Thursday, September 20, 2018

"The Function Of Evil Across Disciplinary Contexts"

In 2014 Chico State University grad Brian Johnson, now Assistant Professor of Humanities at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, helped convene a most unusual conference. "Evil Incarnate" brought together presenters from many academic specialties, from Shakespeare to South African crime fiction, and the papers have now been published in book form. 

"The Function Of Evil Across Disciplinary Contexts" ($95 in hardcover from Lexington Books; also for Amazon Kindle) is edited by Johnson and Malcah Effron, a lecturer in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communications program at MIT. It's a scholarly treatment, from a variety of perspectives, of how evil is to be defined in a secular age.

As the introduction says, "evil was, at one time, a supernatural force … well-defined by theology"; but as "the supernatural has dropped away" the "narrative of evil" has been fragmented. In fact, the editors suggest, evil "as a palpable force is … a metaphor for … social scorn…." 

An example is given by Johnson's chapter, entitled "Ghosts of the Old South: The Evils of Slavery and the Haunted House in Royal Street." The house, in New Orleans' French Quarter, was set on fire in 1834, allegedly by the house cook, one of a group of slaves kept in the building and repeatedly tortured by one Madame Delphine LaLaurie, "a twice-widowed French Creole woman." 

A crowd gathered at the fire. "Seeking justice, the citizens of New Orleans threatened to turn violent against Madame LaLaurie for her crimes." She escaped, but the crowd pressed in, "destroying what remained." Stories arose that the property was haunted by the ghosts of those slaves; the story was featured in 2013 as part of the third season of American Horror Story. To this day it is "considered one of the most haunted places in America."

Ghosts, real or not, Johnson says, "act as evidence of a white supremacist vision of the history of New Orleans." The ghosts "return from the grave because their treatment was beyond divine justice," as if what LaLaurie did was an isolated social evil policed by upstanding slave owners, thereby minimizing the evil of slavery itself.

Johnson calls us to see through those ghosts.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

"Free Speech On Campus"

How can public colleges and universities encourage the free expression of ideas yet also protect individuals from being harmed? It's no small task, write Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in "Free Speech On Campus" ($26 in hardcover from Yale University Press and also for Amazon Kindle; a paperback version, just published, contains a new preface). 

Gillman is Chancellor at UC Irvine; Chemerinsky is Dean of UC Berkeley's School of Law. They lay out a vision for public higher education: "Campuses cannot and should not accommodate the language of safe spaces when the focus is protecting members of the campus fromthe expression of ideas, rather than creating a safe environment forthe expression of ideas."

The authors note that "this generation has a strong and persistent urge to protect others against hateful, discriminatory, or intolerant speech, especially in education settings." What they don't understand is the "historic link between free speech and the protection of dissenters and vulnerable groups."

Tracing the history of free speech in the US, the book argues that "social progress has come about not as a result of silencing certain speakers, but by ensuring that previously silenced or marginalized groups are empowered to find their voice and have their say."

But no voice can be heard in chaos, so the second half lists practical ways campus communities can respond to unpopular speech (as opposed to harmful actions), including hate speech. Speech should be regulated in "a professional zone" (like a classroom) "which protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse…." 

But there should also be a "free speech zone" where "members of the campus community may say things … that they would not be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment." 

Tomorrow's leaders, the book concludes, must understand that if society is "to remain free, diverse, and democratic … free speech matters."

Author Erwin Chemerinsky is scheduled to present "Free Speech On Campus," the Constitution Day Lecture, at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium on Thursday, September 27 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are available through Chico Performances (; $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, free for youth, Chico State staff, faculty, and students.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

"Bigfoot Nation: The History Of Sasquatch In North America"

According to Wikipedia, author David Hatcher Childress refers to himself as a "rogue archaeologist"; his newest book also identifies him as a "cryptozoology researcher" who has compiled accounts from all over the United States, and beyond, of a mysterious human-like creature.

Filled with photographs, some in color, "Bigfoot Nation: The History Of Sasquatch In North America" ($22 in paperback from; also for Amazon Kindle) traces the first mentions back to the early 1800s in the Canadian Rockies, with reports of a "wild man of the woods."

Much later, in Bluff Creek, California, in 1958, a construction worker "noticed a very clear footprint in the mud along the side of the road." He called the maker of the print "bigfoot," and the name stuck.

