Supplemental: Still preoccupied after all these years!

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2015

The importance of statues and plaques:
Each Saturday morning, the Washington Post publishes a special extra page composed of nothing but letters from readers. Those readers are often irate.

The special page is called Free For All. From the comedy stage, we've incomparably suggested that its letters may perhaps be chosen to illustrate a pressing problem--the nonsense our journalists feel they have to endure from These Readers Today.

However the letters are chosen, one of today's selections seems instructive to us. It was written from Alexandria, Virginia, a city of 150,000 population which borders D.C. to the south.

The writer was troubled by a word the Post used in this preview of an upcoming PBS series. In our view, his sense of certainty, and his preoccupation, might be instructive as we continue discussing Missouri and Yale at the start of next week.

We include the hard-copy headline the Post affixed to the letter:

Alexandria in the Civil War

I was surprised to see The Post, rarely a bastion of conservative thought, use the phrase “occupied Southern town of Alexandria”
in the Nov. 7 Metro article “Alexandria preps for invasion after PBS series.”

Defenders of secession and states’ rights use “occupied” to describe places recaptured by U.S. forces. The accurate term is “liberated.”

Modern Alexandria’s relation to the Civil War is murky, shaped by the views of Southern sympathizers who once made up the city’s population.

A statue of a Confederate soldier with his back turned toward Washington can be found on Old Town’s Washington Street.

A hotel on King Street bears a plaque marking the spot where a Confederate sympathizer shot and killed a U.S. Army officer for removing a Confederate flag.

The plaque fails to mention that the officer was shot in the back.

The building that housed Alexandria’s slave pen (closed by U.S. troops) still stands on Duke Street but is unmarked.

If you cannot tell that the side that opposed slavery was right in the Civil War, you cannot tell the difference between good and evil.

JAL, Alexandria
The letter writer seems to say that he's discussing "modern Alexandria’s relation to the Civil War."

At this point in time, does Alexandria actually have a "relation" to the Civil War? We aren't sure how to answer that question, though our inclination would tilt us toward no.

That said: one hundred and fifty years later, the letter writer was willing to share the accurate term the Post should have used in discussing the matter at hand. Beyond that, he seems disturbed by the direction in which a certain statue is facing. Plus, he knows who was shot in the back. A plaque disappears that fact.

We found ourselves asking these questions:

Should the statue be turned so its back is facing Richmond? Should it be torn down? After he cancels next year's election, will Obama order that the statue be turned so it faces Mecca?

That rumor is starting to make the rounds. Let's return to the topic at hand:

One hundred and fifty years later, the writer seems preoccupied with the use of that one troubling term. Knowing what we know of such things, we suspected the Post may have copied that term from a PBS press release.

We don't know if that's what happened. But PBS uses that very same term at the program's web site.

We also don't know if that officer really was shot in the back. On line, the Post provides a link to this report, at Smithsonian.com, about the incident in question.

At least according to that report, it doesn't sound like the officer was shot in the back (although he certainly may have been). And uh-oh! The Smithsonian also uses the inaccurate term in question!

At this point, we'll admit it. When we read that slightly overwrought letter, we thought of our current series of posts about the reporting of recent events at Missouri and Yale.

Yesterday, we launched a few suggestions. As we read about a bright young student at Yale who says she's considerably disturbed about what a certain building is called, we suggested that professors and journalists may be encouraging her and her classmates to ignore the larger questions which surround them in New Haven and even perhaps in the world.

We suggested that our new class of fiery youngish black professors may, in some cases, be privileged bags of hot air. We suggested that younger people are perhaps being badly treated by the bad advice, and lack of substance, of those blustering academics.

We suggested that deans may be kissing young people's ascots, hoping they won't be the next ones fired. We suggested that young people are being dumbed down, exploited and driven to depression and tears by the self-serving ministrations of this unimpressive class.

We also suggested that major news orgs will work to keep you from imagining such possibilities. Our elites exist to bolster other elites, and our elites are mostly vapid.

At any rate, the Post has published another letter from one of These Readers Today. Should that statue be turned, or perhaps taken down? Did the Post use an "inaccurate" term? Is that plaque still hiding the truth from us the people? Does modern Alexandria have some sort of "relation" to the Civil War, even today?

Across the pond, the Taliban and ISIS are tearing down historical remnants. Revolutionary cadres with time on their hands often exhibit such zeal.

