Why Justice Dept. Checked Foreign Universities' Libraries

The U.S. Justice Department on Friday filed a brief defending President Trump against a suit charging that he is in violation of the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, which bars government leaders from taking gifts from foreign leaders. The suit charges that President Trump's hotels and restaurants provide a conduit for such gifts when foreign entities use them.

The Guardian noted that, among the Justice Department's many arguments that Trump is doing nothing wrong was one involving the libraries of universities outside the United States. And indeed on page 64 of the brief, the department suggests that many presidents have had international income. As an illustration of this, the brief notes that some of President Obama's international income "likely" included royalties on his books, which the department said catalogs verified were present in public university libraries outside the U.S. Those cited are in Australia (the University of Melbourne), Canada (the University of Ottawa) and China (Beijing Normal University and Peking University).

The photo above left is of a room in the Trump hotel in Washington. Above right is a Chinese edition of Obama's Dreams From My Father.

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What Orwell says to us about America today (essay)

It’s not every day that an almost 70-year-old book catapults up the best-seller charts. George Orwell’s 1984 has topped various Amazon best-seller lists several times since mid-January, on the heels of the U.S. presidential inauguration. It’s also been featured at brick-and-mortar stores. For instance, in my neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the owner of an independent store has an Orwell display in his window and reports he’s sold a stack of copies akin to a new Harry Potter.

Who knew that Donald Trump would be good for the book trade?

Assigned in most American high schools, 1984 has sold continuously since its publication in 1949, but now, at a time when one of the president’s press officers declares that there are “alternative facts,” it has struck a renewed chord. It seems as if we have gone through the looking glass and entered a world where, in the words of 1984, “War is peace” and history is rewritten each day.

Still, the analogy can be a bit too easy. How does 1984 fit our world, and how not?

No doubt 1984 captures some sense of living in the modern era, with extensive government, military, technology and media. But in Orwell’s imagined Oceania, the state is monolithic, overseeing all activity with total control. It provides all goods and supervises all work. It sees what you do, tells you what to do, monitors what you think and punishes any variance.

A chilling vision, but that misses perhaps the most distinctive sense of our contemporary world: consumer capitalism provided by a phalanx of corporate sponsors. Conservatives might complain that government extends too far, but if one looks around one’s home, one can immediately see the reach of Apple, Google, Starbucks, Verizon, Amazon, General Foods, Exxon, Citibank and on and on. There are no corporations in Orwell’s world, and very few goods. There is only state-distributed watery coffee and foul-tasting gin -- a far cry from the soy-foam, half-decaf macchiato and the artisanal cocktail.

Orwell’s state exists for the sake of its own power, in a kind of sadomasochistic relationship that grinds down its citizens to perpetuate its power. In our society, it is easy to denigrate government because it provides a single symbol for the control we experience, but our government is more like a referee to make the market and its juggernaut of enterprises function.

Thus, a more apt vision for our day might foreground those businesses, extending across national borders and delivering pleasure, entertainment and ever newer goods. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World captures that better, with mood-improving drugs and sex at the touch of a screen. (In a small-world coincidence, Huxley was one of Orwell’s schoolteachers.) Or William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer -- a book that, though a bit clunky in its sci-fi narrative, seems spot-on in depicting an internet that permeates our lives, as well as the companies that control it and deliver our products.

Orwell wrote in a time when totalitarian governments controlled a good part of Europe, notably Germany, Italy and Spain. And even in Great Britain and the United States, society had united in a concerted war effort. It was a time of total government, so in many ways 1984 reflects that moment. Instead, it seems as if we now live in a time of the total market, when major political figures aim to use business as a model for government.

Perhaps the chief thing that Orwell divined, before the advent of television, is media running through our lives. If you’ll recall from 1984, video screens are in every room at home and at work, and they are on all the time. They wake you up, tell you when to exercise and give you news about the state.

Still, there is only one channel, and it is entirely a state apparatus. In our time, so my Xfinity bill keeps telling me, we have hundreds of channels to choose from. My TV is not controlled by Big Brother; it’s spurred by the cornucopia of advertisers and products.

