Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Killing is Fun – Try It

Turn on the TV and you’ll see an ad for the latest Mad Max film, “Fury Road”. It looks exciting in the trailer – lots of explosions and impossible stunts. The trailer has been edited for family viewing, so nobody dies.

But the film itself is filled with death. The simplest way to create drama is to threaten death, and Hollywood usually goes for simple. To keep up the tension for 120 minutes, the threat of death must be constant, which means lots of killing.

I didn’t see the earlier Mad Max films, because I think that Mel Gibson is a creep, and I won’t see this one. I’m not a big fan of killing as entertainment, and that puts me out of the current mainstream. The movie reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Colin Covert, loved “Fury Road”. He said something about the film that surprised me – all that killing was “playful fun”. Although the plot is based on “knocking off supporting characters by the hundreds” and “endless carnage”, it’s “uproariously funny”. Colvert is not alone. The reviewer for the New York Times, A. O. Scott, was slightly more critical of “Fury Road”, but he gave the film 5 stars out of a possible 5, applauded the “enormous pleasure” of watching the mayhem, and ended by saying, “It’s all great fun.” Seeing people die onscreen is a good time.

Mass killing in movies is not new. Just the other day I saw the first spaghetti western with Clint Eastwood, “A Fistful of Dollars”, from 1964. I like westerns and I like Eastwood’s laconic and nameless character. Dozens of men are killed before our eyes. One scene shows the bad guy machine-gunning a whole company of Mexican soldiers, and we see them die one by one. Later he and his henchmen shoot their rivals as they emerge from their burning home, one a time even more slowly, perhaps twenty of them. The bad guys laugh, but they’re Mexicans, a bit of racism that was acceptable in 1964. Although Clint himself shot about a dozen people, he always let them draw first.

Fifty years later, killing is fun for everyone. Buy some popcorn, say the reviewers, watch a lot of people die, and have a great time.

I know the rate of violent crime in the US has been falling. But I can’t help thinking that we are systematically anesthetizing ourselves, especially our young, to the real horror of death. Video games, which began with colorful little men running around on screen, now feature eternal warfare. Make a kill, get a thrill, do it again a hundred times.

Back when Clint Eastwood was shooting Mexicans, our media and government said our culture was superior, because, for example, Asians didn’t value life as we did. Our methods of warfare in Vietnam demonstrated the irony of that claim. Now we don’t even pretend to value life.

I haven’t lived everywhere, but I have seen no other culture where killing people is so ubiquitously presented as entertainment.

Turn on the news and there’s more killing. Reporters put on serious faces, but they and their media bosses pounce on any murder, any time, any place, to splash all over our screens. This televised taste for blood assures any potential killer that he’ll get his 15 minutes of fame or more. The dominance of crime stories over all other types of news was already documented in studies in the 1990s. Since then murder has come to dominate nearly all types of TV programming.

In 1993, the group National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children launched an attempt to “alert society to its insensitivity towards murder”, using the acronym MINE, Murder Is Not Entertainment. That effort has been a dismal failure. Marketing murder makes millions. I can’t predict the long-term effects to our society of the ubiquity of murder on screen. But they can’t be good.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 19, 2015

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Jacksonville, Incubator of Greatness

Jacksonville is a lovely town, in every sense. I had never heard of Jacksonville or Illinois College when my wife, Elizabeth Tobin, was invited to visit as a candidate to be Dean of the College. Since I’ve been here in the Midwest, I have met many other people who have never heard of either, even in Chicago. Those who have heard of Jacksonville need geographical orientation to place it on their mental map: it’s west of Springfield. Lovely, but insignificant.

So it surprised me to read this sentence: “The chief centers of philosophic discourse in the Midwest in the second half of the nineteenth century were St. Louis and Jacksonville . . .” That’s how Paul Russell Anderson began an article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1941.

But it didn’t surprise me much. Jacksonville in the 19th century really was “the Athens of the Midwest”. In 1834, it was the largest city in Illinois. Jacksonville developed a treasure of institutions. Before the Civil War, when just a handful of women’s colleges had been founded in the US, Jacksonville had two. Leading educators of the deaf and the blind made these two state institutions in Jacksonville national models of progressive and well-run schools.

Jacksonville constructed a treasure of architectural history. The remarkably preserved homes in Jacksonville’s Historic District have been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. There are hundreds of beautiful examples of over 30 architectural styles. Our city’s collective decision to invest in the historical recovery of the downtown demonstrated an understanding of the special value of our buildings.

Jacksonville encouraged a treasure of social organizations promoting knowledge, education and social justice. The Ladies Education Society began supporting college education for poor women in 1833, and it is now the oldest women’s organization in United States. In the same year that a pioneering women’s club was founded in New York, 1868, Jacksonville women founded the similarly named Sorosis, where thoughtful women still give papers every month. Men’s and women’s literary societies in town and at the colleges proliferated and survived until today.

When William Jennings Bryan ran for President in 1896, 1900 and 1908, and said he had been educated at Illinois College in Jacksonville, it was no surprise. Our local reputation has largely been forgotten. Jacksonville reached the peak of its renown around 1900. Business was still good in and around Jacksonville. Splendid homes were built, radiating out from the downtown square, which attracted customers from the surrounding counties. Jacksonville retained its regional magnetism for trade and industry through the world wars. But our population has been declining for over a century. The colleges and state institutions lost their national influence. Jacksonville gradually tumbled into lovely obscurity.

