Glenn Beck, consider yourself on notice.

You denounced $500,000 in government subsidies to help the National Czech and Slovak Museum after it was hit by massive flooding in Cedar Rapids as one of your stupid, ill-informed examples of “waste” in how taxpayer dollars are spent?

$500,000 for exhibits at the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids — what about the Serb, Croatian and Albanian exhibits? Don’t we care about them?

While I’m a bit surprised you managed to name three separate East-Central European ethnic groups (I honestly didn’t think you were that knowledgeable), your snide rhetorical question lacks any logic.

Do us a favor: when it comes to a question about which you know little or nothing, just keep your mouth shut.

(Yes, I realize this means you’ll have to be silent pretty much all the time. That’s the point.)

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has a fascinating post at NPR on the linguistic vacuity of the Pledge of Allegiance. Nunberg does a nice job of explaining some key bits of historical context pertaining to the origins (and evolution) of the Pledge, and showing how the Pledge is little more than a ritual lacking a real connection to the language therein.

Particularly interesting is Nunberg’s explanation about how Congress inserted the politically thorny phrase “under God” into the Pledge during the Cold War. It’s rather archaic language, though the obsolescence of “under God” isn’t without its advantages, as Nunberg explains.

That ambiguity has certain advantages. But it actually came about because of a linguistic misunderstanding. The words were taken from the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln asked his listeners to resolve that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Except that in the Gettysburg Address, “under God” didn’t modify “this nation” but the following phrase, “have a new birth of freedom.” In Lincoln’s time, “under God” was a common idiom that meant “with God’s help” or “the Lord willing.” People used it to qualify a bald prediction or promise, mindful of the admonition against vainglory in the book of James.

Inshallah indeed.

And as a tangent: before traveling to Egypt several years ago, I had read in some guidebook that inshallah — “God willing” — was a commonly used Arabic phrase. I had no idea how common, however, until I spent two weeks in Egypt and heard it peppering everyday speech. I can still recall my good friend hailing a cab for us back to his flat in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, leaning into the window of a taxi, and saying to the driver, “Mohandiseen, inshallah. The use of inshallah made his statement a question, practically a plea. Literally, it was like flagging down a taxi in Manhattan, then asking the cabbie, “Brooklyn, God willing.” But in everyday speech, it functioned more like asking, “Will you take us to Mohandiseen?” Still, the fact that my doggedly atheistic friend was invoking God in hailing a cab offered a clue to how ubiquitous inshallah was in Arabic speech.

Now, I know the NYT isn’t necessarily going to produce the most insightful reporting on the Tea Party movement, and articles with headlines like “With No Job, Time for Tea Party” smack of elitist smugness.

Still, it’s hard not to think that this air of condescension isn’t warranted, when you read about some of the illogic at work in the minds of Tea Partiers.

For instance, this story refers to a woman from the Philadelphia area, Diana Reimer, as one of the “stars” in the effort of a Tea Party group called FreedomWorks to fight health care reform.

On the one hand, you have to respect someone willing to toil so hard for a cause in which she believes.

Ms. Reimer often wells up talking about her work. “I’m respected,” she said, her voice breaking. “I don’t know why. I don’t know what is so special. But I’m willing to do it.”

On the other hand, you’d like to see a little more thought and reason put into that cause and her efforts to advance it.

She and others who receive government benefits like Medicare and Social Security said they paid into those programs, so they are getting what they deserve. [Emphasis added.]

“All I know is government was put here for certain reasons,” Ms. Reimer said. “They were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.”

She has no patience for the Obama administration’s bailouts and its actions on health care. “I just don’t trust this government,” Ms. Reimer said.

So much to parse. There’s the objectionable premise that only those who “paid” into entitlement programs are, well, entitled to collect those benefits. By this logic, public education is a crock since there aren’t a whole lot of first-graders paying the property taxes that support their education. (And yes, I’m aware that most kids’ parents are paying in some form or another for the property taxes that finance public schools. But if you have to make that kind of a retort, it just illustrates how torturous your logic is.)

Then there’s also the part about finding it OK to accept Medicare while simultaneously railing against government-sponsored and -funded health care.

Honestly, we ought simply to repay these people the money they “paid” into the Medicare and Social Security systems over the years, then let them fend for themselves in the eternally virtuous free market when it comes to health care and retirement income. Maybe they won’t think so harshly of government involvement in health care when they find no corporation willing to insure a senior citizen without premiums that are astronomical above and beyond the currently stratospheric levels.

Then there’s Jeff McQueen, who got involved with Tea Partying in the Rust Belt after losing his job in auto parts sales.

He blames the government for his unemployment. “Government is absolutely responsible, not because of what they did recently with the car companies, but what they’ve done since the 1980s,” he said. “The government has allowed free trade and never set up any rules.”

He and others do not see any contradictions in their arguments for smaller government even as they argue that it should do more to prevent job loss or cuts to Medicare. After a year of angry debate, emotion outweighs fact.

