Tag Archives: Bertolt Brecht


29 Sep

Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments:

The poor man, on the contrary, is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts. For though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature. The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel….The man of rank and distinction, on the contrary, is observed by all the world. Every body is eager to look at him, and to conceive, at least by sympathy, that joy and exultation with which his circumstances naturally inspire him. His actions are the objects of the public care. Scarce a word, scarce a gesture, can fall from him that is altogether neglected. In a great assembly he is the person upon whom all direct their eyes; it is upon him that their passions seem all to wait with expectation, in order to receive that movement and direction which he shall impress upon them; and if his behaviour is not altogether absurd, he has, every moment, an opportunity of interesting mankind, and of rendering himself the object of the observation and fellow-feeling of every body about him.

Bertolt Brecht, “Mackie Messer” (“Mack the Knife“), Three Penny Opera:

And some are in the darkness
And the others in the light
But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don’t see

But you only see those in the light
Those in the darkness you don’t see

[Und die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die anderen sind im Licht
Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunklen sieht man nicht

Doch man sieht nur die im Lichte
Die im Dunklen sieht man nicht]


O Yale…(Updated, Again and Again and Again)

22 Jan

A friend writes me that he just got a copy of the Yale Alumni Magazine and, well, listen to my friend:

The image: a clean-cut [WHITE] man in a [PIN-STRIPE] suit picking fruit from a large tree. The headline: “Reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit.” The subtitle: “Yale College seeks smart students from poor families. They’re out there—but hard to find.”

Low hanging fruit at Yale

What was it that Brecht said?

O Germany—

Hearing the speeches that ring from your house, one laughs.

But whoever sees you, reaches for his knife.

Update (3:30 pm)

Tim Barker points out that if you go to the article itself, it has a dek that reads:

The families of Yale College students, on average, are substantially richer than the American norm. How much can the university change this? How much should it?

Next debate at the Yale Political Union: How much more money than God should Yale students have?

Update (3:45 pm)

Incidentally, if Yale is really having such a hard time finding smart kids from poor backgrounds, they should just come to one of my classrooms.

Update (January 23, 11 pm)

Much to my amazement, this story about the Yale Alumni Magazine cover has really taken off. Jon Pelto, a blogger in Connecticut, picked it up from here. And then Sara Mayeux, another blogger, picked it up from Pelto. And she alerted The Atlantic to the whole issue. In addition, Matt Bruenig blogged about it. The pressure has gotten so intense that the YAM was forced to issue a statement.

One of the claims the magazine makes in its statement is that Pelto and I “were gobsmacked by the cover but less specific about their objections.” It’s a complaint that Bruenig leveled against me as well. And it’s true. I wasn’t specific, mostly because I thought the objections were so obvious. But since apparently they are not so obvious, here’s what I said to Bruenig on his blog:

In my post, I was focused on the particular language and imagery of the cover. Yale is represented there as a human being — a white man in a pin-stripe suit no less — while poor students are represented as, alternatively, aliens or vegetation. Small wonder, then, that the dek of the piece goes onto raise the question of whether Yale even “should” strive to have more students from poor backgrounds, a question that the director of admissions seems to ultimately answer in the negative. If you see the poor as so alien and so other, you’ll probably have some ambivalence about recruiting them. Which might make the effort to recruit them more fraught and perilous than it needs to be. It was the clumsy class anxiety, and unintentionally revealing vocabulary, of it all that really caught my attention. Hence the Brecht quote.

In its response, the YAM claims that the “fruit” metaphor applies to all potential students, not just poor students.

We weren’t comparing low-income students per se to fruit, but applying the metaphor to all smart students—the low-hanging fruit being the well-off, many of whom apply to Yale and other elite colleges as a matter of course; and the hard-to-reach being the low-income, who, as the article explains, are less prone to think of the likes of Yale when they make their plans for the future.

A commenter there helpfully elaborates:

While the “low-hanging fruit” analogy was perhaps less than artful, the criticisms you quote seem rather petty. After all, you were characterizing ALL applicants as desirable vegetation — just that some are easier to spot and select than others, which is the point of the article.

I think he thinks he’s being helpful.

Anyway, one thing that has gotten lost in all this discussion is the article itself. Its author contacted me, urging me to read the piece. While Sara Mayeux, whose post I mentioned above, did in fact read the piece and offered up a critique of it, which went well beyond the cover that I focused on, I urge you all to read it for yourselves.

Bertolt Brecht Comes to CUNY

8 Nov

Last month, the English Department faculty at Queensborough Community College (QCC), which is part of the CUNY system where I teach, voted to recall their chair and elect a new chair. (At CUNY, chairs are elected.)The vote was a landslide, as these things go: over 20 out of 30 full-time faculty were in favor of the recall and the new chair. On Tuesday, the president of QCC decided to overturn the faculty’s decision. Among the reasons the president gave for her decision was that the department was divided (apparently, only Soviet-style election results in which 100 percent of the people vote for the Party are acceptable) and needed time to heal (by having its decisions overturned). The president also reappointed the old chair to handle department business. Let the healing begin.

It seems fitting that all this thuggery was set in a literature department. As soon as I heard about it, I thought of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem “The Solution,” which he wrote in the wake of the failed 1953 uprising of East German workers against the government.

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Update (November 9, 8:15 am)

You can sign a petition asking the president to reconsider her decision. Please do so.

Update (November 12, 3:15 pm)

More information on the crisis here.


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