• Wanting Something Too Much

    • Posted on Oct 07, 2007


    You can want something so much you shouldn’t get it.  Alcohol.  Winning at games of chance.  A fantasy love.  Fame, which turns decent folks into narcissistic monsters.

    Then there’s power, which corrupts quickly, and in large doses, completely.   

    Take the U.S. Presidency.  Talk about power.  Our President embodies vertical power the likes of which the world has never seen. “Vertical” meaning power at the time of its wielding—a four or eight year term.  Every word gets noticed, every gesture analyzed, every speech the subject of worldwide punditry, every action significant.

    Off-hand remarks and tongue-slips become the subject of jokes and comedians for days.  A casual remark that seems racist or sexist will bring out marchers and petitions, as will a nasty comment at a news conference. 

    It’s fame with teeth.  No wonder our President has to travel with a seriously armored and armed entourage. An assassin will enter history almost as much as his/her target. 

    Then there’s “horizontal” power, or the power to enter the archives. A president’s actions become part of national and world history for decades, probably centuries, depending on our beloved flag’s longevity.

    Whereas most readers and the writer of this column will be little known and long forgotten, the winner of next year’s Presidential election will join a parade of Presidents that reside on the pages of thousands of historical documents, essays, historical novels, history texts, not to mention terabytes of memory on hard drives everywhere.  Oh, yes, and they live and work in relative comfort during the campaign without much labor other than constant travel, speechifying, and strategizing. 

    That’s awesome power, and here “awesome” actually applies. No wonder the field of presidential dreamers fills a stage. 

    Yet I maintain that anyone who’s willing to seek that kind of power must recognize that it’s only and always a means, not an end.  If they take it seriously as raw, naked power they get drunk on it, convinced they serve because they have a divine right--as did medieval kings and our current President—rotting them to the core. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush share that awful fate, I’m ashamed to say.      

    So the question for us first-in-the-nation deciders becomes: 

    Who wants power for its own sake least?   Or who won’t let it corrupt them the most? 

    Space doesn’t let me rank on the whole pack, but the top three in each party merit comment:  John M., Hillary, John E., Mitt, Barack, and Rudy. 

    Oh, and I have to add:  Fred.  I add him because he sits at the top of those who seem to want it least, since he entered so late and seems to believe in acting skills more than political talent.  If I thought his doctrinaire Conservativism made any real sense, I would take him seriously, but I don’t.  He speaks to a base few.    

    So let me look at the Big Six.  In order of those who seek presidential megapower, least to most: 

    1. John McCain. He’s a supporter of unpopular policies, an aged Vietnam vet who’s campaign has stalled, but he keeps plugging on, citing his need to make serious positive changes.  I almost believe him. 
    2. Barack Obama.  He voted against the Iraq war majority five years ago, almost alone, he constantly articulates a vision of a more unified America, he embodies a younger idealism mixed with pragmatism that shows he might pull it off.  He could be corrupted, but maybe, just maybe, not.    
    3. John Edwards. He’s a bit too willing to please a narrow constituency, but his ideas make more sense than most, and he certainly had a taste of it as a failing candidate for VP.  The fact that he’s back for more may be a good sign.  Or a bad one.

    4-5-6:  Mitt, Rudy, Hillary:  Power junkies all.  I can’t trust them because I don’t believe they’re in it for the good they can do, but for the power they will wield and the history they will change.  They’ve shown in small and large ways that they’re willing to do anything to get power.  Worse, anything to keep it. 

          To oblivion with them.


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  • How UNI Has Changed: Happy Homecoming

    • Posted on Oct 16, 2005


    Happy Homecoming to UNI alumni, faculty, staff, and supporters world-wide. 

    Those who actually return this weekend to their Cedar Falls alma mater will find that it looks about the same: Baker/Lang/Seerley/Bartlett/Campbell/Lawther/Wright/Sabin Halls still stand, as does that glorious Campanile, giving the campus its endearing and enduring appeal.

    However, those looks deceive. It’s not the same place, really, and now well into my 38th year teaching there, I speak from experience. 

    First and least, there’s the on-campus cuisine. In the old days it was cafeteria food, pure and simple. Then fast-food franchises arrived, and burgers and fries filled students in the Union for years.  Now it’s a complex mix of coffeehouses, smoothie-yogurt cafes, pizza/Chinese/Italian/California offerings that are expensive compared to the old days, but much better.  Eating at “Piazza” in the Redeker Center compares favorably to any restaurant in town.  Students don’t complain about cafeteria food any more, since there isn’t any. 

    Then the student body.  It has changed radically, both in size and behavior. The number of on-campus students has increased by over fourfold since the sixties and seventies, hovering close to 13,000 now, from around three thousand in the sixties.  One can get lost in the crowds these days on campus, and sidewalks, classes, and the Union can be as crowded as subways.  Once upon a time, UNI students knew practically everyone, at least by sight. 

    As a rule, those students now work and imbibe far more than students did when it was Iowa State Teachers College, or the State College of Iowa, or even early UNI in the mid-sixties.  Tuition cost thousands now instead of hundreds, so students and their parents struggle to keep up with expenses.  Many of them work twenty to thirty hours a week, and carry heavy class loads besides. They often look bleary-eyed to me, probably from long hours at work plus occasional all-nighters with their friend Al Cohol.   

    The UNI faculty has changed too.  No more orators, as was Professor Josef Fox in his heyday. Nobody could hold students spellbound like that grand old master teacher with his thundering humanities and philosophy lectures.   Same with John Eiklor, even in his huge TV classes.  Formal lectures have given way to facilitated discussions and informal conversations highlighted with Powerpoint presentations.  Thoroughly professional.

    And what has become of the beloved eccentrics on campus?  Extinct, that’s what.  Professors legendary for their brilliance and off-kilter mannerisms have gone the way of the dodo.  Louise Forest comes to mind, with her Old English Sheep dogs, which she bred, raised, and sold.  She worked out of a cave of clutter, a.k.a. an office, and offered utterly captivating classes on Shakespeare.

    Alums still remember Professor Forest for helping them both feel and think about the bard in ways that transcended mere knowledge. We have not seen her like again. 

    Last and most, there’s the feel of the place, the ambience, the heart and soul of the university as it now stands.  Here’s where UNI has changed the most, as have all universities in America since the sixties.  It’s no longer a small operation with a benevolent, small central administration on a first name basis with everyone, running everything.  They loved their little college, and it loved them back.   

    It’s now a large, complex institution, with multiply funded institutes, programs, initiatives, a faculty Union, colleges and University Senates, administrators and assistant administrators, and meetings, meetings, and more meetings.  The most highly-paid folks on campus spend their workdays in meetings, on the phone, and on e-mail.  Minutes from meetings now zap around campus via-e-mail like electrical storms.

    Except in these meetings, faculty rarely see much of each other. There’s no central lunch or coffee-room other than tables in the Union, and most spend their time in their offices, in the library, or on their computers. 

    Taking time for long discussions of anything over coffee or lunch with colleagues has long ago given way to electronic chatting (woe to those old-timers who shun computers) and quick hallway conversations.

    In short, where UNI was once a small-time family-like operation, it’s now more corporate, more business-like, more predictable, and yes, more professional.

    And far less exciting.





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