If you don’t trust the mindset or the value system of the people running the system, you can’t even look at the facts anymore,” Mr. Grimes said. [Emphasis added.]

Well, you certainly can’t reason — or argue — with that (il-)logic. Though I do think it nicely encapsulates a problem pervasive in politics of all persuasions, and why it’s increasingly difficult to find any sort of common political ground on anything. After all, if you don’t share the mindset and value system of the person dispensing the facts, then you just can’t be bothered with facts.

I’ve been kind of down on academia the past couple of months. In large measure this is a function of having absolutely zero success on the job markket — I’ve failed to generate any response from a single search committee other than the standard form letters and rejection notices, much less a measly interview. It’s easy to get down on academia when it feels like academia is down on you.

At the same time, I think I’ve finally started to believe my own words of wisdom to myself about how my non-success to date in landing a job is largely a reflection of the changed reality of the humanities job market, in which a severe overpopulation of soon-to-be and newly minted Ph.D.’s is coupled with across-the-board budget cuts. This combination of too much supply and too little demand translates to a shortage of advertised job vacancies, but also to scenarios where upwards of two hundred people are applying for a single job with a teaching load from hell at Directional State University in the state of Miserable Place to Live. It must be a grand old time to be one of the departments with the wherewithal to make a new hire. But it’s not exactly a recipe for professional success if, like me, you’re looking for a job.

Anyway, even though I’ve known for a while that this is the current reality of the academic job market, I found it difficult until recently not to interpret my complete lack of success as a reflection of some failing on my part. It’s just hard not to take it personally.

Striking out repeatedly on the job market and feeling down about my prospects in my chosen field led me to check out mentally from academia. As I began to doubt whether I’d ever find a job, I found it harder and harder to put any effort into anything academic. Grading, teaching, applying for jobs, even revising my dissertation — my performance across the board probably suffered, since I just didn’t believe in it with the same conviction that I had just a few short months ago.

I feel like my attitude has softened, and perhaps even improved these past few days. Part of it may be a function of not interpreting my disappointment with the job market as an indictment of my own abilities. Part of it may even be a case of me making my peace with the increasingly likely prospect of never landing that coveted tenure-track job at a good university.

But I think a lot of it is attributable to a kind of happenstance, almost an accident.

A few months ago, I applied to teach a class for my department this summer. I figured I could use the summer income regardless of what happens with the job market, and I got assigned to teach the same one-month European survey I taught last summer. That was a real blessing, in my eyes, since it meant minimal preparation would be required on my part, and, needless to say, I’ve found it hard to summon a lot of motivation and enthusiasm these days for teaching.

But then a few weeks ago, I got an e-mail asking if I’d be willing to teach a second course, a junior seminar, to round out the department’s summer offerings. I mulled it over for a couple of weeks, since it’d be sticking around an extra month this summer, though it would also double my income. Plus, being a seminar, I’d only have to teach one day a week, and I wouldn’t need to write lectures. Ultimately, I decided that whatever happened with the job market, it was probably a minimal gamble, and it certainly stood to be a relatively lucrative one on my end.

So, I accepted the offer last week, then pitched a few topics. I mostly stuck to familiar topics, things I had already taught or that were firmly grounded in my field (unlike survey courses, which require me to stretch my knowledge). After some consultation, I settled on a topic — the fall of the Iron Curtain — and after wrapping up the revisions to my dissertation last week, I set to work this past weekend on putting together my syllabus.

The funny thing was, what began as largely a chore of designing a new course from scratch turned out to be pretty enjoyable. This seminar is, arguably, the first class I’ve taught that’s entirely within my expertise (my history of communism class from last year largely tread on familiar ground, but I’m still far from an expert on Asian or Latin American communism). Instead of hunting around online and in the library catalog, trying to find syllabi from similar classes to poach, I already had a few books in mind and mostly pulled a bunch of them off my bookshelf.

As I flipped through my books, it was likely visiting with a familiar old friend. I remembered how much I love my topic, how passionate I am about the history of East-Central Europe, and it reminded me why, so many years ago, I thought I wanted to make this my career.

To make a long story short, I chose my topic well, since I’m not wanting for motivation or enthusiasm. It’s going to be an easy class for me to teach, not only in terms of not having to teach myself a lot of new material before I teach my students, but also in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a chore in the way prepping for classes out of my sweet spot often does.

And, even more surprising, my revived interest in academia got me sufficiently motivated to complete three job applications yesterday. One of them was even a tenure-track position at a school that, while not necessarily prestigious, is at least located in a good climate. Even though this particular job advertised for a military historian, my adviser was in contact with the chair of the search committee, who said they’d be interested in someone like me, provided I could teach a class on military history. And as I thought about it, I came up with what I felt was a pretty good argument for why I “do” military history — or at least for why there’s considerable content on military history in my dissertation. I think I wrote a pretty good cover letter, and I actually felt sufficiently reinvigorated by things that I rattled off applications I had put off for weeks for a couple of one-year positions.