Orwell’s view of media followed World War II, a time of active propaganda, and Orwell knew the workings of propaganda firsthand. He worked in the Eastern Service of the BBC during the war, parlaying British news to India. But more so than propaganda, we live in a time of ads -- accumulating thousands of hours by the time one is 10 years old.

One of the creepier details in 1984 is that the screens can also watch the inhabitants. The social theorist Michel Foucault held that a central feature of modern society is the soft control of surveillance. It informs our sensibility, disciplining us without overt force and compelling us to adhere to normative behavior. Now, with the National Security Agency perusing our phones (hi!), Google combing through our search engines, and our high-tech TVs able to watch us, Orwell was all too prescient.

Still, the surveillance predominantly aims to capture us for a market. If you are reading this on a screen, then you are probably ignoring the ads in a sidebar. How did they know that you are a single 40-something? Or a woman who wants running shoes? Or a man who might wear Brooks Brothers?

In imagining a society of political lockstep, Orwell’s satiric target is usually assumed to be communism. Indeed, Orwell is a hero of the right for being an anti-Communist, as well as of the liberal left. That is why 1984 became an iconic book in the 1950s and ’60s, offering a confirmation of the ills of the Soviets.

However, it is a mistake to see it as a confirmation of the politics of the United States. From the mid-1930s onward, Orwell was an avowed anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. If you read Animal Farm (1945) in junior high, his literary effort immediately preceding 1984, you will recall that the story parodies the U.S.S.R. under Stalin, as the main pig, Comrade Napoleon, takes control, rewrites history and finally declares that some pigs “are more equal than others.”

But remember that the farmers expelled at the beginning of the book were capitalists who had grossly exploited and abused the animals. They are not the good guys, and the revolution is justified. The problem with the Communists is not Communism; it is that they become corrupted. During a brief moment after the takeover of the farm, things are good, led by a Lenin figure, with a fairer distribution of work and more plentiful food than under the capitalists.

Rather than Communism per se, Orwell’s general target is what he saw as the rise of “managerial society.” That is a term that James Burnham, a prominent social commentator in midcentury, promoted -- seeing it as a sign of progress toward a more rational society. (In some ways, he was the Thomas Friedman of his day.) Although he declared himself a socialist after 1937, Orwell was not a party man and bristled against bureaucracy.

Orwell reviewed several of Burnham’s books and blanched at Burnham’s vision. While attuned to the politics of his time, Orwell retained nostalgia for the bucolic pleasures of the countryside, of the fields, fishing ponds and village pubs before the mechanistic effects of modern society. In 1984, one of the few pleasant moments is when the protagonist and his lover take a day trip outside London.

My bet is that Orwell would detest our day of big box stores and truly mass media. At one time he set up a small shop in a village north of London. It turned out that he was a much better writer than shopkeeper -- he shut it down after a fairly short period -- but on one of his travel visas, he identified himself as a grocer.

One aspect of 1984 that is rarely commented on is its appreciation for work. In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell declared that he focused on politics from the late 1930s on, but he might be at his most instructive when describing work.

The grind of work is usually glossed over in fiction or film. If a protagonist has a job, their tasks are in the background or summarized in a quick scene. To be truly realistic, if work takes up nearly half of most people’s waking hours, one might expect more description of it, whereas narratives usually focus on a protagonist’s relationships, out-of-the-ordinary events or personal turmoil.

Unlike the majority of writers of his generation, such as the poets Stephen Spender or W. H. Auden, who traveled a fairly direct path from Cambridge or Oxford to London and higher cultural circles, Orwell had held a number of hardscrabble jobs as a British imperial police officer, dishwasher, schoolteacher and bookstore clerk. All of them found their way into his writing, particularly his early novels.

In 1984, the protagonist Winston works in a cubicle, handling memos and other paperwork in the Ministry of Information. However bleak otherwise, he finds some satisfaction in doing his daily tasks. Animal Farm also spends a good bit of time recounting the acceleration on the farm after the Stalin stand-in takes over, with the most honorable character, a horse, finally dying of overwork. Work is a good thing; the problem is not a day of work but overwork, or the exploitation of work.

