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Thursday, April 30, 2020


As readers of this blog know, I have two sons, of whom I am inordinately proud.  The younger is Tobias Barrington Wolff, who is now the Jefferson Barnes Fordham Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.  But he was not always thus.  Forty years ago, he was a tow headed little boy called Toby, who had a difficult time getting a word in edgewise at a dinner table with a father who was a professor of Philosophy, a mother who was a professor of Literature, and a big brother who was a chess prodigy.  When little Toby noted a lull in the conversation, he would, like as not, stick up a finger and say “two things …,” staking a claim to his share of air time.

On this slow Thursday afternoon, I find myself raising a finger and saying “two things,” to make a little room for myself before the comments flow in.

First thing, the future of higher education.  Todd Gitlin, with whom I have been co-teaching these past two years, tells me that Columbia will not even announce plans for the fall semester until July.  One plan being floated is to skip the fall semester entirely, push it to the spring, and use next summer for the spring semester.  Columbia is rich, of course, and although their six billion dollar new Manhattanville campus has caused a budget freeze for Arts and Sciences, they have lots of money to ride out the disruptions.  But a great many of America’s 4,600 college and university campuses are not so fortunate.  I have been especially worried about the fate of the historically black colleges and universities, the HBCUs as they are called, some of which might be forced to close if they lose as little as one semester of tuition.  Howard and Spelman will be just fine, but I am not at all sure of Bennett, where I spent a volunteer year seven or eight years ago.  After the Congress gets done pouring hundreds of billions into the bottomless pockets of the airlines, the cruise ship companies, and Trump’s hotels, I hope they can spare a few score millions for the HBCUs.

Second thing, a word of praise for some genuine political leadership.  Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today a program, starting next Wednesday, of daily sanitizing of the Greater New York City area’s subways and commuter rail system.  This will be done between one and five a.m., during which the subways and commuter trains will be closed.  Since many of the First Responders travel to or from work at that time, a system of free busses, limos, and ubers will be available to transport them.  Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appeared with Cuomo by zoom at today’s press briefing, observed that this would mean rousting the homeless men and women who ride the subways all night long to get indoors.  The city, he said, would us this opportunity to work with the homeless, to counsel them, to get them into city shelters, and perhaps in this way more effectively to address their needs.  I almost teared up as I listened to him.  It warmed by heart to see this sort of caring, thoughtful using of a terrible crisis in a generous fashion.

My old Afro-Am Department Chair [and later Bennett College President] Esther Terry would describe this in her down home North Carolina way as “making chicken salad out of chicken shit.”  It gave me a moment of hope for this often disappointing country.


Anonymous said...

There's little opportunity for social distancing in the average homeless shelter. Elected officials worth their progressive salt would house them in the rooms of all these vacant hotels.

While governors and mayors are doing a markedly better job than the Agent Orange in the Oval Office, they'll need to be pressured, prodded, and kicked lest they bail out the rich and force austerity on the rest of us, HBCUs included:

R McD said...

One thing wrt American higher education:

Jennifer said...

Ah, professor! There is hope, and without hope, we don't struggle to create something better for all of us. Thanks for your post.

s. wallerstein said...

Any gesture of compassion towards the homeless seems positive, but I think we can go further than just putting them into shelters. I recall reading that in some more enlightened nation (sorry, I can't remember which one) they had built small cottages for the homeless (which could be studio apartments in New York City), each with its own bathroom and mini-kitchen.
At the same time they received psychological counseling as well as programs for alcoholism and/or drug abuse. Why not in New York too?

There are lots of homeless in my neighborhood. I talk to them, give them a bit of money which probably is spend on alcohol or drugs, but they are rational, often more courteous than the average Chilean, respectful of the required distance since the pandemia began, just people like you and me down on their luck. Why not treat them decently.

Anonymous said...

We often hear of your son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, the Jefferson Barnes Fordham Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. We worry, though, Professor, about your other son (the one who played a board game really well) - does he have three names and a fancy title, too?

Anonymous said...

How virtuous of you.

s. wallerstein said...

