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Book Review March 6, 2002
How I Harrassed The Working Class
By John Dolan Browse author Email

My Sinful Persecution Of Working-Class Poet Jim Daniels

I'm a harasser. Put the cuffs on me; I harassed the working class. And it wasn't even fun. It's not like I groped some factory girl as she leaned over a sweaty sewing machine. That would have been a harassment worth risking. All I did was post an email reply to a "Call for Papers" on the work of "Jim Daniel, Working-Class Poet."

I should've known better than to sign up for the damn "Call for Papers" list in the first place. These "Calls for Papers" (CFPs) are one of the dreary routines of academic life. You get on an email list and they send you notices of upcoming conferences. If you see a topic which interests you, you send them a 250-word proposal and they put you on the schedule.

Like a lot of things about this filthy business, it's utterly corrupt, yet totally unaware of its own corruption; sly, but convinced of its own transparent rectitude. It sounds simple enough: you agree to give a 20-minute talk on your current research, and in return you get a fully funded trip to a mid-range hotel full of plain but eager academics, more than willing to be picked up after a dangerous second glass of Chardonnay.

You don't even need to put any effort into the paper you give. Only grad students worry about that. Nobody cares what you say in those 20 minutes.

I had a rather dramatic demonstration of that fact early on in my career. I unpacked my bag at a conference where I was supposed to give a paper on Wallace Stevens, only to find that I'd brought an article on 18th-century occasional poetry, not Stevens. It wasn't even finished. But I read the damn thing, quavering and expecting to be exposed as a total fraud -- and to my astonishment it went over very well. It was so obviously, wildly irrelevant that they took me for a theory guy and treated me with the greatest deference for the remainder of the conference, and even begged me to submit a written version to the CV-padding collection which every conference produces.

I didn't; I was too ashamed. And that's fatal to an aspiring American academic. Out of sheer bitterness, I'm going to let you civilians in on the great secrets of the Tenured Guild. There is one quality which the aspiring American academic in the Humanities must have. Not brains, God knows. Only an amateur would think that.

No-you need the GI system of a buzzard. That's all.

You can feed buzzards pure botulism toxin -- put a funnel in their beaks and force it down them till their crops bulge, enough toxin to wipe out a whole city -- and they won't even hiccup. They literally can't gag -- their gullets don't work that way -- and can't be poisoned. To be a Humanities professor, you must be a buzzard.

You can't fake it. I tried, and my friends tried, at Berkeley. We weren't "principled" or anything -- God, are you kidding? We'd've killed, literally, for a tenure-track job. But it never comes down to something as quick and simple as killing. It means swallowing toxins in public, for several years running, without betraying a vestigial gag reflex even once.

I never did have that God-given gizzard, and that's how I ended up with this latest harassment complaint. I have a weak stomach, and after a few doses of this stuff I start to vomit it back. That's what happened with this "Call for Papers" e-list: it started to make me angry, then sick.

The cowardice. The proud, eager conformity. The tin ear -- if they have to lie, why can't they do it more sonorously?

But most of all, I just could not stand seeing the pose of "transgressor," "boundary-breaker," "resistant" adopted by people who have never done a brave thing in their lives. If they'd just say outright: "Look, we're contestants in a lookalike contest," and competed openly and proudly, they'd be bearable. Like a wet T-shirt contest for ugly people. And why not? Good for them.

But for them to use these sacred terms, the terms of rebellion and courage, and mean nothing at all by them -- it was intolerable.

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The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

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