This one being the night question that hit me a couple of days ago. There aren’t that many times in my life I’ve woken up in the middle of the night from a good night’s sleep wide knocked wide awake with some great realization, but it happened to me a couple of nights ago. Lets put it on paper and get it out there and maybe somebody can answer it.
Out at UT two years ago I did some knocking on doors on behalf of the journalist and Latin Americanist John Ross, who writes regularly for CounterPunch. John let out in CP that he was traveling through the US, gave his itinerary, and urged his readers to contact local colleges and universities along his route to get him in for some guest lecturing. I went off to UT, and talked to seven departments sum total, putting on the best sales pitch I could to the department chairs’ secretaries, a couple of the department chairs themselves–Government, History, Spanish, Latin American Studies, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Sociology, and ROTC. Mostly I got listened to politely and it was obvious that nobody was interested in doing anything to get word out to the professors and TA’s about this opportunity, and I most seriously doubt any efforts in that direction were ever made by anyone. Hell, with the web, Ross’ work is easily available and it is eyepoke obvious reading it that anyone who writes that entertaingly well is going to enthrall a classful of bored undergraduates. Zero contact back from UT to Ross or me–absolutely dead issue.
Only exception was Army ROTC. The major who was second in command overheard my talking to the front desk staff and brought me into his office, where we had a really good talk about Ross and Latin America and the Army being the US’ leading foreign policy tool these days to where it made good sense to educate young officers about the rest of the world. The major explained to me that he couldn’t himself invite Ross to speak to any of his classes, on account of DOD regulations, but that if some other department were to invite Ross to speak, he’d be glad to send his cadets over to listen. Of all the offices I walked into, of all the people I talked to, the major was the only one really interested in what I was saying, and he showed more simple human curiosity, and listened and asked questions more, than anyone else I talked to. Part of it was cynically explained to me later that nobody at the University pays any attention to ROTC, so the major was just being flattered by my being the first person to ever walk into his office and offer him and his department anything. I don’t buy that, true that it is–the major had way too much curiosity in him, a whole lot more than anyone else I talked to. Funny about that–career military rarely have any real curiosity about the world around them, and you’d think that academics would be full of it.
So I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about the movie The Battle of Algiers for a long time. It is a superb movie that needs seeing by everyone who is concerned about our wars in the Middle East that we’ve been fighting for seven years now. As entertainment, it is a great movie–it makes most action-adventure thrillers seem lame. Movie makes a lot of critics’ 10 best movies ever made lists, too. Since the wars started, the movie showed for a two weeks at the Dobie Movie Theater in 2006 when Criterion re-released it on its 40th anniversary. Dobie Theater is immediately adjacent to the UT campus and has been an art house economic failure for years now. Doubt the total attendance ran to 200 for its entire run. The Austin Film Society ran it a year later, and filled a 120 seat theater completely. A campus antiwar group did a showing of it once, as did the anarchist bookstore–both DVD showings, both small audiences. To the best of my knowledge, no professor or class has shown it on the UT campus in any class of theirs, either.
Lightbulb went off in my head a while back that hell I ought to get it shown again out at UT. I know the history of those events better than probably anyone else in this big college town, and hell I’ll lead a Q&A afterwards. Went off to the campus antiwar group and made my pitch, and got some interest, but I don’t think that even if I did most all the necessary work in lining everything up they’d do anything much to promote it there on campus, and seeing as there aint a dozen attendees at their meetings, well, you gotta wonder if they’d do, or could do, anything to get a turnout. Lightbulb went off in my head again, and I went back to the major at AROTC, and talked to him about ROTC showing it, and having me do a Q&A, and maybe a followup lecture on the war to the ROTC cadets in all ROTC departments. Pointed out to him that the movie had shown heavily at the Pentagon, and that should get him the green light to take the necessary initiative to show the movie there. The major let it out carefully that showing the movie might be OK, but a guest lecturer might pose problems. He’s working on it, it might happen, I hope it does.
But what woke me up in the middle of the night was the question about why nobody at UT has shown the movie in the last seven years. The major doesn’t know movies, he’d never heard of it, but that can’t be the case for the professoriat, particularly those who lived in the ’60’s and early ’70’s when the movie was a regular show on college campuses. There is, there are, two wars going on, and this movie, the single best most painless most entertaining way of explaining an important big chunk of what is going on in those two wars, isn’t being shown by anyone in local academia. What gives? Why is this? Goddammit this says something important about the University and the professoriat, what is it?
Answers to this aren’t clear to me, and I don’t see but part of them. First thing is that for all the complaints of student apathy politically, particularly about the wars, well professor apathy has to at least match it. Apathy and a sense of powerlessness probably afflicts the academy as much as it does the citizenry at large. That’s part of it.
There’s an answer to be culled somewhere in the John Ross episode, too. The lack of interest shown by all I talked to comes from cliquishness married to bureaucratic cultural norms. I was an outsider walking into their offices at UT and because I wasn’t one of them I didn’t belong there and they could ignore what I had to say. Besides, we all have our plans made already, and they can’t be upset by changing them any, so we can’t change them any by doing anything different now. Come back next semester. That’s what I heard with the John Ross pitch, and if I went around pitching Battle tomorrow that’s what I’d hear again.
That maybe is most of their lack of interest, but their lack of curiosity–not just in John Ross but in this articulate stranger walking in to their office out of the blue–explain that one. My best guess is that curiosity may be a natural enough human characteristic, but it may not be all that common a one, and that Americans, and American society, probably possess it less than most other modern peoples and possess it less now in aggregate than they used to. Electronic entertainment bears some of the blame, but modern bureaucratic culture bears more. Curiosity is at odds with a bureaucracy, it is the nail sticking up most that gets hammered down hardest by bureaucratic authority, particularly small and insecure bureaucratic authority. All the ‘good jobs’ that we are inculcated to aspire to involve some position in a large bureaucracy, and higher education’s main but unstated job is to acculturate and fit us to those positions. And academia is its own bureaucracy, one that doesn’t lack for its share of small and insecure officeholders. Curiosity is fundamentally at odds with academia, both its mission in society at large and its own institutional culture.
People act on moral issues because they have a conscience, in a backwards kind of way–if your conscience bothers you enough, you do something. If you have enough conscience, it bothers you enough to act; otherwise you don’t. Question then is how much of a conscience academia has these days. I’d guess not much, not enough to overcome cliquishness and ingrained bureaucratic cultural norms. The obscene stupidity of these two wars isn’t enough to bother most American’s consciences for them to do anything, and that’s as true for most academics as it is for anyone else. If the obscene stupidity of the wars isn’t bothering your conscience enough to act, at least a little, like by showing a movie to your students, one that they won’t see otherwise most likely, well then the conclusion is obvious that you are badly deficient in the conscience department. And any professor has the same ironclad defense against rightwing blowhards objecting to their showing it that the ROTC major has–hey, if the Pentagon shows it, who are you to complain?
There’s no excuse. But we’d better come up with some explanations.