If that comment about being virtuous is directed toward me, it says more about you than it does about me.

I don't consider talking to the homeless and giving them a bit of money (which I can easily spare) to be virtuous. I do it because I like them and I enjoy talking to and helping people whom I like. No extra effort involved at all.

I do very few things out of a desire to be virtuous.

LFC said...

Off topic:

I don't read Brian Leiter's blog regularly but I look at it occasionally, and I find some valuable things there. For instance, he linked some days ago to the Governor of Md's blueprint for the state's eventual 'recovery' and reopening, something I no doubt could have found elsewhere but it was nice to have the link right there.

A post or two away from that one, Leiter made a reference to the Reagan administration's repeal of the 'fairness doctrine' as having (supposedly) allowed outlets like Fox News to have a major place on the airwaves. Many years ago I co-authored a small book -- perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a longish booklet -- on the Fairness Doctrine, so it's a subject I happen to know something about. The Fairness Doctrine never blocked a news outfit with a slant from existing; it simply required such a news outlet to attempt some "balance" in its *overall* reporting. It did not empower the feds to police the broadcast airwaves in any kind of esp activist or intrusive way, but rather enabled complaints to be lodged with the FCC, which wd then investigate and adjudicate. The Fairness Doctrine did not say, for ex., that a Fox News with a right-wing slant could not exist and could not deliver right-wing-tinged coverage. After all, CBS News in its heyday arguably had a kind of establishment liberal slant, certainly in the editorial comment of [I forget exactly who the commentators were at this remove -- but remember Cronkite's famous short editorial after the Tet Offensive], and the Fairness Doctrine did not prevent that.

Now, in conjunction with other developments, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine might well have a played a role, and probably did play a role, in creating an environment in which a Fox News could flourish, but there is no direct and singular causal link between the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the emergence of a Fox News or right-wing talk radio. I believe these cd have emerged even had the FD not been repealed, though it prob wd have been somewhat more difficult for them to be wall-to-wall propaganda machines. In short, Leiter is, I think, wrong about this particular point. Of course, since he does not allow comments on many of his posts, there's no way to tell him he's wrong except by emailing him, which I don't have any inclination to do on a point that is now a question of history rather than of burning current importance.

But I figured I'd say it here since some readers may be interested.

David Auerbach said...

In connection with the question of the future of higher education Corey Robin posted this exquisite excerpt from Keynes:
"Let us not submit to the vile doctrine of the nineteenth century that every enterprise must justify itself in pounds, shillings and pence of cash income...I should like to see that the war memorials of this tragic struggle take the shape of an enrichment of the civic life of every great centre of population. Why should we not set aside, let us say, £50 million a year for the next twenty years to add in every substantial city of the realm the dignity of an ancient university or a European capital to our local schools and their surroundings, to our local government and its offices, and above all perhaps, to provide a local centre of refreshment and entertain with an ample theatre, a concert hall, a dance hall, a gallery, a British restaurant, canteens, cafes and so forth. Assuredly we can afford this and so much more. Anything we can actually do, we can afford. Once done, it is there.…Yet these must be only the trimmings on the more solid, urgent and necessary outgoings on housing the people, on reconstructing industry and transport and on re-planning the environment of our daily life....We shall, in fact, have built our New Jerusalem...."
Keynes, 1942 BBC radio address

Note in particular the throwaway (but not really) line: "Once done, it is there..."

Anonymous Coward said...

Cuomo is using his unjustified popularity from his pandemic mismanagement to slash billions from NY's medicaid budget and to abrogate elections, including the presidential primary.

LFC said...

@ David Auerbach

That's a good quote from Keynes. Too bad that Corey chose not to post it on his blog, apparently preferring Facebook or perhaps Twitter. I'm not on Facebook and while anyone can access Twitter to some extent, I don't have a Twitter account and don't spend a lot of time there.

Corey recently got someone to do a handsome redesign of his blog, so I wonder why he doesn't use it more. Time is limited of course, so he has to make choices about which platforms to use. I guess he figures he gets more readers on FB or Twitter than on the blog.