Dressing smartly, Hamas Style

Perusing my posts, one can hardly fail to notice my lack of enthusiasm for the modern state of Israel, the establishment of which I consider to have been immoral and an utterly stupid recipe for endless strife in the region.  This does not, however, mean I approve of everything the Palestinians do, although a people can be excused a lot when one part of their country is being appropriated by their neighbor and the other is turned into a vast prison camp.  And something I certainly cannot approve of are the actions of Hamas.

Hamas was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and in 2006 won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament, probably because of their social welfare work and the failings of Fatah.  This resulted in conflict between the two parties and Hamas control of Gaza in 2007.  Hamas’ electoral success is not recognized by the United States, which supports free elections only so long as they are not won by groups it does not approve of.  Hamas has been labeled a terrorist group, though it is hard to see why blowing up a bus is any more of a terrorist act than dropping cluster bombs in densely populated areas.

As one who understands, without condoning, Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians (the military are legitimate targets), the odd ineffectual Hamas rocket launched towards Israel does not concern me, apart from the fact that it ultimately brings horrific reprisals from Israel.  What is unacceptable is Hamas’ imposition of their extremist version of Islam on the inhabitants of Gaza, which is especially offensive given the generally secular nature of Palestinian society.  As usual, this imposition takes the form of endless prohibitions, virtually none of them supported by the Koran.  As if life in Gaza were not miserable enough.

Much of the silliness stems from the misogyny inherent in all the Abrahamic religions and taken to incredible extremes by Islam.  Since none of these supposedly religiously-inspired mandates are found in the Koran, we must assume they are dreamed up by Hamas theocrats, perhaps to demonstrate the innate superiority (and ignorance) of Muslim males.

That schools will be segregated by gender for students older than nine and men will never be permitted to teach females is a hardly surprising dictum for radical Islam, but it is an extreme measure for Palestinians, who have traditionally rejected this sort of nonsense.  Less common is the recent prohibition against women riding on the backs of motorcycles.  The Hamas authorities claim it is a safety measure (which no one else does), but they also state that it is intended to protect “community values,” which values are apparently determined by Hamas, since these Hamas “values” are not a facet of traditional Palestinian society.  The “safety” explanation was subsequently shown to be bogus when women were subsequently banned from riding motorcycles at all.  Hamas has also decided that women running a marathon is “un-Islamic” no matter how they are dressed, and women were prohibited from smoking the widely popular water pipes because it “destroyed marriages” and “sullied” the image of Palestine.  This last was, I believe, subsequently retracted.  And if you are a man in Gaza, don’t bother becoming a beautician: men cannot cut women’s hair.

But Hamas is in fact capable of at least momentarily attending to affairs other than their campaign to return women to their seventh century status as chattel.  With even less scriptural backing they are also attending to the proper image of the Islamic male.  Hair with gel or worse, spikes, will be summarily shaved off by Hamas fashionistas.  Longish hair will also be snipped, which seems odd considering the usual extremist demand that men not cut their beards.  Banning tight or low-riding pants is perhaps understandable in the bizarre world of Islamic sartorial concerns, but why is god offended by trousers that are long enough to cover the ankles?  Traditional Arab robes do that, and it must be asked: Did Mohammed ever see a man wearing pants?

In addition to these specifically Hamas ordinances in the name of god there are of course the expected hassles associated with this curious religion. Men are harassed if they are too uncovered at the beach, since presumably the bare Arab chest is just too much for the average woman to deal with.  To be fair, much of Latin American society is also uncomfortable with such exposed manliness.  In Gaza couples are stopped and required to prove they are in fact married, which might make you wonder how courting is undertaken at all.  I suppose this fits nicely with the tradition of no courting whatsoever since ideally the marriage would be arranged.  It all makes Sicily seem progressive.

Of course, all this strange and stifling behavior in the name of god would be entirely familiar to the ultra-orthodox haredi in Israel, who give the Taliban a run for their money when it comes to making the fair sex invisible, uneducated breeders and pretending the world is still in the first millennium BC.  But then, what is Islam but a return to god as the nasty Lord of Hosts rather than the only sometimes nasty forgiving and smiling savior of Christianity?

Magic Fire and Empty Pockets

John Wayne as Wagner

John Wayne as Wagner

Wednesday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), easily one of the greatest composers ever to have picked up a pen.  There appears to be no middle ground with Wagner; he is either despised or adored by serious music aficionados.  I am in the adoration camp and believe that he was in fact the greatest composer ever, certainly of opera – or music drama as he calls it.  I consider Der Ring des Nibelungen to be the supreme achievement of western music; for me the sweetest, most moving moment in all opera comes in Die Walküre, when Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she is carrying in her womb the greatest hero of all time, Siegfried, and his theme is heard for the first time.  Chuck Berry is very cool, of course, but Wagner provides the aesthetic shiver.

While many of his theoretical writings on music, especially his ideas on Zukunftsmusik (“music of the future”), are a bit strange (Did he really believe sculptors and painters would be satisfied just producing props, sets and backdrops for opera?), there is no question that his operas do indeed mark a towering advance in music.  Contrary to general practice, his carefully crafted librettos were written by himself, and there is consequently in the Ring and his mature operas an unprecedented intimacy between the words and the music surrounding them.  What the characters are singing is for the first time – at least to this degree – utterly important, which is probably why the increasing use of supertitles in opera houses has stirred renewed interest in the composer.

