Tuesday, April 30th, 2013...10:56 am

Idea Pollen, Thought Allergies

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April may be the cruellest month, not only for mixing memory and desire, but also for allergic rhinitis. For some people, a foreign substance (pollen) stimulates the body’s production of a reactive chemical, histamine. The allergic reaction can be mild (swelling of mucous membranes, production of mucous), or, in the case of some allergies, quite violent, including anaphylaxis (which can lead to death). You can treat the reaction with another chemical (an antihistamine), or you can induce the body’s tolerance for the external substance starting with small, then increasing doses.

This April seems also to have provoked thought allergies from idea pollen.

Recently the University of Connecticut announced a new “branding” or “visual identity program,” designed to make the university (aka “UConn”) and its sports teams more readily recognizable. Reactions were varied from a yawning “whatever” to nostalgia for the recent trademark to critiques of the corporatization of collegiate sports and of universities.

One respectful feminist critique came from Carolyn Luby, a student at UConn, who took the occasion of the announcement of a new “wordmark” and a new Husky logo (designed gratis, to no one’s surprise, by Nike)  to critique the rhetorical framing of a UConn Husky, perceived permissiveness of student athletes’ behavior, and corporatization in higher education and at UConn, in the form of an open letter to the university’s president, Susan Herbst: http://thefeministwire.com/2013/04/an-open-letter-to-uconn-president-susan-herbst/

Allergic reactions to Luby’s letter ranged from the mental congestion of Rush Limbaugh http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2013/04/26/this_is_how_it_starts_one_uconn_student_says_new_husky_logo_promotes_rape to the anaphylaxis of anonymous comments (including threats of sexual assault) on a Web site http://www.barstoolsports.com/boston/super-page/free-ball-dont-lie-shirt-to-anybody-who-can-explain-what-this-uconn-feminst-is-talking-about/

One does not need to agree with Luby’s premises or conclusions to appreciate that she presents a thoughtful and respectful critique. And she is following in a recent body of critique of the corporate turn in higher education, like that of retired UConn faculty member Gaye Tuchman, who offered an analysis of the aspirations of an unnamed but thinly disguised New England public university in her book Wannabe U. An online petition has been created to offer Luby support.

Academics are not immune to discursive histamine, particularly in online discourse, the subject of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s commentary “#shameonyou” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But as Salman Rushdie has suggested in a recent op-ed essay in the New York Times, “Whither Moral Courage?,” “We find it easier, in these confused times, to admire physical bravery than moral courage,” the courage to dissent from “commonsense” views and received opinion (what Twain famously called, in a posthumously published essay, “Corn-pone Opinions”).

Americans have a long tradition of anti-intellectualism and a resistance to analysis and critique; we are more interested in practice (physical bravery) than praxis (theoretically informed reflective action). Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the founding allegory of the American bullying of the intellectual, and Emily Dickinson’s characterization of her mother (“She does not care for thought”) could be said of many Americans individually and of our public life generally. We’ve  had sporadic decades of public intellectuals, but they are exceptions in the annals of American exceptionalism (our exalted  corn-pone opinion of ourselves).

When the temple of our civil religion (politics) is as schismatic as today, we understandably seek to rally around other fictional creeds of unity. Americans have long had an ambivalent relationship with social critique — we turned it into a literary form with the jeremiad but we invariably reject as nagging scolds those who use it.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with gender and feminism.

As pseudonymous “Female Science Professor” writing in the Chronicle (“Fear of Feminism”) observes, when she critiqued a visual representation of scientists, a male colleague with whom she was collaborating was shocked to discover that she was “like that,” i.e. a feminist, and thereafter distanced himself from her on their collaborative project. Was he allergic to feminism?

Writing in the New York Times, Amanda Filipacchi (“Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists”) observes that:

gradually, over time, [Wikipedia] editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory. So far, female authors whose last names begin with A or B have been most affected, although many others have, too.

She notes that, “The explanation at the top of the page is that the list of ‘American Novelists’ is too long, and therefore the novelists have to be put in subcategories whenever possible,” and remarks: “Too bad there isn’t a subcategory for ‘American Men Novelists.’” The American novelist who is not one?

Critical social analysts like Luby, Female Science Professor, or Filipacchi question corn-pone opinions and the behavior that follows from corn-pone opinions. Is there a cure for Americans’ allergy to thought?