Jacksonville will never recover its national significance. But we can do a better job of remembering and celebrating our glorious past. It’s time to celebrate our local heritage and tell the world of our remarkable history. As my contribution to the recovery of Jacksonville’s illustrious history, I offer a few hundred local characters. “Jacksonville Characters” is an online list of short biographies of people who lived in Jacksonville. This list is as accurate as I could manage. The descriptions of each person’s life are based on a serious effort to find reliable information. Many names appear on this list because they or their families were mentioned in oral history interviews, stored in the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College, a trove of personal stories and Jacksonville history.

Then one name led to another. Occasionally I would burrow into some part of Jacksonville’s past and come up with names and accomplishments that have been forgotten. This list is not an equal representation of Jacksonville. As much as I tried to unearth the biographies of some lesser known names, every source of information in media, in archives, and on the internet favors the prominent, the wealthy, and the educated.

You can see this list by going to the Illinois College website:  http://www.ic.edu/RelId/635649/ISvars/default/Jacksonville_Characters.htm
Check out the achievements of Professor Hiram K. Jones and Dr. Anne McFarland Sharpe. Look up ice cream shops like Merrigan’s and industrial families like the Capps. Search for the family who began the Ayers Bank and those who were involved in its collapse in 1932. Find the pioneering educators who taught young women science and languages at the Jacksonville Female Academy beginning in 1830.

Nearly every day I use this list and add to it. Every few months, the version on our website will be refreshed with additional names. I welcome new or corrected information about anyone here or suggestions about any other Jacksonville character. I can be reached at shochsta@mail.ic.edu.

Seeking information about one Jacksonville person after another has demonstrated to me their many accomplishments and personal strengths – I call them characters with respect. I believe this list also demonstrates the character of Jacksonville, an incubator of greatness since its founding in 1825. It’s time that everyone heard of us.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 12, 2015

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

There’s Nothing New About Political Correctness

I took a student’s essay to bed last night. But I shouldn’t tell her that when I give it back to her.

That I had to work late on Sunday night might surprise those Americans who think “teachers”, especially “college professors”, have an easy life. It would not surprise the conservative politicians, who know better, but encourage that belief as much as they can anyway. But that’s a different essay.

My student might be amused to think I was reading her writing in my pajamas, or she might be annoyed that I might be dozing over her work, or she might be awestruck by how hard I was working. But the connection of bed and her and me in one sentence might trigger a different reaction, an uncertainty about what I really meant, a fear that I might be flirting, and a loss of trust in my academic role.

Among 20-year old American women, raised on the most lurid narratives that the private media can think up, that would not be such a leap. Years of weekly headlines about some teacher somewhere in the 50 states caught having sex with his students will already have raised question marks about male teachers.

So I shouldn’t say it. I can assure her that I took her work seriously without leaving any uncomfortable questions open. I can think carefully about every word I say. Political Correctness!” shouts the right. When being politically incorrect means frightening and perhaps misleading one of my students, for whom I am a major authority figure, why make that choice? When recognizing that precisely that kind of double speak has enforced some men’s sexual power and gives the rest of us a bad reputation, why choose that?

The whole political correctness chant, made up by the right as their major reaction to the human rights movements of the 1960s, is nonsense. Every human society advanced enough to have politics has rules about politically correct speech. I can say things in my classroom now that my own teachers would never have said, for fear of being labeled politically incorrect. They couldn’t reprimand a student for saying something disparaging about a black woman or a gay man, without concern that they would get in political trouble. Politicians were worried about talking too respectfully, too equally, about African Americans, women or homosexuals.

A racist and sexist society enforced these rules. I’m glad that the spectrum of political correctness has shifted in my lifetime. I have more freedom to speak the truth about history, and people with prejudices have less freedom to indulge them in public.

The real question was never whether there would be political correctness. It always has been “what kind?” Lately we have been hearing about new demands on our speech. Some students and some adults want teachers to issue disclaimers when we are about to say something that could be upsetting to some students. These notifications are called trigger warnings. At University of California at Santa Barbara, the Student Senate passed a resolution mandating such trigger warnings in syllabi, possibly for each class session, to alert those students who have suffered trauma, like sexual assault, that they may encounter upsetting material. The Oberlin College faculty guide about how to act in the newly aware classroom is lengthy, detailed, and guaranteed to make faculty uncomfortable. The list of subjects about which students should be warned has been growing much too rapidly: it now includes snakes, vomit, and skulls and skeletons (avoid Halloween!).

Conservatives have gleefully leaped on this scattered demand for trigger warnings to criticize the whole academic enterprise. Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation said, “Issues like this are part of the reason students, parents and employers are increasingly questioning the value of a bachelor’s degree and even whether its time as a proxy of employability has passed.” Of course, it is not true that college education is “increasingly questioned”, except by those who are trying to discredit it.

Although I am in favor of carefully choosing my words, in and outside of class, I’m not in favor of trigger warnings. What’s the difference between the two situations I have outlined? For me the crucial distinction is that one interaction takes place in the classroom and one is personal. What we can say and ought to say to a class about our mutual subject is not the same as what we can say and ought to say to one of our students when we are speaking alone. I can tell the class “I love you”, but obviously not one student. I can describe in my course Holocaust events which might make students cry, as it often makes me cry. The point is not to upset them, but to show them what happened in the not-so-distant past, what its causes were, and how different kinds of people responded. If they are not upset, they are not paying attention.

But a student sitting in my office is a different kind of audience. I’ll take care not to bring up subjects with double meanings, that might maker her feel diminished or threatened. Life is upsetting enough without worrying that your teacher is hitting on you.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 5, 2015