Thursday, February 24, 2011

Observations from the third and final Columbia ROTC Forum

Those of you that follow me on the Twitter Machine already know I attended last night's town hall on the possible return of ROTC to Columbia's campus. I got lured there by the possibility of fireworks and the promise of post-event Guinness. Though this event lacked the heckling of the last town hall meeting, there were plenty of passions on display - muted hissings and snide laughter were almost as prevalent as Princess Leia anti-imperialist speeches.

My take: ROTC should be allowed to return to Columbia, though it's no guarantee the military will find it worth their while to sustain a program there. I also found that most of the anti-ROTC speakers didn't have any idea of what ROTC actually is, or what it's relationship is with a college that hosts it, but that's not really their fault - to quote Staff Sergeant Bulldog about fobbits, "they just don't know any betta.'"

Some random observations and opinions, in the order found in my notepad. Be warned: red herrings, strawmen, and crazy people were abound!

- The event was hosted in the Altschul Auditorium, in Columbia's International Affairs Building. (Better known as SIPA, School of International and Public Affairs.) University police and some dude in a suit were checking IDs at the door; one had to have a school ID (or presumably, media credentials) to get in the door. (Did I use a now-expired school ID? Why yes, yes I did.)

- My guesstimation - over 300 people in attendance.

- Provost Claude Steele gave the opening remarks, acknowledging the "robust crowd." He walked us through the process - these town halls are for members of the Columbia community to express their recommendations to the Task Force on Military Engagement, made up of five students and four faculty members. From there, the Task Force writes a report and makes a recommendation of whether or not to reinstitute ROTC on campus to the Columbia Senate, sometime in early March. After that, the Senate will vote, which will "inform" the President of Columbia and the Board of Trustees. So yeah, a lot of red tape, just like anywhere else.

- There were lots and lots of calls for civility before the microphones were opened up to the public.

- My informal number-crunching showed that 22 speakers expressed pro-ROTC sentiments, 27 expressed anti-ROTC at Columbia sentiments, and 2 expressed some other thing entirely.

- One early anti-ROTC speaker cited Cadet Command's ban on using Wikileaks as a research source as evidence that cadets wouldn't be able to fully commit themselves to academia.

- Every single History professor that spoke called for a return of ROTC to campus. Every single Anthropology professor that spoke called for the continuation of the ROTC ban on campus. Thoughts, pop philosophers?

- A Poly Sci professor implored Columbia to influence the military through ROTC, i.e. change from within, and said the military shouldn't just be led by West Pointers and graduates of "East Jesus State." This earned some laughs, but raised elitist bells with a lot of people, and deservedly so, methought. (Whoa! Methought actually passed the spell checker! Weird.)

- Columbia MilVets cited the latest vet statistics: 340 GWOT veterans are currently at Columbia, with approximately 200 of those being in the undergrad world. This is the most in the Ivy League.

- A pro-ROTC speaker, a girl from San Antonio, talked about her Naval Academy friend walking around Columbia in his dress whites, and being yelled at and told to go home. Maybe it was after Labor Day?

- Everyone in the audience was trying really, really hard to be civil, but it proved impossible, so a series of Clap Wars ensued, including one buffoon in front of me banging on his desk.

- It seemed like the most trotted-out argument for the anti-ROTC speakers was that the military's current ban on transgenders violates Columbia's anti-discrimination policy, and that ethically, Columbia can't invite an organization onto campus that so openly violates this policy. No offense to my transgender brothers and sisters out there, but are we really having this conversation? Only in New York City. (Also, taken from a Tweep - stop moving the goalposts. First it was DADT, now it's this. What's next - the military discriminates against midgets and fat people?)

- A veteran student restated the "there are people out there plotting to kill you" line that got the injured vet heckled last week. Snickering follows, and an Anthro professor waiting to speak said "No, I don't think that's the case," to those around him.

- Great quote from a Marine Iraq vet, talking about how the military is not perfect, but improving, and that Columbia needs to recognize such: "The nature of progress is there's no end to it."

- One undergrad girl claimed the military is responsible for creating our enemies, through our foreign policy pursuits. Was this accusation vague and nebulous - of course. She's not entirely wrong, but lost in her passion was nuance. She'll grow out of it. Probably.

- There was a call for an executive branch within the military, to counter-balance the military's chain-of-command structure. This would've come in handy during the downfall of the Kaboom blog, don't you think?

- "What freedoms do the military uphold, and for whom?" A rhetorical question asked by a speaker. She went on to say that the military doesn't protect freedom, but open debate and dialogue do. At this point my ears started to bleed.