For ourselves, we'd be perfectly happy to see that residence hall renamed at Yale. But is there anything else our ranking professors have for that school's important young people? Is there any larger way those professors can fire those students' hearts and minds?

Our country is crawling with slacker professors. Warning! Many of these slackers are "white," but some of these slackers are "black."

What Coates said: Just this morning, we read this passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates' award-winning book:
COATES (page 50): The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.
In this negative new review, Professor Kennedy complains that Coates never quite explains what he means by "the Dream." Whatever! We're with Coates on that general portrait.

The process we've long called the "novelization of news" thrives on "limiting the number of possible questions" and thereby "privileging [certain preferred] answers." In the reporting and discussion of Yale and Missouri, we'll suggest you ask yourself this:

Is the journalism designed to keep you from asking this possible question: Is it possible that our college students are exhibiting imperfect judgment?

In our view, the reporting hasn't tried to answer that question. It has tried to keep you from asking that question. It has tried to "limit the number of possible questions," the process Coates names in that passage.

Partly out of concern for those students, we think that question should be asked. If it's professors we actually serve, we will simply continue along in our novelized dream state.

48 comments:

  1. A bit off Bob's topic, but the book review brings up an important subject:

    Coates proceeds differently. “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ And these words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket.” Coates abjures accommodating what he perceives as racial blackmail. He rejects what he sees as a corrupting racial double standard. “No one,” he observes, “told those little white children … to be twice as good.”

    IMHO the double standard is unfair, but being twice as good works. E.g., in many tennis matches, players call their own lines. I think it was an early (black) coach of Arthur Ashe's who told Ashe not to call his opponent's shot out unless it was at least 2 feet out. That was terribly unfair. Yet, Ashe became and icon, and he led to way for acceptance of all black tennis players.

    Most discriminated-against groups have had to work extra hard to gain acceptance. Notably, Asians and Jews and Mormons had to work harder than their peers. That was unfair to the generations who weren't properly rewarded for all their efforts, but it created as world where the current generations are actually sought after.

    Also, today there's much less need for blacks to be twice as good. On the contrary blacks get preferences in many situations of employment and education.

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    1. Ashe followed in the footsteps of Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to cross the color line. He was accepted at UCLA and then moved seamlessly into professional tennis because he benefitted from the black players who came before him. That you think he was first demonstrates the problem female athletes have gaining the same recognition as men and equal treatment in sports.

      Who discriminates against Mormons? It is the opposite in Utah, where Mormons discriminate against those they call gentiles. No one cares about their religion elsewhere. How many people even know that Marco Rubio is Mormon, for example?

      Jews were not able to overcome discrimination through hard work. It was the holocaust that changed things in the US and Europe. Before that, no amount of hard work could overcome the quota system in place to limit Jews. They found success through self-employment and in marginalized occupations such as show business, just as African Americans have found success in marginalized fields such as boxing -- doing the jobs whites don't want to do.

      If the so-called preferences you claim African Americans get were enough to eliminate the need for effort, the unemployment rate for blacks with college degrees would not still be twice as high as for whites with the same education.

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    2. According to the most reliable authority, Rubio returned to the Catholic Church, but respects other Christian traditions and sometimes attends a Baptist church.

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    3. AnonymousNovember 21, 2015 at 1:33 PM - I agree that minorities found success through marginalized occupations. E.g., I read somewhere that around the beginning of the 20th century, there were a number of Jewish prize fighters.

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  2. Somerby's experience with professors seems to be confined to the Ivy League and elite schools. There are a lot more professors out there working in public universities, state colleges and community colleges. He might ask himself whether they too are slackers, as they go about their days preparing young people to find jobs and lead better lives.

    A more accurate picture of what professors do, what they are like, and what they care about is provided daily at: https://www.insidehighered.com/

    I think Somerby's belief that it is the job of professors to fire up the hearts and minds of students with worthy social issues is essentially wrong. Professors teach their specialties, from engineering and biology to computer science and yes, sociology and political science. They never signed up to change the world by directing students as agents of social change. When young people discover the world, they have the energy to idealism to attempt to change what they find. That doesn't mean it is the principal role of professors to aim them in that direction. By extension, Somerby seems to blame professors for the ills he sees because they are part of the "elite." Those who teach the sons and daughters of powerful families at the top tier universities may themselves be part of that elite, but the vast majority of professors come from middle class or working class families, earn their degrees and teach at more mundane places and see themselves successful when they can feed their families, send their own kids to college and watch their students graduate to higher paying jobs. That is real life for most professors, whether they study the lingering influences of the civil war, the structure of cancer cells, or how to build less hackable computer systems. It is important work and it is NOT slacking.

