This post first appeared on the opinion page of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press on Sunday, August 17, 2008.

A few days ago I received a letter from Barack Obama, pleading that I “rush a generous contribution” to him. I placed the return envelope in my checkbook.

The same evening I got a call from his campaign asking me to door-knock on the weekend. I already had plans but I agreed to future weekends.

Then I requested a lawn sign. The volunteer informed me that I could buy one at campaign headquarters.

Buy one? Purchased in bulk, a two-color lawn sign might cost the Obama campaign $1. I checked the Obama ’08 Web site. They offer the budget-conscious supporter a generic 26-by-16-inch sign for $8. For those Obamites into conspicuous consumption, the site advertises a variety of 22-by-15-inch designer signs for $19.99. If this were an oil company, the Democrats would be accusing it of price gouging. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “So it goes.”

I called the Obama ’08 Minnesota office for clarification. Media spokesperson Nick Kimball told me it is “generally a policy of the campaign nationally to charge a nominal fee for lawn signs.” “An occasional exception might be made for an outstanding volunteer,” he added. Kimball later called back to report that “if someone balks at paying for a lawn sign and really wants one, we’ll work something out.”

Gee, I guess I didn’t protest enough.

I contacted Obama’s national headquarters and was told that charging for lawn signs compensates for the income lost when Obama rejected contributions from PACs and lobbyists. Here’s what they failed to mention—any revenue lost from those special interests is more than offset by the cash windfall the campaign is accruing from having opted out of public financing.

What’s wrong with this picture? For a campaign that purports to be a movement, this mercenary marketing strategy is not only hypocritical but also counterproductive. Lawn signs should be an investment, not a revenue stream.

Lawn signs are a biennial ritual for partisans and party activists. Even so, the faithful have minimal influence on their immediate neighbors. However, when a nominal party member or, better yet, an independent puts up a candidate’s sign, the neighborhood takes notice.

Here’s how it works. A couple of households unexpectedly put up an Obama lawn sign. Emboldened by their neighbors, others follow suit. Obama ’08 should be seeking this bandwagon effect: Folks are more likely to put up a sign when they see an increasing proliferation of signs. This effect carries over on Election Day.

So I have learned that even heartfelt allegiances are conditional.

I will write no check nor will I knock on any door until the person answering that door can get a free lawn sign. I urge Obama supporters of conscience to do the same.

I recently spent countless hours writing an op-ed article favorable to Barack Obama. It was a labor of love and a proud contribution to his candidacy. I now realize I was a fool not to have billed my hours to Obama ’08.

This post first appeared on July 14 as an op-ed article on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.                                                                                                                                                                                          

Race and gender may have been the most visible currents in the 2008 presidential primaries, but what really unsettled the political waters was a riptide of religion. Beginning in March, a maelstrom encircled Barack Obama’s relationship with his pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.


It started when ABC News discovered some of Wright’s old sermons. Cable news channels were soon repeatedly running video clips of the pastor’s most racially inflammatory and anti-American remarks. Given this negative coverage and a subsequent dip in the polls, Obama had little choice but to condemn Wright’s “incendiary language” but he refused to disown the man.

Just as this political firestorm was about to burn out, the recently retired pastor embarked on a five-day publicity tour, concluding on April 28 with an appearance before the National Press Club. In a performance described by a Newsweek columnist as a “public murder-suicide attempt,” Wright seemed as intent on damaging Obama as he was in defending himself.

Obama reacted with uncharacteristic anger. Within a month, Barack and Michelle Obama had resigned from Trinity. In their resignation letter they wrote, “Our faith remains strong and we will find another church home for our family.” On Father’s Day, Obama gave the sermon at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God.

Wright may have been Barack’s pastor for nearly two decades, but it is now obvious that he’s never been Obama’s theologian.

David Brooks of The New York Times interviewed Obama last year. The columnist asked the candidate if he had ever read Reinhold Niebuhr. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers,” he said. Brooks asked what Obama took away from Niebuhr:

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from from naïve ideaism to bitter realism.

“My first impression was . . . that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History,” wrote Brooks. “My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle.”

Who was Reinhold Niebuhr? From the 1930s through the 1960s, he was arguably the nation’s most influential theologian and political theorist. For three decades after his death in 1971, Niebuhr’s influence steadily declined in both ecclesiastical and civic circles. Nearly all of his books had gone out of print.

This was quite a tumble in status for a public intellectual who in 1948 graced the cover of Time magazine’s 25th anniversary edition as America’s “No. 1 Theologian.” His crossover popularity was so great that a Harvard critic once joked about “atheists for Niebuhr” clubs.

It’s ironic that it took the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent debate over terrorism to resurrect Niebuhr—Paul Elie argues that he has become “a man for all reasons.” New acolytes include a Noah’s Ark of ideological warriors: neoconservatives, liberal hawks, military revisionists, anti-war leftists, theoconservatives and religious liberals.