- A breakthrough! Speakers on both sides agree that the faux-controversy last week generated by the article in The New York Post was unfair, as it was four seconds in an otherwise civil 2.5-hour debate.

- The Task Force got absolutely reamed by speaker after speaker. Claims of lack of transparency and that it was set up to push ROTC through, regardless of public sentiment. The funny part was watching the four members of the TF present just have to sit there and take it. Brutal. (But also funny.)

- A graduate student asked for more transparency regarding what ROTC provides students. At this point, despite my promises to myself to not speak, I try to get in line to share my ROTC experiences at Wake. (I.E. yes - we were students first and cadets second! We went to class and wore civilian clothes and drank beer and everything. We also didn't hold the Board of Trustees hostage to meet our demands of a 24-hour bodega.) Unfortunately, they already capped the lines, so I couldn't speak. I avoided the temptation to ironically yell out "my voice will be heard!" and instead returned to my seat and ate Doritos.

- By and large, international students spoke out against ROTC, and the U.S. military, in general.

- Apparently, ROTC will "militarize" the campus of Columbia. I LOLed.

- Another grad student argued that Columbia already allowed vets into their classrooms, so clearly, they've done enough. "The school of General Studies ... is where they can go to unlearn what they learned in the military."

- A note, addressed to "future Matt:" You turned down Knicks tickets for this. On Carmelo Anthony's debut. Idiot.

- A SIPA econ professor told the Task Force "it looks like this is going to go through, no matter what we say."

- An honest to God "no blood for oil" chant. 2003 called and demanded it or something.

- A Columbia law student and Iraq vet talked about his ROTC experience at Cornell. Thank Allah.

That's it. I stayed for the whole thing, despite myself. I begrudgingly admit that the Forum was worth my time, and I thank the Task Force on Military Engagement for hosting it. If nothing else, I was reminded that another side of the debate exists, and they are vocal, passionate, and engaged. I'll leave it at that.

(Okay, one more thing - think the anti-ROTC protestors would support a return to the draft? Let's channel that derivative outrage into something worthwhile!)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Paperback Cover for Kaboom

I've already shared the UK cover for Kaboom here, and now I get to post Da Capo's paperback cover. (Slated for an April 12 release.) It's absolutely stunning, and looks even better when matched with the spine and back cover. My sincere gratitude to everyone at Da Capo involved with designing it and putting it together.

What do you all think? Pretty awesome, right? I love the dog tag O's. And the cursor at the end of the subtitle, as a nod to the old Kaboom blog? Brilliant.

There will be a paperback book tour, though it'll be smaller and shorter than the hardcover tour. (There's only so much rock 'n roll this skinny Irishman can handle, you dig?) Details to follow, but it's going to strictly be a New York and New England affair.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Columbia ROTC Forum

So, here I am on a Sunday morning, nursing a mild case of the Irish flu, watching reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210. And then I get sent this link, a New York Post story on how an injured Iraq vet was booed by his fellow Columbia students at a forum discussing ROTC possibly returning to campus.

So much for following the travails of Brenda Walsh.

First, I wasn't at the forum in question. Maybe it really was as bad as The Post makes it sound. Then again, it's The Post. Second, I don't really qualify as a Columbia student right now, since I'm in the midst of switching programs, possibly/maybe staying there, maybe not. That said, I did spend some quality time there last semester, both with fellow vets and just normal undergrad/grad students. And as someone borderline obsessed with civ-mil relations in our time, of course I have some opinions on what went down!

The overwhelming majority of Columbia's community is no different than America as a whole - they're intrigued by veterans, unsure of what the right questions are at first, and grateful in a "thanks, hollow caricature man" kind of way. Then, just like the rest of our nation, in-depth, nuanced discussions bridge gaps otherwise thought impossible. So, my initial reaction to The Post piece - much ado about not(h)ing. (Shakespeare joke. A lame one, admittedly.)

That said however, there is a strain of thought in the Columbia legions that they must be against anything military-related, because they are Columbia, after all. This is a leftover from the 60s, when Columbia became Columbia with their in/famous Vietnam protests. Some of the faculty still walks around viewing the world through this black-and-white prism, and occasionally, one will stumble across an undergrad who feels the same way. Or, more accurately, feel like they need to feel that way, because they Wikipedia'ed Columbia after getting accepted, and a perverted sort of romanticism followed. It's as organic as most anything else in 2011, i.e. a regurgitated derivative from an age deemed more "real" and "authentic." These kids are clowns, obviously, but certainly not indicative of the student population as a whole.

