Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jindal's Trivial Autobiography

Plenty of others have written about the many, many things wrong with Bobby Jindal's response to President Obama Tuesday night, especially its intellectual bankruptcy and Jindal's ghastly delivery. But at the risk of piling on, I want to talk about something else that's been bothering me about that speech, something which seems to have passed without comment: Jindal's bizarre decision to begin his response by discussing his biography.

I understand that this is the Age of the Memoir, both in politics and in the arts. We have a President who published a memoir before beginning his political career, and whose volunteers were trained to tell their own personal stories as a means of persuading voters. We have an entertainment landscape increasingly rich in nonfictional and allegedly non-fictional personal narratives. But was I the only one who appalled when Jindal, speaking on national TV during a national economic crisis, began prattling about his family history and the things his father used to tell him? With the banks failing and the economy in shambles, what Jindal wanted to talk about was, well, Jindal.

I found that approach grotesque, and eerily disconnected from reality. This was a moment to speak to a worried nation about its legitimate worries, to talk about where we are and what we need to do. The occasion demanded an explicit focus on the audience, not on the speaker. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs; this is not about Jindal.

Of course, such an autobiographical preamble is expected and necessary in a campaign speech, especially when a candidate being introduced to a new group of voters. Jindal's little family stories make sense if he's running for President, but to respond to a speech about a major crisis, a month into a new President's administration, by beginning to run for President oneself is similarly grotesque and irresponsible. The televised pundits took it for granted that Jindal would do this, and to them it evidently seemed natural. They are interested in political "personalities" they can shape stories around, and on simple horse-race storylines they can cover without thinking. They're artificial public "personalities" themselves, dedicated to publicizing their personal brands; Jindal's grossly inappropriate behavior was simply the kind of thing the media talking heads do every day. And they have been interested in the run-Bobby-run storyline for some time now: it's a new storyline they want to roll out, with a new character they want to introduce, as if the American political process were merely a game show like Survivor.

After Jindal blithely ignored the economic crisis, various pundits (including bloggers I like very much) asked whether or not Jindal had harmed his presidential aspirations in 2012. This is a profoundly stupid question. In ordinary times, there is nothing wrong with such speculation. But these are not ordinary times, and there are more pressing questions: Will there still be an American auto industry in 2010? Will we have functioning banks six months from now? Will we be able to recover from the recession by 2011? Questions like these not only dwarf the significance of questions about Candidate Jindal, but they obviate them. Bobby Jindal has no political hopes separate from the fate of the nation or of its economy. The success or failure of the economic recovery will determine the political landscape in 2012. Asking whether Jindal helped or hurt his "chances," as a question distinct from the fate of the country, is as stupid as wondering about how the tie you wore to lunch with the boss might affect your career prospects at Citibank. The real questions are whether Citibank will continue to exist, and in what form. The question the pundits natter about can only be answered by the questions that they, like Jindal himself, ignore.

It's clear from the speech what Jindal wants. He's hoping that Obama's attempts to rescue the economy fails, so that Jindal can run on a blame-Obama platform. Thus Jindal's refusal to offer any constructive suggestion, and his urgency to go on record as opposing Obama's policies. That Jindal chose to position himself politically in case of an economic failure, in fact to pin his hopes to four more years of economic disaster, should in itself disqualify him for national office. No one who chooses to play a private game when the public stakes are this high can be trusted.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Larger Peeve

I've realized this week that I've developed a peeve slightly too large to keep as a pet, a specific peeve about the business of academia.

Every so often in a university setting, one meets an older white man who speaks and carries himself with great authority although he hasn't earned the academic credentials that the people whom he's addressing have earned. He may not have published any scholarship; he may not have gotten a doctorate; he may never have been to a major professional conference, let alone given a paper or gotten a job there; but that's okay. He's still perfectly comfortable giving the benefit of his wisdom to junior colleagues who have done all of those things and who might, in some technical sense, outrank him. How else are the youngsters going to learn?

These types seldom hassle me. I'm male and I'm loud and someday I'll probably have nice white patriarchal facial hair. So at least some of these people, alas, tend to decide that I'm their kind of guy, and treat me with more collegial respect than they extend, for example, to women.

That doesn't make the behavior any less appalling to watch, or less insulting. It was one thing in the bad old days, when most of the women in the profession were, of necessity, new to it, and therefore junior to various patronizing graybearded colleagues. The condescension offered to younger female scholars in those days was ugly, and the world could always do with less of that, but it could travel under the color of genuine seniority. But when an older man with limited credentials pays no respect to a scholar's achievements simply because she's a younger than he, when he feels entitled to talk to women who hold degrees that he himself does not as if they were his students, what he's saying is that a white-haired man, indeed any white-haired man, will always have authority over younger women, no matter how much they know, no matter how much he does not. There can be no excuse for that. It's not only a profound insult to women, but a denial of the very project of learning. If knowledge matters less than gender, if a woman's learning counts for less than a man's years, then what on earth is a university for?

And yes, these characters are typically marginal figures, and relatively (albeit insufficiently) rare, and their behavior is transparently asinine. Few people accord them the kind of authority they accord themselves. But they get on my nerves anyway.
To them I say, horsefeathers!

A Small Peeve

I've spent a lot more of the week in the office than I'd like, and a good part of Sunday on hold with various customer service reps, including a rep for the same company with whom I spent a good bit of last Sunday on hold. So it's made me a little peevish, and made me a connoisseur of the "on hold" music they play for you while you wait.

I wish I were big enough, this Sunday, not to be annoyed by the new generation of on-hold recordings, which for some reason feel that you should not be allowed to tune out the Muzak and go about whatever errands you can with the phone pressed to your ear, but should instead be interrupted every ninety seconds by a recorded assurance that they will be with you soon. The effect, of course, is to make the caller think, for a second, that he or she has reached a live operator, as the music cuts out and the infinitesimal pause of expectation follows it. Which means, gallingly, that you are once more forced to pay attention to the nothing happening over the phone, rather than allowing your mind to wander more profitably. It gets me every time. I clearly have a conditioned reflex to read that little hiccup in the music as the advent of a human voice. And this seems to be deliberate: some marketing wizard has decided that things go better for them if the caller's mind is not allowed to wander. It's a small complaint, but I'm peevish today, and it seems a bit uncharitable coming from companies who have generally gotten my attention by not quite providing the services they've sold me.

The company with which I was on hold for a second Sunday in a row has actually refined the snap-the-reader-to-attention trick by prefacing the recorded voice with noise like someone fumbling with a phone. That's right, they have recorded the sound of someone picking up a phone from its cradle to begin their recorded message. That's commitment, baby.