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    1. In a slightly rational world you would heed warnings from those who have spent nearly two decades making Cassandra like warnings. That said, your differentiation of those who teach the sons and daughters of our powerful elite and those professors trying to put food on their families is apt. That is why, among the many questions Bob repeats here again one more time he leaves out the one about what our children is learning in more mundane degree granting institutions.

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    2. It's very, very troubling. The question as always is where do we go from here?

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    3. In my view, unless those who lead us acknowledge the errors they made we are doomed to repeat the mistakes they let us make so where we go from here depends on what those who got us here do to atone.

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    4. When times get fraught, the fraught get frothing.

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    5. Correction @ 1:18. Somerby's experience with professors was limited to one college and it ended almost a half century ago.

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    6. Somerby is only referring to the elite professors. You know, the ones who went off into the woods to nap, or diddle themselves, while America burned or Al Gore did not wear four button suits.

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  3. Somerby may understand that ensuring free speech for all requires tolerance of speech that is silly or despicable. In academia, a strongly held value is academic freedom. That means the freedom to pursue any line of inquiry in one's research, to speak freely in the classroom and to actively pursue knowledge without interference. It comes from the recognition that suppression begins by labeling certain pursuits trivial or unproductive or incorrect. Attempts to interfere with freedom rarely come head but are oblique, tolerance of mediocre or even silly topics and claims is the price paid for freedom from interference in the pursuit of knowledge. Other academics do criticize each other's work as part of the peer review process, but they do not limit the direction or ability of colleagues to do that work. That leaves academics open to jeers from know-nothings like Somerby who complain that they are engaged in trivial pursuits and should be putting their energies into something else.

    Science has recognized that inquiry that may appear to have no benefit today often result in knowledge that is invaluable at some future time, enabling discoveries that would otherwise have been impossible. A value of scientific inquiry is that one doesn't demand productive results in the near term but rather has faith that no knowledge is useless in the long term as long as it advances the corpus (body) of knowledge in a field. It may seem like that is carried to an extreme, but only the future knows what will benefit humanity, so scientific curiosity is allowed free rein. Outside universities, the world demands instead reward for investment, a business plan, clear goals. Economists criticize American business for being too focused on the short term. It is easy to absorb that worldview but it is inappropriate to apply it to academic research. Somerby has political and social, not economic goals, but he is being just as short-sighted when he demands that academics address the problems of New Haven instead of their own chosen research interests. It is a profound misunderstanding of what college is for, but typical in our society. I think it is at the heart of a lot of anti-intellectualism -- the kind Proxmire exemplified, that demands some practical utility of every grant funded because the only useful knowledge is that which can be immediately applied to a problem at hand. Academia doesn't work that way and I do not believe it should. Somerby keeps beating this drum and I find it annoying and ultimately unhelpful to promoting the long-term best interests of people.

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  4. Bob Somerby. For what he called seventeen "futile years" his musings about mainstream media led him to his trademark trolling of letters to the editor.

    Who else but the man who said what nobody else dared say -- that he saw Maureen Dowd naked -- could make the needed connection between the Taliban and ISIS and our lazy liberal tribe of letter writers.

    He may grace us with Part 6 of this series. But we truly have never earned Chapter 7.

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  5. I suspect this Letter was written by a professor. It seems to me this letter suggests some reasons why professors at Yale do not get involved in New Haven issues and supports Somerby's contention that black professors are fiery bags of hot air. JAL in Arlington is obviously a historian not a sociologist or political scientist. Sociology professors tend to encourage their students toward activism and political science professors toward participation in politics. Historians seem more concerned with facts that are left out, obsessed, in our view, with things that are disappeared.

    Impulses toward helping poor people are undercut by accusations of paternalism and recognition that change needs to arise from the organization of the poor themselves, not externally (David's example of Arthur Ashe pulling himself up by a generous out call). Systemic change is blocked if the town itself is glorifies its pastt association with treason. The student fatigue (depression) Somerby describes may arise from a sense of abandonement by professors whose self preservation instincts and guild self protection prevent suggestions of how to effect change. So students challenge trivial issues where change is possible because plaques and statues are superficial. Maybe it is time to go back to noblesse oblige and encourage students to observe curfews and attend chapel to relieve pain for individuals in small ways. Nevertheless both recipient and donor and can temporarily benefit both and feel it also. It is better than feeling futile and respecting mindless tenure.