We'll see how Columbia responds to all the bad publicity this garners. On Twitter, Alex Horton expressed desire for an editorial in the student newspaper denouncing the hecklers, and I'm expecting one. Just remember, before the inevitable anti-Ivy League backlash occurs, that Columbia has gone above and beyond their fellow Ivies in terms of GWOT veterans outreach. The last numbers I saw had more than 300 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on campus. That matters a hell of a lot more than a couple of discontents acting out some hippie fantasy.

Update: I reached out to some friends who were there, and while they said The Post piece was sensationalized, the heckling "still happened." Silly, soft posers. They can't even find something new and generationally-appropriate to protest.

Update 2: As predicted, the Columbia Spectator wrote an editorial in support of ROTC returning to campus. Good for them. Wish they had directly responded to the heckling incident, though.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bookslut review - YKWTMAG

Here's my review of Siobhan Fallon's short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone, posted at the litblog Bookslut. Check it out!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In Defense of Exposition

Writing fiction is an entirely different animal from non-fiction. Sure, the basics are the same, but I've found that fiction requires a different kind of diligence and deliberateness. Every word matters; simply telling the story, like non-fiction demands above all else, is rarely the most pivotal aspect of a piece in this alternate writing universe.

In modern fiction workshops, the adage "show, don't tell" has become law to the point that even its banality doesn't feel fresh anymore. Now, there's a lot of truth to such a statement, and it's something young writers need to pay close attention to - it helps keep characters from devolving into caricatures, and gives inexperienced narrative voices training wheels as they develop. But this reaction against exposition has gone too far, I believe, and likely a result of the proliferation of creative writing in academia. (This is not intended as a slam against the MFA culture, and now is as good a time as any to state that I'm probably/hopefully/maybe switching over to a MFA program next year. Sorry Interwebz, you're always the last to know!)

I recently received a critique of a short story of mine, from an experienced writer working as a reader for a literary magazine. While I was disappointed the story hadn't been accepted for publication (rejection happens a lot in this world, one gets used to it), I welcomed the critique as a way to improve my writing in general and the short story in question. I'm new to professional fiction, after all, and recognize its vast differences in construct from non-fiction, essays, and op-eds. And, by and large, the reader's advice was sharp and insightful. One TrackChange, though, bothered me, and bothered me because it's just really, really, unequivocally, and grossly incorrect: "Story is going to win over exposition each time."

With respect, the universality of this statement displays a formulaic and rather bland approach to writing. I enjoy Raymond Carver as much as the next person, but for Christ's sake, other styles exist. There are technical aspects to the craft for sure, but it's not a science - I doubt there's ever a time in literature that something is going to win out over something else each time. Exposition, as a technique, only competes against other literary techniques, not against the story itself. Further, some of the greatest writers in the history of language have relied on the literary tool of exposition for pages on end - Dickens and Hemingway come immediately to mind - and their works seem to have held up pretty well.

Exposition allows a writer to tell the story they want to tell, explaining facts, context, and background info and doling out descriptions and imagery to save space that otherwise might take too long "to show." We control those pages, after all, and the pace and themes and structure are our own. While I'm as wary and bored by pages upon pages of pop philosophizing as the next reader, if something is good writing, I'll keep reading, no matter what form it comes in - dialogue, argumentation, description, narration, stream of consciousness rambles ... and yes, even exposition. To completely avoid a literary technique because it's become en vogue to describe it as "an information dump" is as limiting as it is rigid. A good story needs framework, otherwise it won't say anything - pretty words without purpose and direction are just pretty words, and hollow ones at that.

I took to Twitter a couple nights ago to check the temperature of exposition. And, frankly, to make sure I wasn't just feeling sorry for myself. Turns out, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Robin Black, author of the celebrated short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You, tweeted back "I totally agree the 'show don't tell' thing got out of hand at some point. It's not that simple. Sometimes just tell it." And one of the Cummings brothers at the blog On Violence pointed out that this "rule" should be meant for novice writers, equating it to avoiding the passive voice. Spot-on analysis from both.

I'm certainly not arguing that the initial backlash against exposition, some decades ago, wasn't deserved or understandable. But in any art form, techniques will ebb and flow. Just as Shakespeare didn't kill the sonnet, exposition didn't die with the High modernists. And taking a cue from elementary school, I choose to exist in a writing world where Show and Tell are important to a good fiction story. To paraphrase the advice of an early creative writing teacher of mine, "if everyone else is doing it one way, doing the exact opposite is probably a good idea." Viva storytelling! Viva contrarianism! And viva exposition!