One of the more poignant facts of Orwell’s life is that, after himself working relentlessly through the 1930s and early ’40s with little money and poor health, he gained financial comfort only in the late 1940s, after the publication of Animal Farm. It was his fifth novel and 10th book in a dozen years, and for the first time in his career, he had the luxury of writing without taking on other jobs. It afforded him time to draft 1984, but he was ill, troubled with the lung problems that would soon take him.

He had also lost his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, with whom he had gone to fight in Spain and who helped run the grocery, to a presumably safe surgery gone wrong. (The anesthesia caused heart failure.) One could see 1984 as a response to his personal despair as well as the state of the world, after a decade of full-blown fascism and massive destruction, followed by the rubble and squalor of the immediate postwar years.

Our time has a much different character, one of overflowing plenty, ubiquitous images on screen and shopping 24-7. Rather than the gray, pinched air of 1984, we live in an era of cultural ADD, and rather than suppression, we have the rampant personal expression of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. In this moment, President Trump is a much more fitting figure than Big Brother, more a distinctly American promoter like P. T. Barnum than a Grand Inquisitor. Big Brother, after all, stays focused and runs things with an implacable force, whereas Barnum promises to give people what they want, even if appealing to their less cerebral instincts. It’s gonna be amazing.

Jeffrey J. Williams’s most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture and the University. He is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (third edition, 2018).

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Author discusses his new book on admissions -- at a non-competitive institution that must work hard to get applicants and students

Author discusses new book about being embedded in admissions office of a non-competitive college that must fight for applicants and students.

Survey of university press titles for fall 2017-winter 2018

Book Expo, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, is underway in New York City from Wednesday through Friday. University press folks will be unpacking their wares and settling into their booths not long after this column goes up.

This year I’m unable to attend, because it turns out that the expression “feeling anemic” is not just a figure of speech. (Doctors have tested my blood with some frequency in recent weeks and found it wanting.) I’m sorry to miss the chance to meet with press representatives but have been combing through the available catalogs and noting books likely to be of general or topical appeal -- and in the spirit of the event will point out a few now.

Many more titles are of interest than can be crammed into one survey of manageable length. I’ll return to others later in the summer, as currently delayed catalogs become available. Please note that the quotations and publishing dates given here are taken from the presses’ descriptions of the books. The publishing dates in particular may differ from what is given by online publishers, and the dates may be subject to change in either case.

Quite a few titles focus on the current political conjuncture. Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck (Princeton University Press) is “a gripping in-depth account … that explains Donald Trump’s historic victory.” It is due out in January, which also happens to be the pub date for Patrick J. Deneen’s book explaining Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press). The short answer is that it “trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history.”

What looks like liberalism’s failure might be described, from another angle, as neoliberalism’s triumph, which seems to be the common perspective of two volumes from the University of California Press: Scott Kurashige’s The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit (July) and Laura Briggs’s How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump (September). Briggs understands reproductive politics to apply not just to childbearing but also to “the work we do to keep ourselves and families alive,” which includes the labor of maintaining the domestic sphere or of finding housing in the first place.

The Great Regression (Polity, June), a symposium edited by Heinrich Geiselberger, brings together essays by Arjun Appadurai, Nancy Fraser, Bruno Latour and a dozen other contributors to discuss the apparent eclipse of globalization and cosmopolitanism by nationalism and xenophobia. George Hawley explains one American manifestation of the shift in Making Sense of the Alt-Right (Columbia University Press, September), which considers “the movement’s “origins, evolution, methods, and its core belief in white identity politics.” Federico Finchelstein offers what sounds like a timely clarification of political nomenclature with From Fascism to Populism in History (California, September), which argues that, despite belonging to “the same history and [being] often conflated, fascism and populism actually represent distinct political and historical trajectories.”

One common denominator across the political spectrum today is frustration -- sometimes breaking into rage -- at entrenched, ineffective and unaccountable political establishments. That means a potentially broad audience for Ron Formisano’s American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class (University of Illinois Press, October), which “delves into the work of not just politicians but also lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, celebrity journalists, behind-the-scenes billionaires and others.” Armed with concepts from game theory and military strategy, James I. Wallner analyzes one theater of political combat in On Parliamentary War: Partisan Conflict and Procedural Change in the U.S. Senate (University of Michigan Press, November).