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    1. Why don't you state your opinions in your own words instead of being an asshole? It is hard to tell whether this is word salad or you have some point to make, other than mocking others.

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    2. That, without a doubt is some of the most anti-intellectual trolling I have seen anywhere. Why you chose a vulgar attack on someone out of the blue, then accused them of doing what you just did in your comment is beyond my ability to understand.

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  6. It is hard to detemine which Senator from Wisconsin Bob's tirades against professors remind me of the most.

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  7. I hope Bob will continue to cover late breaking higher ed news coverage.

    Perhaps it is time for his annual SEC v. Pac 12 trashing of the media.

    http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/ncaa/sports-at-any-cost

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    1. Sandhya Kambhampati is barely out of college. And it wasn't one with much success in this field.

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  8. Somerby, who closed his last post wailing about 2000 opens this post admonishing those preoccupied with the past.

    He feels the letter he selected to poke fun at is instructive. I think this piece, also in the same Post, which he chose to ignore, is very instructive about who Bob Somerby has become.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/11/18/my-white-neighbor-thought-i-was-breaking-into-my-own-apartment-nineteen-cops-showed-up/?tid=pm_opinions_pop_b

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    1. Somerby is arguing that people should be devoting their energy to big problems not microaggressions and trivialities. What happened in 2000 was not trivial because it put Bush in office, a mistake we are all still paying for.

      If you think it is a problem when 19 cops respond to a burglary in progress call, it is unsurprising you don't get Somerby.

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    2. Says a lot about you that you consider the story linked to as a "micro-aggression" and "triviality."

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    3. 1. Nothing bad happened to her.
      2. The neighbor was correct that someone was breaking into her house -- just wrong about who it was.
      3. This was not racial on the cops part because the 911 call described the perpetrators as Latino.
      4. The cops explained that they didn't send 19 cops on purpose but simply asked anyone in the area to respond and they did.
      5. If she were actually being robbed, she would have reacted very differently and appreciated the quick response.
      6. The Santa Monica police force is integrated and it wasn't solely white cops responding.

      It is stupid to blow this up as some kind of racial incident. The cops did their job and she didn't like having to prove she lived there and had the right to break into her own home. Anyone would have been treated the same way.

      She was nasty herself in the way she attacked her neighbor for phoning the police when he saw several people breaking into her apartment. When he responded rudely, she chalked that up as yet another racial incident.

      When people with legitimate grievances gin up fake ones using stories like this, it weakens their cause. This story is about her sense of entitlement, not racism.

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    4. "After this essay ran online, Police Chief Jacqueline A. Seabrooks released an additional statement. “The 9-1-1 caller was not wrong for reporting what he believed was an in-progress residential burglary,” she wrote. “Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does.”

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    5. I listened to the audio tapes and she sounds like she has a real sense of entitlement, a "this shouldn't have happened to me, don't you know who I am?" kind of attitude. She seems to think white people are never suspected of crimes, never have to encounter police in the way she did. That just isn't true.

      I think she was not wrong to feel frightened but she expressed her fear as anger and her response was disproportionate to what happened. She appears entirely unable to consider the event from any perspective but her own, which is an immature, narcissistic response more typical of a teenager than an adult.

      A bunch of cops arrived promptly to protect her stuff and they didn't take her word for it when she claimed to live there, given that she fit the description the neighbor gave about who was breaking in. Later, she seemed to expect some kind of full explanation and apology but the cops told her they were just doing their jobs and that apparently wasn't enough for her.

      Entitled. She wanted accountability for scaring her when the rest of us would have thanked the officers and offered a cup of coffee and told them we were glad someone would arrive so quickly when we might have been in trouble. She blamed them and kept insisting someone tell her what was going on and why they were continuing to check out the scene after she told them it was her place -- as if her explanation weren't what any actual burglar would say to cops catching them in the act. Then she writes an editorial about it -- getting even for the affront to her ego. A movie star being told to turn off an electronic device on a plane couldn't have been more spiteful. This isn't about social justice -- it is about growing up.

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    6. I read your comment and you sound like you have a real sense of authoritarianism. People with bad attitudes seem to think ridiculous thoughts and deserve to have their behavior described as child like by people like you who know what proper behavior consists of.

      You know what everyone else would do, therefore anyone who doesn't do it deserves your scorn.

