In coining the word utopia, Thomas More was making a pun. The villain of Wolf Hall was, in real life, a learned man who wrote for people who could recognize a joke in Greek when he made one. The island republic of social perfection depicted in his most famous book was a good place (eu-topia), obviously. But it existed only in the imagination: it was also, literally, no place (ou-topia).
Alternating currents of optimism and skepticism crackle in the space between syllables. The ambivalence vanishes with “dystopia,” which, like dysentery (“bad bowels”), has nothing to recommend it. But there is more to dystopia than has been encoded in its etymology. The word usually implies utopia’s evil twin: a social order of perfect oppression, designed to bring the greatest misery to the greatest number.
The places Kate Brown writes about in Dispatches From Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (University of Chicago Press) are not all examples of hell on earth, by any means, but each bears the scars of some catastrophe that the visitor is bound to know about before arriving: the ghost town of Chernobyl, for example, or the basement of a hotel in Seattle full of the belongings of Japanese-American residents relocated to internment camps during World War II. The author introduces herself as “a professional disaster tourist,” though her day job is as a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her two previous books grew out of research on Russia and Ukraine during the Soviet era. Dispatches From Dystopia pursues many of the same interests while also working reflexively to consider the genres available for writing about place and memory: professional historiography, of course, but also personal narrative and travel writing.
“Many writers presume that the site of action is a given,” she notes, “as if places were neutral containers of human interaction rather than dynamic places in their own right.” At the same time, scholarly prose is often written from the vantage point of the proverbial “man from nowhere.” Make that “person from nowhere,” rather -- anyway, a voice that, while not omniscient, remains as rigorous and impersonal as possible.
“In their quest to explore the human condition,” Brown writes, “historians can hide behind their subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project their own sentiments and feelings. Let me put that another way: in my quest to explore the human condition, I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project my own sentiments and feelings. The third-person voice is a very comfortable one in which to reside. Permanently. The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between the author and the subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession that is situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”
Such intimacy brings the potential for extreme embarrassment. Brown prefaces the lines just quoted by saying that her hands are sweating as writes them. Her early ventures into first-person scholarship met with resistance, expressed in well-meant warnings such as, “You won't get a job with that dissertation” and “Other scholars will assign you, but not cite you.” Which is understandable, because other risks besides personal and professional awkwardness can follow from experimentation of the kind Brown undertakes. The existence of “borders between the author and the subject” at least reduce the dangers of twee memoir -- and also of prolonged metaepistemic inquiry (how can the knower know the knower, much less the known?) that scorches the earth with tedium.
So for the first several pages of Dispatches From Dystopia I braced myself, only to find that Brown is the rare case of someone who can incorporate a number of registers of narrative and reflection within the same piece of writing, shifting among them with grace and quiet confidence. Her essays might be called position papers: topographical surveys of historical sites, with the mapmaker’s own itinerary sketched in.
The trips to erstwhile Soviet republics are not, she makes clear, a search for roots. A product of “the industrial heartland of the United States at a time when it was the world’s most prosperous and powerful country,” she is unaware of any German, Jewish or Slavic branches to her family tree: “I could hardly have been born farther from rural, famished, collectivized, heavily politicized, bombed and terrorized Right Bank Ukraine” -- the subject of her first book -- “a place that stands in my mind as the epicenter of 20th-century misery.”
But another essay suggests the advantages of this presumed naïveté. People she met granted the author a place in post-Soviet society “as an honorary child…. If I accepted this role passively, relinquishing my status as an autonomous adult and the critical rationality of a researcher, they often let me in, if fleetingly, for a closer look. By becoming childlike -- susceptible, disabled and dependent -- I became a temporary member of their community, which in the Soviet Union was defined by an understanding of biological vulnerability, mutual interdependence and obligation.”