The role of weaponized ignorance in political life will surely be among the topics covered in Misinformation and Mass Audiences (University of Texas Press, January), a collection of studies edited by Brian G. Southwell, Emily A. Thorson and Laura Sheble, with contributors drawing on “communication research, public health, psychology, political science, environmental studies and information science.” It is worth noting that in Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion and Issue-Based Advocacy (University Press of Kansas, December), Mark Harvey finds evidence that “when celebrities speak about issues of public importance, they get disproportionately more coverage than politicians.” Once that would have seemed like a symptom of political dysfunction rather than a cause; with a game-show host sitting in the White House, there may be room for debate.

Sorry for that long wallow in the quicksand of politics; there is more to scholarly publishing, let alone life. I’ll round off this survey of attention-grabbing titles with a few books that look more diverting. For example, there is Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Duke University Press, September), which is surely an account of an increase in the sum of human happiness.

The forthcoming scholarly book most likely to inspire a cable TV reality series is undoubtedly John Hoberman’s Dopers in Uniform: The Hidden World of Police on Steroids (Texas, November). Making the trip in the opposite direction is In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media (University of Tennessee Press, November) by Julia Duin, who reports on how two ministers “featured in the 2013 series Snake Salvation on the National Geographic Channel … attempted to reinvent the snake-handling tradition for a modern audience,” especially via Facebook. It sounds like the effort did not, on the whole, end well.

Finally, zombies. At least three titles are on the way, with Zombie Theory: A Reader (University of Minnesota, October) being perhaps the most high-profile. The editor, Sarah Juliet Lauro, has written one scholarly book on zombie culture and co-edited another; her third outing is “an interdisciplinary collection of the best international scholarship on zombies.” Dahlia Schweitzer’s Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses and the End of the World (Rutgers University Press, February) “identifies three distinct types of outbreak narrative, each corresponding to a specific contemporary anxiety: globalization, terrorism and the end of civilization,” while Chera Kee’s Not Your Average Zombie: Rehumanizing the Undead From Voodoo to Zombie Walks (Texas, September) examines the zombie corpus (sorry) to identify walkers who still have a bit of soul left in them. There’s no reason to suppose these three titles exhaust the zombie monography coming in the months ahead, of course. If The Walking Dead teaches us anything, it’s not to overestimate the reliability of a quick look around.

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An admissions reformer takes stock of the use of noncognitive variables

William Sedlacek, a pioneer in the use of noncognitive measures for admissions, discusses his new book on the state of the movement.

Editor of new volume discusses his colleagues' attempts to explain the arts and sciences

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A professor discusses how he turned to his colleagues for help answering the question -- and turned the results into a book.

OER could boost revenues

Inside Higher Ed blogger Matt Reed wrote this past week that he's been thinking that an aggressive move towards OER could actually help generate revenue for colleges. Here’s how.

Review of Joshua Reeves, "Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America's Surveillance Society"

It was the working conditions of Soviet spies in the TV program The Americans that really drove home to me how pervasive and taken for granted the surveillance of public space has become.

Set in the Washington area during the 1980s, the show focuses on central characters who are extremely deep-cover agents -- the pride of the KGB academy -- and who seduce, betray, compromise and (when necessary) liquidate their human-intelligence sources right under the Reagan administration’s nose. The usual pleasures of a period drama are infused with an occasionally melancholic sort of dramatic irony: the agents struggle to meet their superiors’ demands in the interests of a regime that the audience knows already has one foot in the dustbin of history.

I’ve written about The Americans here in the past and will try to curb my fannish enthusiasm except to make a point. The show’s whole premise turns on the risk of exposure; the viewer develops a vicarious feel for the state of remaining constantly on guard against leaving tracks, and for speed and thoroughness in erasing them when you do. But rarely do the spies have to worry about being watched or recorded on a security camera. Video surveillance represents so negligible and manageable a risk as to seem odd, not to say careless, to the 21st-century viewer, for whom it is as much a fact of urban life as the danger of being run over by a driver checking his email.