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    7. It is amazingly easy for for a white person to take the side of the cops and refuse to believe the person of color and pretend that "nothing bad happened to her."

      Not only that, she was in the "wrong" for not being grateful to the armed men who forced her out of her home at gunpoint, and even for failing to offer them a cup of coffee.

      Good grief!

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    8. What bad thing happened to her? She had to prove who she was while cops checked out her place to make sure no actual burglar was hiding or coercing her into making her statement.

      You clearly assume that only white people "take the side of the cops". There are plenty of white people who dislike cops too. I find it racist to assume that when someone disagrees with your view of cops, they are automatically white.

      What bad thing happened to her? The cops made sure her apartment was not being occupied by some burglar forcing her to lie about what happened, then they left. Then she went over and insulted her neighbor, provoking a rude reply. That hurt her feelings. Poor baby.

      She comes across as someone so eager to be a victim of racism that she sees it even in situations where race was not an issue.

      If people don't want the police to investigate burglary calls, the Santa Monica city council needs to give direction to the Chief of Police so that limits are set on what crimes should and should not be enforced.

      No one can teach this woman some common sense, apparently. Being a woman of color, it seems to never have occurred to her that breaking into her apartment after dark, with a soccer friend in dark clothing, using lock picking equipment might appear a tad suspicious, something the neighbors might be concerned about. She is a moron to complain when people apply the more likely explanation to the situation.

      She owes her attorney neighbor a cup of coffee and an apology, for sure. Otherwise, when someone actually tries to break into her place, he'll sit and watch instead of alerting the police. If she ever gets robbed like that, her attitude will change in a hurry.

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    9. A white person would leave a key with a neighbor.

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    10. A white person probably wouldn't move into an all black apartment complex.

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    11. People in Santa Monica are not self-segregated. It is a liberal haven -- Tom Hayden lived there when he was in Congress.

      What is your evidence that the area in which she was living was all white?

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    12. 77% white, 13% Hispanic or Latino, 4% black, 15% elderly.

      Santa Monica is home to many Hollywood celebrities and executives and is a mixture of affluent single-family neighborhoods, renters, surfers, professionals, and students.

      I would bet that there is greater diversity in the apartments, among renters (students, surfers, young professionals), than in the single family home areas.

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    13. I wouldn't leave my key with a surfer.

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    14. Natives and tourists alike have enjoyed the Santa Monica Rugby Club since 1972.

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    15. http://crooksandliars.com/2015/11/redondo-beach-man-stiffs-waitress-says

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    16. The luxury beach front high rise apartments/condos likely house the big money celebs. Surprisingly many of the single family homes off the beach are valuable but relatively modest, and passed down from generation to generation.

      A lot of homeless in Santa Monica, which went as far as to officially bill itself many years ago as a welcoming "home to the homeless".

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    17. "... she sounds like she has a real sense of entitlement, a "this shouldn't have happened to me, don't you know who I am?" kind of attitude."

      She'll have you know she did go to Dartmouth and Duke after all. She sounds like just another horse's ass.

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    18. D league elite schools for a D League ditz.

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  9. This may look like liberal bias. Or feel like teen spirit. I'm a boomer and it was all so long ago.

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    1. We aren't in the habit of criticizing youngish people.

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  10. At this point, we'll admit it. When we read this slightly overwrought post, we thought about a plate of shrimp.

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    1. At this point, I'll admit it. I'm glad Bob went through and restated all his suggestions made in the post from the day before. Without the reminder I would have been clueless until the segue into Ta Nehisi Coates made it clear we were talking about slackers of many colors. And clearly academic disciplines as well. Though probably all got initial appointments in ethnic and/or gender studies.

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  11. When is Israel going to fight ISIS. BTW, How many Syrian refugees, is Israel going to accept.

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    1. 0 refugees but Israel has been providing aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan. Israel doesn't want to increase the % of non-Jews in a Jewish state. Israel fighting ISIS sounds like a seriously bad idea.

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    2. When will Bob's readers stand up and fight for him? How many analysts will you take in your home while he gets better?

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  12. So Bob is now with Coats, a figure he did a fairly good job of exposing as a fraud, and his take on "privileging?" There is a lot of needless confusion caused by the bad reporting on these race cases. Bob Somerby's all over the map reaction here just makes it worse.

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  13. great line "After he cancels next year's election, will Obama order that the statue be turned so it faces Mecca?"

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