The Dependence Of Autobiography On Biography (And Vice-Versa)

A few weeks ago, I briefly spoke at a conference hosted in honor of my dissertation advisor’s eightieth birthday. In my talk I offered some personal recollections of having worked with Distinguished Professor Rohit Parikh, his intellectual influence on me, and the various lessons–personal, technical, moral–that I learned along the way from him. As I began my talk, I apologized for what I described as the ‘self-indulgent’ nature of the talk. After all, even though the talk was about Professor Parikh, it would keep me center-stage at all times; I was as much a character as him. The stories I would tell my audience were about him and me; they would describe my passage through my dissertation, my post-doctoral fellowship, and then later, my work as a faculty member of the City University of New York, all the while informed by my advisor’s presence. (And indeed, I found myself telling tales of my first encounter with my advisor, my decision to work on a dissertation topic that spun off from one of his papers, my struggles to become more mathematically proficient, the shaping of my philosophical world-view through the many discussions and conversations we had, and the various insights into mathematical method, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the nature of logic and knowledge that I gleaned over the years from him. I recalled memorable lines, jokes, profundities; I briefly mentioned our political differences.)

As part of my ‘apology’ therefore, I said that in trying to provide a biography of someone I had interacted with over an extended period of time, it was necessary to provide an autobiography as well. I went on to note that this was not surprising: after all, the recountings of our autobiographies must necessarily call on the biographies of others to be made complete. Our lives are not lived in isolation; they inform, interact with, and impinge upon, many other lives. We form relationships with others; we enter into them, and move on out again; they take us from station to station. The stories of our lives, thus, are also the stories of many others’: friends, lovers, enemies, teachers.

Biography and autobiography are fickle genres of story-telling; they rely on memory, and are infected throughout by all kinds of prejudice. The interaction between the two I describe here shows how these errors may accumulate: my autobiography might distort the biography of others. I might cast myself in a more favorable light, paint myself as more virtuous when contrasted with others; if my autobiography is relied upon as a biographical source for others’ lives, these errors will be perpetuated. In the particular forum in which I was recounting my ‘autobiography’ a converse possibility existed: that I would be corrected by the very person whom I was speaking about; my advisor could have raised his hand at some point and told me that he remembered additional details that I had forgotten, or that I had gotten some quote or location or time wrong.

No man is an island and all that.

The Deadly Self-Pity Of The Police

In 1997, as a graduate teaching fellow, I began teaching two introductory classes in philosophy at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Many of my students were training for careers in criminology and law enforcement. Some hoped to join the FBI, yet others, the New York City police force. And, as I had been told (warned?) some of my students were serving NYPD officers, perhaps hoping to become detectives, gain added educational qualifications and so on. In my first semester, I did not meet any of these worthies.

A few weeks into my second semester, soon after I had finished teaching for the night, a student walked up to me, asked me a couple of questions about the material I had just covered and then introduced himself. He was a serving officer in the NYPD, working in a Brooklyn precinct. We chatted for a bit, and then as I headed out to the subway station to take a train home, he accompanied me. At the station he indicated he could wave me through with his card, but feeling uneasy, I politely declined and said I would use a subway token instead. Shortly thereafter we said goodnight. From that night on, after the end of class, he would sometimes accompany me to the station; we would chat about his educational plans and of course, his work at the precinct.

1997 was the year that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been assaulted and sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by the NYPD after being arrested outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush. That incident had sparked angry demonstrations and the same old calls for reform of the NYPD, for an inquiry into race relations in New York City. (Incredibly enough, the officers who assaulted Louima would go on to serve time.)  That fall, that incident was something my new ‘friend’ returned to again and again. It made him ‘unhappy.’

Not because he felt for Louima. Not because he sympathized with a man who had been beaten and raped by the police. Not because he felt for the mothers of the black and Latino men who had been shot dead or assaulted by the NYPD. Not because he thought that communities of color were unjustly targeted by the police. None of that that bothered him. What bothered him was something else altogether. Now, the people of the borough didn’t ‘respect the police’. They were ‘disrespectful.’ They walked by the precinct waving broom handles at the police, shouting angry slogans, reminding the police of the night that another  broom handle had been used to commit sexual assault on someone like them. It was so ‘hurtful’ to see that kind of contempt, that kind of language directed at policemen, who were after all, only trying to ‘do their jobs.’

