that effect; it does not generate the grounds for an abstract right to exist.