For Childress, "bigfoot" is not a proper name, but a type, like "bear, cougar or unicorn," and the term is both singular and plural.

In 1969 there was an encounter in Oroville "where Ed Saville and Eldon Butler reported to the local newspaper that they had seen an 8-foot-tall bigfoot with greenish eyes that came to investigate their rabbit call one night."

In 1994, east of Quincy, two friends say around midnight they saw a creature "covered in hair with a rounded human-like head and no snout." A man named Tim Ford told officials in 1998 that "he and six of his friends saw a 9-foot-tall, yellow-eyed, man-like creature close to their campsite" in Hayfork. In 2006 a retired herbalist said she saw bigfoot near the Hoopa Indian Reservation and tried to talk with it, but no response. In 2017 "Claudia Ackley claims she and her daughters witnessed a sasquatch while hiking near Lake Arrowhead."

Childress acknowledges bigfoot hoaxes down through time, and his writing doesn't take itself too seriously, but he does write that "somewhere, right now, a bigfoot is lurking in the shadows, keeping his eye on those who encroach on his territory, and any nearby dumpsters. He knows his place in Bigfoot Nation and it is a place in the shadows. For him it's no big deal, the struggle for national sovereignty is over--except for the yelling and the screaming."

Thursday, August 30, 2018

"The Adventures Of Nagel Of Ancient Babylonia"

Wilma R. Forester, raised in Chico, has a tale to tell. It's not about her own childhood, but about a fictional youngster who lived long ago, "a tall lean boy about eight years old but nobody ever celebrated his birthdays. When and where he came from was unknown…." 

"Once upon a time," the story begins, "a boy named Nagel came for his spin on the earth. God sent him to the land of ancient Babylonia. The time in history as we count time was about 1400 BC."

A slave boy who runs away from Master Armen, and then returns, Nagel will have much to learn, especially about a dream that haunts him, of "beautiful white feathers" turning the color of blood.

"The Adventures Of Nagel Of Ancient Babylonia" ($19.95 in paperback from ReadersMagnet LLC; also for Amazon Kindle) is dedicated to "the free-spirit of young boys and girls the world over." The narrator suggests lessons that might be learned along the way and even provides background music.

One day an old woman gives Nagel a "magic" whistle, telling him: "When you were born, you cried and others rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, others cry and you rejoice." Much later, Nagel joins Master Armen's desert lion-hunting party, along with his dog Scrappy and his big friend Nio, the eunuch, when they are all waylaid by nomads.

The nomads have donkeys but not horses and demand them from Master Armen. Nagel and Nio (who acts as translator) are held hostage until the animals can be delivered. Nagel meets a girl his own age named Sara but as the deadline for Armen to return runs out, with the fate of Nagel and Nio in the balance, the two plot their escape. The narrator adds: "Music full of suspense here please."

The story is about promise-keeping and its sacrifices. Nagel, Forester writes, "had learned real sorrow and how to cry. If we live long enough sorrow comes to ALL of us…Very heavy slow sad music here…" But there is joy as well when Nagel finds out his true identity and that there is steadfast love greater than he ever imagined.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

"Dennis My Menace: My Brother's Memoir"

The story Magalia resident Michael ("Mikee") Richards has to tell seems prosaic. In a news release he says it's about "two boys growing up in rural Idaho in the 1950s and 1960s who seek their father's approval and love. Much of this time was spent on a cattle ranch where there was lots of hard work. Always in search of their father's love by following his code regarding women and sex, the boys did things that got them in plenty of hot water."

But the boys are raised in a highly dysfunctional family, an absent mother (gone when Mike was eight) and a father who spends much of his time drinking. Mike is especially close to his younger brother, Dennis, who is "mentally challenged" ("later diagnosed as an adult with paranoid schizophrenia"). Mike becomes his protector (and, sometimes, the instigator).

Richards imagines reflections that Dennis might write, were he capable, and adds entries in his own name, especially as Dennis gets lost in the mental health system and is found again, still alive. 

"Dennis My Menace: My Brother's Memoir" ($14.95 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle) is an unsparing and explicit portrait of a young man who wants to show affection (he's a hugger) but cannot understand the world.

"You will know that I live in my own head in ways that you cannot imagine," "Dennis" writes. Angry voices "would get me agitated and cause me to pace back and forth and talk to myself. … I guess some of those voices were of different people talking in my head. I was just answering them out loud. … I developed some very bad habits like uncleanliness, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. … I was put on medication when I was twenty years old in the mental institution."