Wagner also broke ground in the music of his later operas, pushing the traditional tonal systems to their limits and dramatically influencing the next generation of composers, such as Gustav Mahler.  Ultimately, his work led to the often blatantly atonal “music” of twentieth century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.  His use of leitmotivs or musical themes certainly points the way to cinematic music.

Behind this incredibly beautiful music, however, is a miserable human being.  Wagner was domineering, and his opinions (on just about everything) were rarely affected by counterarguments and were expressed whether desired or not.  He shamelessly used his friends, constantly borrowing money that would never be repaid and squandering it on luxuries.  One might say that after music debt was the second constant in his life.  He essentially deserted his first wife, Minna Planer, and had a conspicuous affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of his greatest benefactors.  He produced three children with Franz Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, while she was still married to his loyal conductor Hans von Bülow, who finally allowed a divorce so that Cosima might became Wagner’s bride.  In short, he seemed to think the world owed him a living, and given the music he created, I think it did.

What Wagner is best known for, certainly among those who have no familiarity with his music, is his anti-Semitism, something that might have been forgotten amidst all the other anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century but for the fact that he actually wrote about it and especially because Adolf Hitler loved his music.  A great deal of energy has been spent looking for the traces of anti-Semitism in his works, focusing on figures like Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger and the Mime and his colleagues in the Ring.  There is no evidence whatsoever for this, and Wagner was so wrapped up in the dramas and characters he was presenting that it seems unlikely he would consciously model them after Jews.  And if there is anti-Semitism lurking behind figures and ideas in his operas, it is so subtle and subjective that it certainly does not matter to those who love the music.

Though it is hardly a justification, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was very common among enlightened Europeans in the nineteenth century, and it lacked the crude characteristics of the grass roots hatred found in the rural areas.  Wagner certainly did not advocate pogroms or separation and lived in the part of Europe where Jewish assimilation was most advanced.  Since many of his friends were in fact Jewish, he could hardly support violence or other extreme measures against them.  His campaign against the music of the Paris composer Giacomo Meyerbeer has more to do with Wagner’s initial envy of Meyerbeer’s success and what he perceived as unjust treatment by the popular composer than it did with Meyerbeer’s Jewishness.  Wagner was plainly annoyed and frustrated by the popularity of Meyerbeer’s operas, which he considered inferior to his own vision and works.  And there were many Jews in music, such as Gustav Mahler, who could easily ignore Wagner’s various shortcomings and see only the musical genius.

Wagner as the über-anti-Semite chiefly derives from two developments after his death.  The first was the emergence of Haus Wahnfried, the Wagner residence in Bayreuth, as a notorious center of anti-Semitism, presided over by his widow, Cosima, until her death in 1930.  She herself may not have been seriously anti-Semitic, but her establishment certainly attracted a number of unsavory characters, like the racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married one of the Wagner daughters and took up residence in Bayreuth.

The second and far more important development was the association of Wagner with the Third Reich.  Hitler was surely aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but the attraction was the music, which would have held him spellbound even if the composer had never uttered an anti-Semitic word.  Wagner’s obvious German nationalism and connection with Teutonic myth would have appealed to Hitler more than the anti-Semitism.  The fact that there was virtually no one else in the Nazi hierarchy that had any desire to sit through a Wagnerian opera suggests a lack of identity between National Socialism and the music of the future.

Abetting Hitler’s love of Wagner was the composer’s daughter-in-law Winifred’s love of Adolf Hitler.  Her husband, Siegfried, died the same year as his mother, and Winifred became the pro-Nazi mistress of Wahnfried, where Hitler would be a regular visitor.  She would only go so far when it came to the master’s music – she refused to put swastikas on the shields of the Gibichungen in Die Götterdämmerung – but Hitler’s frequent presence at Bayreuth and the clear affection between him and the family – he was “Wolfie” – forever bound Wagner to the Reich.

And Wagner’s attitude to Hitler?  He certainly would have applauded the ultra-nationalism and the final unification of all Germans, and one might guess he would find the pomp and incredible showmanship of the Nazi state very attractive.  Humiliating the French would likely also appeal to him.  But Wagner was a revolutionary, not just in his music but also in politics, at least in his youth, and he participated in the anti-monarchy revolts of 1848 and was forced into exile in Switzerland.  Once successful he seems to have retreated to some degree from these sentiments, especially when a monarch, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, showered him with money, and the creation of the German Empire pleased him.  Yet, it is hard to see Wagner enthusiastic about the absolute and particularly vulgar dictatorship established by Hitler, and for all his anti-Semitism I find it impossible to believe that the soul manifested in his music could abide the Final Solution.

But in the end – who cares?  Were Wagner himself a mass murderer, the music would still be the music and that is all the matters.  Modern Israel has had an unofficial ban on performing Wagner, which is simply silly.  The messenger is not the message.  And in any case Wagner is unwittingly performed: the traditional wedding march (“Here Comes the Bride”) comes from Lohengrin.