Other expeditions require different personae. Her trip to what’s left of the city of Chernobyl elicits another kind of identification with people who have been there. Expecting a scene from opening days of the Gorbachev era -- irradiated but frozen in time -- she finds that everything that can be sold has been hauled off to market: “Even the knobs on the kitchen cabinets were gone. Even the time capsule schoolchildren buried in the 1970s had been looted. (I know because I was hoping to dig it up and loot it myself.)”
Brown’s first-person reflections are embedded in narratives and place descriptions that are more intricate and varied than a reviewer can even begin to suggest, and certain issues and motifs link the essays in ways that would probably reward a second reading. Each piece, like the volume as a whole, is an example of nonfiction that uses the first person, rather than just indulges it. The learned essay and the personal essay are different creatures and attempts to create a hybrid are often problematic at best. But Dispatches From Dystopia proves it can be done.
Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and vice chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center has attracted some attention recently because he has a TV show, The Dr. Oz Show, on which he spouts some incredibly stupid ideas about phony weight-loss cures and how psychics make you feel better.
But the recent debate about Oz centers on a question of academic freedom, after a group of 10 physicians wrote to Columbia University calling for him to be dismissed from his faculty position unless he stopped his dubious televised pronouncements.
We are surprised and dismayed that Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons would permit Dr. Mehmet Oz to occupy a faculty appointment, let alone a senior administrative position in the Department of Surgery.
As described here and here, as well as in other publications, Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops. Worst of all, he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.
Thus, Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both. Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.
One of the 10 letter writers, Gilbert Ross of the American Council on Science and Health, described Oz as “a true asset to Columbia -- as a surgeon” and called for him to “return to the operating theater, where he can do much real good.” This makes it clear that the opposition to Oz being on Columbia’s faculty has nothing to do with his professional abilities. Instead, these writers want to punish Oz for his extramural utterances, because they fear that Oz’s position at Columbia adds credibility to the dubious medical claims on his show.
It’s doubtful that many of Oz’s viewers know anything about his job at Columbia or would care if they did know. They find him credible because of his personality and because he has “Doctor” in front of his name, not because he works at Columbia.
So the real reason these writers are seeking to fire Oz from Columbia is as a form of public shaming. The numerous condemnations of Oz’s show haven’t changed his behavior, and they want to turn up the heat. But they are wrong: academic positions should never be threatened as a tool to argue with people who are in error.
Michael Specter wrote in The New Yorker, “Free speech must be defended vigorously. But to invoke those principles in order to protect the right of one of America’s most powerful doctors to mislead millions of people seems a bit excessive.”
There’s nothing excessive about academic freedom or free speech, even when you apply those principles to famous and powerful people. The point of academic freedom isn’t just to protect the little guy. It’s to protect everyone, celebrity academics included. When Bertrand Russell was banned from teaching at City College of New York in 1940 for not being sufficiently homophobic in the eyes of a New York judge, he was one of the most famous academics in the world. But his banishment was both a violation of Russell’s individual academic freedom and a threat to everyone else less prominent than Russell, since attacks on academic freedom create a chilling effect on everyone.
Oz might not “need” academic freedom to remain America’s most famous doctor, but what about all the other academics who make controversial statements? The letter demanding Oz’s firing linked to a Salonarticle about Oz’s support for labeling genetically modified organisms (GMO) in foods, even though there’s no scientific evidence that GMO products are harmful to consume. But it’s also true that there’s no scientific proof of GMO safety required before a new product is introduced, and that GMOs may contribute to negative consequences for the environment and for human health, such as possible increases in certain kinds of pesticide use and the overuse of antibiotics in cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). And truthful labeling is required for food products even when those ingredients are safe.
If Oz can be fired, in part, because of his views on GMOs, what might happen to the scientists who find evidence about GMOs harmful to the bottom lines of powerful corporations, or who dare to join the overwhelming majority of Americans in expressing support for labeling?
Columbia University responded to the controversy with a simple statement: “As I am sure you understand and appreciate, Columbia is committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members’ freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion.”