Maybe it’s just that I feel a sense of liberation, since I’m not really expecting anything to come of these applications. At least, I’m not investing a lot emotionally in the outcome. I assume it’s more likely than not that I won’t get any of them, but perhaps I can get someone to show at least a little interest, and at this point that tiny bit of affirmation would make me feel good.

Mostly, though, I think it’s a function of being reminded, after having lost sight for some months, why I thought this was a good path to follow in my life.

I suppose if these are, in fact, my final months in academia (or at least before I become a glorified hanger-on without any formal standing), I might as well enjoy them.

There’s nothing that raises hackles like some stupid nationalistic law trying to compel patriotism.

This week it happened in Slovakia, where the ruling left-wing/nationalist coalition passed a “law on patriotism” that requires students at all state schools and universities to sing the national hymn at the beginning of each week, as well as promoting the Slovak flag and other national symbols.

The new law isn’t universally popular within Slovakia, where people in some quarters are complaining about the effort to mandate this kind of patriotic ritual.

Moreover, the law is raising alarms among Slovakia’s neighbors. In Austria, an editorial this week responded to the patriotism law by describing Bratislava as “Pyongyang on the Danube.” I haven’t seen any reports about the reaction from Hungary, but it’s pretty clear that the language law, which looks like yet another sop by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing party Smer to the right-wing Slovak National Party, notorious for its baiting of Slovakia’s Magyar minority (as well as the Roma population).

Of course, it’s also interesting to see the backlash to the law, then to think about how American schools arguably take it further. I think we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day I was in public school, though I suppose there’s no federal law requiring recitation of the pledge, as far as I know. Then there was that whole period in fourth grade, during Gulf War I, when Mrs. Banks had our class signing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” almost daily.

I guess, again, the operative difference is the element of legal compulsion. Still, it’s not like most schoolchildren are really old enough or informed enough to decide for themselves whether they want to participate in such nationalistic rituals.

Plus, it would be hilarious if, for instance, the Globe and Mail took to referring to D.C. as “Pyongyang on the Potomac.” It has a ring to it.

End in sight

Long ago, around the time I was starting graduate school, or maybe even when I was still just considering it, I recall someone telling me something to the effect that you finish graduate school once you reach a point where you hate your dissertation. Or being a graduate student. Something like that. The upshot was that it’s once you’ve had your fill of being a grad student and writing a dissertation that you hunker down and finish.

Well, I think I’m about at that point.

Essentially, I took a whole year off from working on my dissertation. I finished the first full draft at the end of January 2009, and while I read through it a couple of months later to do some proofreading, it was only in early February 2010 that I sat down to start making revisions.

I was fortunate that the comments I had from my readers were extremely positive and indicated that there weren’t major problems. There were some things that I needed to fix, a few points that needed more explanation or development, but it was all relatively minor.

Anyway, earlier this month, after I finished writing lectures for the quarter, I finally got around to starting the revisions. I looked through the comments I received on my drafts, made a list of corrections, pulled out the relevant books, and got cracking. It took a little more than a week to get through the initial pass. The worst of it was the beginning, since the biggest revision was rejiggering the introduction and first chapter, mostly to shift sections around, but it also required me to reshape Chapter 1 slightly.

I submitted the revised Introduction and Chapter 1 to my writing group as my quarterly contribution and got some helpful feedback. Today I finally got down to making those changes, though I probably didn’t do justice to all the feedback my colleagues offered.

I’m just finding it hard to summon the motivation to make substantial changes. A large part of it, I suspect, is that I’ve known I could more or less coast on the initial draft I finished writing last year. And I’ve certainly improved upon that, based on the comments from my committee and my writing group. But I also feel like I’m at a point of diminishing marginal returns, where it would take an obscene expenditure of time and effort to generate minor improvements in quality.

On some level, I’m telling myself I can get away with what I have because it leaves something to revise if and when I publish my dissertation as an honest-to-goodness book in the next few years. But I’ve also been writing my dissertation like a book manuscript to minimize the amount of work I’d have to do down the road. And my committee members have commented that they’re impressed that my dissertation reads more like a book than a dissertation.

Anyway, I just feel more and more like I’m ready to throw in the towel and run out the clock. The sooner I decide I’m finished with revisions, the sooner I can give it to my committee and schedule my defense. And the sooner I defend, the sooner I can advance to goofing off until graduation.

It’s just odd, because in a lot of ways I feel like I have senioritis, even though I’m a (theoretically) responsible adult and on the cusp of receiving my doctorate. It’s also odd because I don’t think I really suffered from senioritis in high school or college.

Of course, I still have the important task of deciding whether to change the title of my dissertation. I’ve been using the same boring descriptive title I’ve been using ever since I had to list a working title on grant applications several years ago. But more recently I’ve been toying with the idea of changing to something quirkier or cleverer, or at least resurrecting the informal title I devised long ago: “Springtime for Dubček and Slovakia.” I haven’t decided.

Without comment

(Source: Martin Šutovec, Sme, 17 Feb. 2010)