Finally, a little known connection between Wagner and America.  The American Centennial Commission in 1876 commissioned Wagner to write a piece of music for the occasion, resulting in the obscure American Centennial March, clearly not one of the master’s great compositions.  He himself said the best thing about the piece was the $5000 he was paid for it.

The University as Farm Club

The good news: the highest paid public employee in each of the fifty states works for an academic institution.  The bad news: not one of them really has anything to do with education.  In Alaska, Montana, Vermont and Delaware the highest paid state employee is a university president, in Maine it a law school dean and in North and South Dakota, New York and Massachusetts it is a medical school dean.  In every other state except Utah the highest paid public employee is a football or basketball coach (a hockey coach in New Hampshire).  Only Utah has as its highest compensated employee someone who may actually be involved in education, but that figure is still emblematic: a plastic surgeon.

Clearly, a major purpose of the American university is to be a farm club for the NFL and the NBA, something that baffles non-Americans.  And well it might, since supporting professional sports has absolutely nothing to do with the true mission of the university, and football and basketball programs suck up resources that might otherwise benefit education.  In the year 2011-2012 only West Point showed a profit in athletics; all those revenues, especially from TV, never see the light of academic day but are simply pumped back into athletics.  And it is still not enough, forcing universities to find more money, typically through so-called student fees, which are easier to increase than tuition.  It has been calculated that 99 major schools each funneled an average of $5 million more into their athletic programs by employing student fees and “university subsidies.”  And though unlikely, if all the money donated to the athletic programs of these institutions went instead to the real university, each would see an average increase in income of $12 million.

Of course any money saved would not automatically go to instruction, equipment, research, faculty or staff.  All the evidence demonstrates much if not most of it would end up funding the central administrations, which are growing at a phenomenal rate, both in terms of numbers and compensation.  Vice-presidents/associate provosts are being created for every conceivable administrative niche, many of them redundant and the vast majority of them having absolutely nothing to do with actual education.

My former employer, the University of New Mexico, lists 45 individuals under the headings “University Officers” and “University Administration,” to which may be added 15 Deans.  There is an Executive VP of Administration, apparently because the administration is so large that it must itself be administered.  There is a VP of Equity and Inclusion, a VP of Human Resources, an Assoc. VP of Student Development and a Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, and if that does not cover students, add a VP for Student Affairs and a Dean of Students.  What can all these people possibly do bedsides draw big salaries?  And at UNM the Athletic Director is actually a VP, which in a way is a burst of
honesty.  And remember, these numbers remain steady or actually increase at a time when faculty slots are going unfilled because of “budgetary constraints.”

All these people are compensated at a level generally far above that of the staff and faculty.  The median salary of a public university president is now $440,000, having increased 4.7% in 2011-2012, a rate that outstrips inflation and the raises for faculty and staff (and American workers in general), which are frequently missing altogether.  A study of 145 schools revealed absolutely no relationship between the quality of the institution and the pay of its president, but try telling that to boards of regents, who constantly claim a good (read “expensive”) president is essential for a good university.

The American university is becoming a joke.  Yes, an excellent education is still available, at least in the sciences and engineering – and of course business – and especially at the graduate level.  But while faculties are stagnant or even shrinking, administrations and athletic programs are growing and absorbing more and more resources, which means skyrocketing tuitions.  Students and taxpayers get to pay for all these drones, and meanwhile the institution is making huge amounts of money off its unpaid “student” athletes, allowing for more administrative and athletic growth.  Congratulations on acquiring both a degree and a couple hundred thousand in debt.

There is no reason to believe this will change.  The boards of regents at public schools are typically political appointees, more concerned with image than substance and committed to “serving the people,” who of course essentially see the university as a sports venue and perhaps a job-filler.  And the prime directive of any government, as the current President of the United States is demonstrating, is to defend and increase its power.  Sure, the NFL and NBA could support all those football and basketball programs with their spare change, but why should they when students and taxpayers are doing it for them?

Finally, from personal experience: Mike Locksley, the recently fired football coach of UNM, who in two years won two games, made as much money in one year as I made in 31 years of teaching.  He immediately found another job.

A Lost Poem by Lewis Carroll









‘Twas DC, and the lobby guys

Did gyre and gimble in the halls;

Of course they know what money buys,

The favors, votes, and pols.



‘Beware the Congressmen, my son!

    The nonsense speech, the bribes anon!

Beware the CIA, and shun

The frumious Pentagon!’



He took his veto sword in hand:

Long time the manxome jerks he sought –

So rested he by the White House tree,

And struggled for a thought.



And as he wondered who to blame,

The Congressmen, with pants on fire,

Along the street they whiffling came,

And all and each a liar!



One, two! One two! And through and through

The veto blade went snicker-snack!

He left them dead and took their bread

And went galumphing back.



And so were slain the Congressmen,

The people wept with joy and cheered:

‘O frabjous day!  Callooh!  Callay!

The scum need not be feared.’



‘Twas DC, and the lobby guys

Did gyre and gimble in the halls;

Of course they know what money buys,

The favors, votes, and pols.