A group of medical faculty peers at Columbia wrote an article criticizing the information on Oz’s show, but noted, “Unless these foibles can be shown to render Dr. Oz inadequate or ineffective at Columbia, there is no justification for forcing him to resign from a well-earned position in academic medicine.”
Jennifer Gunter, a physician, argued, “The uproar from health professionals about Dr. Oz is has nothing to do with academic freedom -- it’s about false claims, bad information, ethics and conflicts of interest. Academic freedom is meant to support thoughtful ideas and research, not charlatans and liver cleanses.”
But academic freedom protects thoughtful ideas and research by limiting the reach of punishment for bad ideas -- especially when those bad ideas take place in a realm outside of one’s professional work. The fact that Oz talks about medical issues on his show makes him no different from Steven Salaita, whose tweets (which led him to lose a job at the University of Illinois) were extramural utterances even though the subject matter had some connection to his academic work on Israel.
An extramural utterance is defined by whether or not a university is paying a professor to speak, as they do with teaching and research. But if we say that extramural utterances should be judged by academic criteria, then we will chill the speech of academics in precisely the areas where they can benefit the public most with their knowledge. It’s tempting to imagine that we can force Oz to bring sound medical advice to daytime television by threatening his job. What will happen instead is that academic experts will keep silent on public controversies lest they endanger their academic positions, and we will be left with more charlatans to guide important debates.
The best response to Oz’s errors is counterspeech, not the removal of his academic freedom and dismissal from his academic position. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Oz for having a show that dispenses dubious and often scientifically wrong advice to a gullible public, or even encouraging him to resign. But when people call for those who views they dislike to be fired even when they are fully qualified academically, it undermines academic freedom.
The University of Illinois initially responded to the Salaita controversy with the same principled defense of academic freedom that Columbia University invoked for Oz, before changing positions. But Columbia’s principles are sound: a true university should have academics judged by other academics based on their academic work, and should give them the freedom to speak -- on Twitter, in public speeches and letters, and on television -- without fear of censorship. We cannot count on the truth prevailing on daytime television, but we should not be afraid to allow an open debate of ideas in the public sphere.
John K. Wilson is the coeditor of AcademeBlog.org and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.
A report being released today by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examines the lost opportunities for science and for U.S. competitiveness vs. other nations due to inadequate federal support for basic research. "The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit" explores a range of scientific issues and illustrates how funding has become more difficult to find.
"Basic research is often misunderstood, because it often seems to have no immediate payoff. Yet it was just such federally funded research into the fundamental working of cells, intensified beginning with the 'War on Cancer' in 1971, that led over time to a growing arsenal of sophisticated new anticancer therapies -- 19 new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past two years. Do we want similar progress on Alzheimer’s, which already affects five million Americans, more than any single form of cancer? Then we should expand research in neurobiology, brain chemistry and the science of aging," the report says. "The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a reminder of how vulnerable we are to a wider pandemic of emergent viral diseases, because of a lack of research on their biology; an even greater public health threat looms from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria right here at home, which, because commercial incentives are lacking, only expanded university-based research into new types of antibiotics can address."
Ah, spring, season of starlings nesting under our eaves, season of mud, season of literary readings.
I generally try to avoid any event whose title ends in “fest,” but a few years ago I made an exception when a friend invited me to participate with him in a poetry reading at what the sponsoring local historical society was calling Eaglefest. Because the college where I was teaching at the time emphasized community service, this seemed -- after I confirmed I wouldn’t have to perform on the edge of a rocky precipice -- like a pleasant and practical way to spend a weekend afternoon. And the fact that Eaglefest would take place on the last day of April made it seem like a perfect ending for Poetry Month.
In the days before my scheduled reading, I assembled a set of poems about nature (my own, along with works by W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver and others) and polished an essay I had written about the great blue heron who strode around my backyard, foraging for goldfish in the tiny pond.