While the options for storing, searching and retrieving visual data were limited, closed-circuit video systems tended to be larger and more blatant in 1984. (The year, I mean, not the book -- although, on reflection, that too.) But the ubiquity of monitoring devices now is not just a matter of superior engineering. It comes as part of the most recent phase of a process Joshua Reeves studies in Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society, published by NYU Press. (Reeves is an assistant professor of new media and speech communications at Oregon State University.)

By “citizen spies,” the author does not mean anyone engaged in espionage but rather people who, upon noticing (“spying”) criminal or otherwise suspicious activity, convey that information to the proper authorities. The latter are presumably legitimate, powerful and competent to respond appropriately. To put it another way, Reeves has in mind the kind of citizen who takes the widespread slogan “If you see something, say something” very much to heart. The good 21st-century citizen may even be defined as a “seeing/saying subject,” to adopt the author’s preferred expression.

He very quickly drives it into the ground, but it does imply an interesting conceptual prehistory. In the days before the rise of the modern police force in the West (about 200 or 300 years ago, depending on the country), enforcement of the law was the citizens’ duty. They faced the task not just of identifying lawbreakers but of apprehending them, as well -- rallying a crowd to find and corner a thief, for example. To ensure that citizens did their duty, those atop the social hierarchy imposed sizable financial burdens on municipalities where law and order were breaking down. Periodic service as a watchman was also mandatory. Reeves quotes a colonial commander in New York in 1776 proclaiming that “any who refuse to take Part in preserving the City will be judged unworthy to inhabit it.”

See something, say something, or move to New Jersey, I guess. Anyway, this early mode of community self-policing was the source of the expression “hue and cry” -- in which “hue” meant “horn,” the instrument watchmen used to communicate. “Patterns of repetition, tone and emphasis allowed patrols in disparate communities to announce a criminal’s presence,” Reeves says, “and direct the dispersal of a number of civilian patrols.” Later, printed “hue and cry” bulletins performed a similar function in circulating information about wanted criminals over much wider areas.

So conditions emerged in which law enforcement could be practiced as a regular, organized activity in which specialized bodies of armed men were part of a social division of labor in tandem with courts and prisons. In principle, at least, that would be more efficient and perhaps also fairer than the earlier ad hoc practice of rounding up a crowd prepared to deal out rough justice on the spot.

At the same time, having a police force separate from the rest of the population imposed its own problems -- to which technology at times seemed to provide answers before opening up new difficulties. Reeves’s chapters on the integration of the telephone into police practice are especially interesting. The public telephone seemed like a promising way to multiply the impact of the force by directing cops quickly and precisely to where they were needed. Doing more with less sounded good in the 19th century, too.

But the police did not trust the public’s ability to use the (expensive) new technology wisely or responsibly. The phones could be accessed only by using keys, a small number of which were distributed to worthy citizens and marked to indicate which key belonged to which recipient. The phone line went directly to police headquarters; furthermore, once the phone was opened, the key could only be removed by an officer. Some models had buttons for what you were calling to report -- 6 for murder, for example, or 11 for fire. Sexual assault is noticeably absent from the dial appearing in one of the illustrations.

Developments tracked in later chapters (such as neighborhood watch programs and junior police clubs for children) follow a similar course of encouraging citizen participation in the effort to monitor and report on others -- while at the same time trying to limit and channel that involvement. Reeves’s larger point is that the array of surveillance and control systems established in American society since the Sept. 11 attacks is largely dependent on habits of complicity, or at least of acquiescence, that have been a very long time in forming.

And that seems true enough. But it may underestimate the difficulty now of imagining that things were different even before the turn of this century. That walking down a city street and thinking that any number of cameras might well be recording you would have seemed a bit deviant, if not pathological, once. Now it’s normal and, more strangely still, not even much of a concern.

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Book offers data on impact of grades, test scores and other factors on admission to competitive colleges

New book shows the impact of grades, test scores, race and gender on admission to competitive colleges.

Trial and Error: Lehman and Hunter Colleges boost chemistry course passing rate to 80 percent

Students taking general chemistry at Hunter and Lehman Colleges were passing at 60 and 35 percent rates, respectively. A new course format that includes videos, podcasts and no textbooks quickly improved outcomes.


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