I was talking to a man who seemed curiously consumed by self-pity. He was not happy his profession was being maligned, but he didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with the way his colleagues–other than a few bad apples, who he wanted to disown all too quickly–behaved with the communities they policed. The police were the real victims here, unfairly made to bear the brunt of a community’s wrath. Louima might have suffered one night, but all the agitators and demonstrators–sometimes folks who didn’t even live in Brooklyn!–were now making life oh-so-difficult for the rest of the police, forced to deal with this daily reminder of their brutality.

What makes policemen really dangerous, I think, is that their implements of destruction do not end with the deadly firearms that they discharge so easily and so carelessly. They carry around too, a toxic mix of self-pity, righteousness, and resentment at a deliberately obtuse world. When they walk the streets, they do not see a ‘community’ around them; they see the sullen, non-compliant subjects of their policing. They are convinced of the rightness of their actions; if they are ever subjected to critique then it must be flawed, infected with an ignorance of the nature of police work. They are mystified and angry. They seek to bring ‘these people’ law and order; why don’t they encounter more welcoming behavior? My ‘friend’ was caught up in this mystery. He could not fathom how the folks who said the police were ‘pigs’ could not separate out the good from the bad, how they could not exercise a discrimination finer than the one they put on display.

In this attitude, urban police forces in America today are very much like occupying and colonial forces elsewhere: they are puzzled why the occupied are not more grateful for the benefactions of the armed forces that stride through their neighborhoods, stopping and frisking, getting young men up against the wall, stamping out ‘disorder’, showing by their body language and their voices that they are armed and dangerous and will not tolerate dissent in any form. And just like those forces the police  ask again and again: Why do they make us hurt them so? Why do they make us do the things we do?

Is there anything more deadly than self-pity, the conviction that you have been sinned against, and the right to use arms?



CUNY Administrators: Hanging with the Powerful

Readers of my ‘With Trustees Like These, Who Needs Enemies‘ series of posts will know that I’m not overly fond of CUNY administration. From interfering with faculty governance, to cracking down on academic freedom, to awarding golden parachutes to overpaid, retiring vice-chancellors, they appear to have most bases covered in their drive to subvert the mission of a public university.

What is it that animates this herd so much? A small clue presents itself for perusal in propaganda missives that are issued by the Office of University Relations, an office presumably dedicated to showing this university in the ‘best light’, and charged, possibly, with highlighting the university’s achievements in all matters academic and cultural. That its publications often serve to echo 80th Street’s party line is, I’m sure, purely accidental. One of the Office of University Relations’ publications is CUNYMatters. In its Spring 2013 issue, on page 5 of the print edition, (i,.e., five pages on from the front page story that glorifies the detested–and contested by faculty–initiative Pathways), we have a photo, prominently placed and highlighted with the tag ‘Inauguration Day 2013’. The caption for the photo reads:

First Lady Michelle Obama, leaves the White House with CUNY Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning Iris Weinshall en route to the U.S. Capitol for President Obama’s ceremonial swearing-in for his second term. Weinshall is married to New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who headed the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Elsewhere, in the same issue of CUNYMatters, we have stories on faculty book publications, grants, student awards, and the other items of news showcasing the life of the mind. But, as noted, we also have this photo noted above.

And what’s the photo about? It shows a CUNY administrator in the presence of Someone Powerful at an Important Event. This ‘powerful’ person is not an elected representative of the people, but the spouse of one, the American President. Nevertheless, this person is the closest we’ll get to American Royalty, so presumably our CUNY Administrator is blessed, and consequently, so are we, her minions. But what has the CUNY Administrator done to deserve this entrée to the corridors of power? She is the Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning at CUNY; is she being recognized for stellar planning of facilities? The caption does not say so. Rather the caption merely notes that she is the spouse of Someone Powerful, a US senator in this case.

So there you have it folks: this is a photo worth publishing in an official publication of the Office of University Relations because a CUNY Administrator, who happens to be the spouse of the US Senator that heads the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and thus was able to score an invite for the inauguration, happened to walk out of the White House–that palace in which American Royalty lives–with the spouse of the President of the US.

Fawning, bended knees to power; basking in reflected glory; these, apparently, are the values of the CUNY Administration, worth highlighting to all and sundry.