Deciding how to dress for the occasion was far more difficult than choosing what to read. What to wear to an event called Eaglefest? I finally settled on what my daughters call my art skirt, because it looks like one of Mondrian’s Composition paintings; a T-shirt in my default color (black); and my poet earrings (long, dangling, silver). So I was ready and feeling pretty cheerful as I walked in to register.
The first ominous note came when the woman behind the desk told me that at the last minute there had been another event scheduled for the same time: a repeat performance of “Meet the Birds” would be held in the large auditorium where the first session was currently running. The receptionist then summoned one of the organizers, who, if she could not allay my anxiety about the scheduling, did put to rest any lingering questions I might have had about the dress code.
She had removed her feathery headgear in order to socialize and was holding it tucked in the crook of one arm; a sinister-looking beak dangled precariously. The body of the costume was a baggy brown sack made of some sort of synthetic fur, and the organizer could have easily passed muster as a bear, raccoon or chipmunk. Perhaps she does so on other weekends, at other fests. Her footwear, however -- large and bright yellow -- confirmed her avian identity for this day. Think clown shoes -- with webbed toes. She offered to show me the room where my co-presenter and I would be reading, and we hobbled over to a set of stairs, which, despite my protests that I would be fine on my own, she insisted upon laboriously climbing, and she led the way to a small room tucked away in a corner of the second floor.
Back downstairs, after listening to her make several jokes about poets in the attic and how it would be easier for her to fly, and after fighting my own fight-or-flight instinct, I perched on a chair but declined her offer of refreshments. I had been hoping for a handful of trail mix and a nice glass of white wine, but the fare consisted of soda and hot dogs, which somehow just seemed wrong.
By now my co-presenter had shown up, and he introduced me to another organizer (dressed in a gray suit -- business, not squirrel), who said, “Come with me,” and whisked us through a winding back passageway so that we emerged very close to the stage where a lecturer/handler, equipped with a gauntlet and a chain leash -- both of which seemed insufficient -- was showing off a bald eagle. Rather touchingly, the eagle had one enormous wing draped around the speaker’s back, and all went fairly well until the speaker tried to put the eagle back in his cage.
He began the process by reassuring us that the eagle went into his cage much more easily than the snowy owl did his. This brought a wave of uneasy laughter -- was this an example of nature stand-up comedy? Having missed the snowy owl’s performance, I was in no position to judge, but I did notice that the man in the gray flannel suit was backing away from the stage. Next, the handler dropped to his knees while the eagle spread his wings and attempted to fly off and generally battered the cage into submission. Eventually the eagle accepted his fate, and all that remained for the spellbound audience to see were some feathers floating gently on the currents of air-conditioning. It did occur to me, while listening to the eagle shriek, that this would be a hard act to follow.
But it was time now for the reading. When he first invited me to participate, my co-presenter had told me that the society expected an audience of 400. I thought that this number seemed rather high for a poetry reading, and, in fact, there were 20 chairs set up in our little garret. And 20 chairs were more than enough, since the group that gathered consisted of my husband, whom I had routed out of the gift shop where he was admiring a tie with a silkscreened pattern of falcons, which I refused to let him buy; an artist friend of ours; my co-presenter’s wife and infant son (does an infant count as an attendee? For my purposes of counting heads, yes, an infant counts); and the woman in the bird suit.
It was clear that, here at least, Poetry Month would be ending not with a bang but with a whimper or perhaps a faint peep. “What do you think?” my co-presenter asked me. I thought that I could not compete with a bald eagle and that it was time to leave. He stayed long enough to read one poem at the start of the next “Meet the Birds” session, and I migrated across town -- to Macy’s.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College.
Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., is cutting its workforce by 5 percent to respond to declining enrollments, Forum News Service reported. The cuts are a mix of faculty and staff positions, and a mix of “separation agreements” and of not replacing people who have left the college.