The story is suffused with immense sadness as Richards, looking back, tries to make sense of his life with (and apart from) Dennis. He is "still living in Ogden in a group home. He doesn't have much of a life now because most of his mind is gone. … My hope now, Dennis, is that I will be with you until the end."

Thursday, August 16, 2018

"The Nazi Card"

Chico State University grad Brian Johnson is now Assistant Professor of Humanities at Cuyahoga Community College, in Cleveland, Ohio where he teaches American literature and popular culture. 

In a new book he examines with scholarly precision the roots of what has become commonplace in the internet age, reflected in "Godwin's Law," which asserts that any online discussion (about anything at all), if it goes on long enough, will inevitably usher in some comparison to Adolf Hitler.

Johnson argues that such comparisons have lost their original meaning. "Historically," he writes, "the Nazis were defeated in 1945, but rhetorically they continue on through analogy until today. Each incarnation of their reference has altered their definition subtly so that Nazis now can refer to totalitarian politics, a drive toward world domination, racism, … irresponsible science, … feminist excesses, warlike attitudes"--the list goes on. Yet "what is the nature of Nazi evil if it isn't the Holocaust?"

"The Nazi Card" ($85 in hardcover from Lexington Books) traces "Nazi comparisons at the beginning of the Cold War," as the subtitle says, ranging not only through the age of the anti-Communist "Red Scare," and the Black Power and the Civil Rights movements, but also developments in the twenty-first century. 

Focusing primarily on Nazi analogies in American film (such as Charlie Chaplin's rendition of "Adenoid Hynkel" in "The Great Dictator" of 1940 and Peter Sellers as "Dr. Strangelove" in 1964), the book finds that even after the horror of the death camps entered public consciousness,  the Nazi analogy, representing absolute evil, has been over time sundered from the actual "egregious crimes" of the Hitler regime.

Applications of the Nazi analogy grow more and more arbitrary in popular culture, Johnson maintains, even when better analogies are available. "Why aren't Communists, better armed and a more imminent threat, a better description of a present menace than the Nazis, who were long ago defeated?" And, at times, "analogies to Nazism were employed to justify, not condemn, harassment of Jewish-Americans."

The bottom line for Johnson is that the misuse of Nazi analogies impedes careful moral reasoning. There is danger that the abundance of arbitrary Nazi comparisons may tempt us to forget what really happened.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

"Positive Thoughts Will Change Your Life: A Handbook For Personal Transformation"

"I grew up in Corning," writes Tony Palermo. "Everyone there, including my own family, are good, hardworking loving people." But after "a very tough break-up" at 19 he was plunged into sadness and depression and didn't ask his family for help. Perhaps, he thought, they wouldn't understand. 

He studied business at Butte College and moved up the ladder to a managerial position with Media News Group (the parent of this newspaper) but lasting happiness proved elusive. By age 36 it seemed clear that nothing would stop the emotional roller coaster. "As far as I was concerned, all my energy for the last 16 years had been expended in a continual effort to keep the darkness at bay."

Things began to change when he "decided to work with a life coach." Palermo learned "how to productively manage my negative thoughts … learning how to turn my negative thoughts into positive thoughts." The affirmations of self-love he practiced began to have an effect. 

Palermo himself became a life coach ( and what he teaches is embodied in "Positive Thoughts Will Change Your Life: A Handbook For Personal Transformation"($9.99 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle).

Central chapters focus on changing negative thoughts to positive ones. "One of the most commonly-used healing methodologies of this New Age are affirmations … something you say to yourself repeatedly." The affirmation "validates the precise role that thoughts and emotions play in creating our lives." 

The idea is to avoid negative affirmations ("I hate school") and embrace positive ones ("I'm a good student"). "If we focus on positive thoughts," Palermo writes, "the universe rallies round us, ushering in our deepest dreams."

In line with New Age teaching, affirmations are seen as a creative force. They require one to "consciously do what aligns with and supports the manifestation of your affirmations" knowing that "the universe will support me in every way." Separate chapters are devoted to forgiveness, relationships, and health.

Those who do not subscribe to New Age metaphysics can nevertheless affirm with Palermo the importance of cultivating appropriate habits of life and, as he has learned, to let others help. 

"The heart is built for sharing."