With Trustees Like These, Who Needs Enemies? Part Two

Today’s entry–after yesterday’s union-busting lawyer Peter Pantaleo–in the City University of New York‘s Board of Trustees Roll of Dishonor is  Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld. He is:

[A]n investment banker at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, appointed to the Board of Trustees by Gov. Pataki in 1999. Wiesenfeld’s primary qualification for being a trustee is his loyal service to a string of local politicians, including Senator Alfonse D’Amato, Congressman Thomas Manton, Mayor Ed Koch, Borough President Clair Shulman, and Governor George Pataki.

Like yesterday’s entry in this series, Wiesenfeld’s presence on the Board of Trustees of a public university is especially problematic because:

Wiesenfeld’s primary accomplishment during 13 years on the Board has been to instigate a series of scandals in which he has denigrated local politicians and undermined academic freedom.

Things get worse, of course, because Wiesenfeld has distinguished himself by a not-so-covert racism:

In his role as Trustee, he sought to block the awarding of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner by John Jay College. In his speech at the Boardand in subsequent comments he attacked the Jewish playwright as an anti-Semite and went on to accuse Palestinians who support attacks against Israel of being “non-human.”….In 2007, Wiesenfeld, as part of “Stop the Madrassa,” worked to block the opening of the Khalil Gibran InternationalAcademy and succeeded in ousting its first principal over the use of the word “intifada” on a sweatshirt being sold by a group that supported the school. Wiesenfeld claimed that, “while not all Muslims are terrorists, almost all terrorists are Muslims.”….[A]ccording to the Daily News, during Wiesenfeld’s conformation process for appointment to the Board there were “allegations that he referred to blacks as ‘savages’ and Hasidic Jews as ‘thieves,’ leading Sen. Daniel Hevesi tospeak out against his confirmation.

I have had an indirect encounter  with Wiesenfeld. In February 2012, in my capacity as Faculty Associate at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, I organized a reading group of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. The selection of this book for reading and discussion resulted in an angry outburst from Professor Mitchell Langbert, protesting the choice of the book, and who, in reading from the Alan Dershowitz playbook, demanded ‘balance.’ Langbert also alerted Wiesenfeld to the subversive act of reading a book on campus, who then wrote in an email:

This is the curse of academia: no honest debate. Just shut your opponents down. Ahhh…but if political islamists come along, the liberalls[sic] cower. Nothing like implied or real threats of violence to take campus control. Checkpoints and BDS conferences anyone?

Mention of BDS conferences reminds us, of course, of:

Wiesenfeld played a similar role in trying to block the BDS event at Brooklyn College. He accused the Political Science Department of staging a racist, anti-Semitic, and “Nuremberg- type event.” He again worked closely with Dov Hikind, who organized a protest outside the College gates, attacking the rights of faculty to co-sponsor the event. Some of those involved, including City Council members, went on to write letters threatening the College’s funding, a position Wiesenfeld has never publicly denounced.

So, we have a racist ideologue who sits on the Board of Trustees of a public university with one of the most racially and ethnically diverse student bodies in the nation. A perfect fit.

With Trustees Like These, Who Needs Enemies? Part One

The City University of New York is a public university. Presumably, its Board of Trustees is staffed by those who have the interests of their constituency–students and teachers–first and foremost. Not so. As faculty and students find out, the Trustees includes many members whose qualifications for this job appear radically antithetical to this university’s mission. The staff union for the City University, the Professional Staff Congress, has started to publish a series of articles on their blog, detailing these folks’ backgrounds, careers, and achievements, all of which make for very sobering reading. I intend to link to these posts and post excerpts here.

Some background:

The CUNY Board of Trustees has 17 members, including two ex officio members: the head of the CUNY University Student Senate, and the head of the University Faculty Senate (who cannot vote).  The other members are appointed by either the Mayor or the Governor. Eight members were initially appointed by Pataki, four by Bloomberg, and one each by Giuliani, Patterson, and Cuomo. They serve seven year terms and can be reappointed for additional terms. The Chairman of the Board is Benno Schmidt, the only educator appointed to the Board, though his interests in for-profit education and corporate led “reform” movements will be discussed in a later post. Official bios can be found at

Now for today’s exhibits. First up, a ‘union-busting lawyer’, Peter Pantaleo:

Democratic Governor David Paterson appointed Peter S. Pantaleo, a top professional in the lucrative field of anti-unionism. The Board of Trustees website (  identifies Pantaleo as a “Partner at DLA PIPER,” adding: “Mr. Pantaleo represents both domestic and international employers in labor, employment, and civil rights matters. While he has substantial experience litigating cases before courts, administrative agencies, and arbitration panels, the principal focus of Mr. Pantaleo’s practice is advising employers in complex, politically sensitive labor and employment matters.”

DLA PIPER is the largest law firm in the U.S. by attorney headcount, reportedly representing half the Fortune 500. Its website includes a “Labor and Employment Alert” giving employers step-by-step instructions on how to use a recent decision of the anti-labor NLRB to “prohibit use of email for union organizing purposes.” This is remarkably similar to what happened at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College, which banned faculty from using email to discuss union business until this gag rule was defeated by the union.

Pantaleo has worked for the Las Vegas MGM Grand hotel during its campaign to stop a unionization drive (New York Times, 10 March 1997). His old firm Pantaleo, Lipkin & Moss represented Las Vegas bosses at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) who banned three workers from handing out pro-union leaflets at the entrance to a casino/hotel complex.

In May 1998 Pantaleo co-authored an article in Gaming Law Review describing strategies for “lessening the power” of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.  Another Pantaleo piece, from 2004, tells employers in non-union workplaces how to use a NLRB rulings to prevent employees from having a coworker present during “investigatory interviews” (Monday Business Briefing, 5 July 2004).

 So in sum, we have a trustee appointed to the board on the basis of his experience in attacking unionized workers. The staff of the City University are unionized; this trustee’s role is a purely antagonistic one toward them. How reassuring.

In tomorrow’s post, we will consider another stellar member of this elite group. Stay tuned.

Op-Eds and the Social Context of Science

A few years ago, I taught the third of four special interdisciplinary seminars that students of the CUNY Honors College are required to complete during the course of their degrees. The CHC3 seminar is titled Science and Technology in New York City, a moniker that is open, and subject to, broad interpretation by any faculty member that teaches it. In my three terms of teaching it, I used it to introduce to my students–many of whom were science majors and planned to go on to graduate work in the sciences–among other things, the practice of science and the development and deployment of technology in urban spaces. This treatment almost invariably required me to introduce the notion of a social history of science, among whose notions are that science does not operate independent of its social context, that scientists are social and political actors, that scientific laboratories are social and political spaces, not just repositories for scientific equipment, that scientific theories, ‘advances’ and ‘truths’ bear the mark of historical contingencies and developments. (One of my favorite discussion-inducing examples was to point to the amazing pace of scientific and technological progress in the years from 1939 to 1945 and ask: What could have brought this about?)

If I were teaching that class this semester, I would have brought in Phillip M. Boffey‘s Op-Ed (‘The Next Frontier is Inside Your Brain‘, New York Times, February 23) for a classroom discussion activity. I would have pointed out to my students that the practice of science requires funding, sometimes from private sources, sometimes from governmental ones. This funding does not happen without contestation; it requires justification, because funds are limited and there are invariably more requests for funding than can be satisfied, and sometimes because there is skepticism about the scientific worth of the work proposed. So the practice of science has a rhetorical edge to it; its practitioners–and those who believe in the value of their work–must convince, persuade, and argue. They must establish the worth of what they do to the society that plays host to them.

Boffey’s Op-Ed then, would have served as a classic example of this aspect of the practice of science. It aims to build public support for research projects in neuroscience, because, as Boffey notes at the very outset:

The Obama administration is planning a multiyear research effort to produce an “activity map” that would show in unprecedented detail the workings of the human brain, the most complex organ in the body. It is a breathtaking goal at a time when Washington, hobbled by partisan gridlock and deficit worries, seems unable to launch any major new programs.

This effort — if sufficiently financed — could develop new tools and techniques that would lead to a much deeper understanding of how the brain works. [link  in original]

And then Boffey is off and running. For Congressmen need to be convinced; perhaps petitions will have to be signed; perhaps other competitors who also hope to be ‘sufficiently financed’ need to be shown to be less urgent. And what better place to place and present these arguments than the nation’s media outlets, perhaps its most prominent newspaper?

The scientist as polemicist is one of the many roles a scientist may be called on to play in his work in science. Sometimes his work may be done, in part, by those who have been persuaded by him already. Boffey’s arguments, his language, his framing of the importance of the forthcoming legislation, would, I think, all serve to show to my imagined students this very important component of the practice of science.