Each of these factions claims him as their own. Regrettably, most of these latter-day disciples are seeking sound bites rather than subtlety. “Niebuhr was always finding troubling questions,” wrote one scholar, “where even his friends found easy answers.”

No single work of Niebuhr’s does justice to the range and depth of his unique fusion of religious faith and power politics. Nevertheless, if you are among those many readers of the past two generations who have never made the acquaintance of Pastor Niebuhr, The Irony of American History is the place to start.

As an interpretation of our national heritage, Irony stands alongside the masterpieces of Beard, Du Bois, Miller, Hofstadter and Williams. Even so, portions of a book written early in the Cold War are unavoidably seasonal.

What is perennial about Niebuhr is a style of thought—and his ironic mind is most evident in the first and last chapters. In the alpha and the omega, he sketches an existential drama that is born of the human condition. Niebuhr appropriates the ideas of tragedy, pathos and irony to portray three enduring theories of human nature and destiny. With Abraham Lincoln as his exemplar, the preacher casts his lot with irony:

The evil in human history is regarded as the consequence of man’s wrong use of his unique capacities. The wrong use is always due to some failure to recognize the limits of his capacities of power, wisdom and virtue. Man is an ironic creature because he forgets that he is not simply a creator but also a creature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The two omnipresent parties of History, the party of the Past and the party of the Future, divide society today as of old.”

The literary critic R.W.B. Lewis has argued that these polarized perspectives don’t account for those thinkers who “seemed skeptically sympathetic toward both parties and managed to be confined by neither.”

To accommodate those intellectual innovators who periodically challenge our taken-for-granted beliefs, Lewis suggested creating a third party. Like Lincoln, Niebuhr and Martin Luther King before him, Barack Obama is today’s standard-bearer for Lewis’s “party of Irony.”

The careful writer is an endangered species.

The evidence is all about us: at America’s best newspapers the economic bottom line now trumps journalistic values; bloggers pollute the Internet with unedited, stream-of-consciousness musings; e-mailers and text messengers practice a staccato disregard for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

No one is immune.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Oct.19

Kersten rebuked

In her Oct. 15 broadside against bans on sports teams with Indian names, Katherine Kersten manages to both violate principles of sound argument and indirectly denigrate the deceased. As a columnist, she has every right to savage policies with which she disagrees. But in her typical ad hominid style of argument, Kersten gratuitously attacks a nationally respected young sociologist who is only tangentially connected to the story. She does so by mocking the titles of his books and articles, scholarly works that have nothing to do with her topic at hand.

We are all responsible for the consequences of our actions, even unintended ones. It was thus a supreme act of cosmic justice that her column appeared on the same day that the Star Tribune had a front-page obituary of Vernon Bellecourt, the man who initiated the nationwide campaign against Indian mascots.

Given her rigid mindset, she could probably never get her head around the idea that a Christian God had struck her such an ironic blow. OK, perhaps it was Karma? I look forward to a future Kersten column in which she laments the invasion of both South Asians immigrants and their alien religions of Hinduism and Buddhism.


At 7:30 a.m. on the day that my “Kersten rebuked” letter appeared, I received an e-mail from my university provost: “ad hominid?” Once the visceral flush of shame had passed, I rushed to check the editorial page. Sure enough, I had committed a malapropism.

Given the universal impulse to save face, I first gave thought to claiming intentionality–of course, Kersten’s simple-minded arguments really are ad hominid! Upon further reflection, I decided to be forthright. I contacted the Star Tribune editor so that he might as least correct the on-line version. I also asked why he had not caught and corrected my gaffe with “ad hominem.”

Actually, Monte, I did stop at it and was in the process of changing it when I thought, wait. Monte’s a smart guy. Maybe he knows something I don’t. So I did a quick search and found a couple of dozen uses of it. In hindsight, I should have checked further. But it’s one of those things: If it’s a writer I know and trust, I’m inclined to believe him, even if he’s using a term I’m not personally familiar with. I may not know every word that exists, but I sure as hell don’t know every word that DOESN’T exist.

Alas, you gave me more credit than I was due. Nevertheless, the error was mine, and mine alone. Given the probability that few read the letter, and even fewer recognized my mistake, why don’t I just let this embarrassing lapse lie? Even a parish priest needs confession. As a teacher, I profess that self-editing is the key to writing well. I counsel students that every composition, even an e-mail, deserves careful proofreading and at least a couple of drafts. I must fess up: I was in too much of a rush.

And particularly when using newly-minted prophylactics–spelling and grammar checkers, for instance–realize that these tools are neither infallible, nor do they absolve us of editorial culpability. A highlighted suggestion should not provoke an automatic click on the “change” box. Regrettably, I did not practice what I preach; when prompted, I mindlessly changed a word that I had originally spelled right. Too late, I learned that my computer’s abridged dictionary did not contain that word–and an absent word is a spell checker’s misspelled word.

How can we save this endangered species of careful writers? For my part, I will henceforth distribute this scarlet letter on the first day of every class. Perhaps then, this faux pas will be an edifying moment not just for me but for my students as well. Author, heal thyself.


Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart, are not antagonistic to each other; they belong to the same realm. Facts inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute. In other words, factual truth informs political thought just as rational truth informs philosophical speculation. Hannah Arendt

A colleague, Professor Doug Rossinow, recently published an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. An American historian who specializes in the 1960s, Doug has written extensively on the New Left. In his column, “Flash: ’60s radicalism predated Obama,” Rossinow unmasks an unscrupulous campaign tactic of guilt by association: the linking of Barack Obama to a former member of the notorious Weather Underground.

The day his column appeared, I sent an e-mail to our university community with the subject heading “Prof. Doug Rossinow exposes campaign ‘Swiftboating’ in today’s Star Tribune.” I also pasted the op-ed into the e-mail with the following preface: “Doug Rossinow provides Minnesotans an invaluable civic service in today’s Star Tribune. In the best tradition of a citizen-scholar, Doug exposes a presidential campaign fiction that the news media has failed to adequately fact check. He has done Metro State proud.”

As the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. I received several irate e-mail responses. The following message was the most cogent.

“Opinions are opinions. Facts are facts.”

Hi Mr. Bute,

While I’m not sure that a broadcast political message to faculty colleagues is an appropriate use of MnSCU/Metro State resources, I’ll let that rest for now. Remember that Professor Rossinow’s article is an opinion piece, not news and if you wanted to alert your colleagues to the article, you might have done so without repeating the content.

There is room for disagreement in the article, and I quite readily admit that I do disagree with several of Rossinow’s (and by extension, your own) conclusions. Allow me to be clear, up front. I have been a committed Democrat since my first campaign in the Fifties–1950s not 1850s. I have been very active in every election since 1992, holding office in the local DFL organization and being campaign treasurer for four legislative campaigns.

I am not a committed Obama supporter, nor am I a committed Hilary supporter. My choice didn’t make it past Super Tuesday. I am fully prepared to support whoever emerges from the Convention as the nominee, flawed though he or she may be. While Rossinow may be a scholar of the Sixties and I am not, I lived through them. That should allow me to view the times through my perspective.

Professor Rossinow talks about the Weathermen as if they were “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight.” I admit they were no Al Qaeda. A group who knowingly planted bombs and set them off, perhaps killing anyone who happened to be in the vicinity, is, to me at least, a violent and threatening group.

Rossinow writes “[Bill] Ayers and other Weatherveterans may have become wholesome, productive citizens since returning to polite society.” Sara Jane Olsen became a productive citizen but is sitting in a jail cell today. There is evidence that she was a “brainwashed” pawn. Ayers was a militant leader in a terrorist group.

Rossinow soft-pedals their actions but does not the term “terrorist” fit? They were not teens hopped up on testosterone doing stupid things they were dangerous terrorists trying to overthrow our government by violence, or at least trying to get newspaper space and their message out. With Al Qaeda’s money and today’s technology, how dangerous could they be now?

Rossinow continues, “Hillary Clinton–at long last, having no shame–suggests that Ayers’ comment that ‘we didn’t do enough,’ in an interview published on 9/11, was an endorsement of Al-Qaeda’s attack on America. She certainly knows that Ayers’ interview was done before 9/11. Whatever he meant, the timing of the interview’s publication was simply unfortunate.”

Wait a minute. Two conjectures, both wrong (in my opinion). Rossinow cannot deny that Obama’s relationship with Ayers was a continuing one. More than just being a neighbor, they served together on a Board of Directors. They appeared together on at least one public panel. Rossinow’s implication that Ayer’s comment “We didn’t do enough” was innocuous because it was uttered before 9/11 is flat out stupid.

What did Ayers mean? Did he mean “We didn’t plant enough bombs?” “We didn’t kill anyone. Maybe we should have?” However he meant it, a former terrorist who says that, even before 9/11, doesn’t regret what he did do, he regrets what he didn’t do. Those aren’t the words of a “wholesome, productive citizen.” Anyone who knows history or lived through the Sixties should be shaken by that comment.

The fact that Obama sees nothing wrong with their association shows poor judgment on his part at best. Personally, I’d stay as far away from Ayers as I could. Hillary’s comments on the association are fair game. Can she claim Obama was sympathetic to terrorists in the Sixties? Of course not. Can she imply that Obama’s continuing and voluntary association with a Sixties terrorist who apparently has no regrets for his past actions show poor judgment on Mr. Obama’s part? Hell, yes!

Did Hillary know Ayers’ interview was before 9/11? I don’t know that. Maybe Rossinow does. If she knew it and still tied Ayers’ reference to 9/11 that was wrong. Shameful? I don’t know that.

The point of this all? Opinions are opinions. Facts are facts. Professor Rossinow doesn’t let the facts get in the way of his opinions. The article should be read that way.


“Factual truth informs political thought.”


First off, I sent out that e-mail with pride; a Metropolitan State University faculty member had a column in the state’s premier newspaper. One distinguishing characteristic of Metro State is that our faculty tries to communicate not only with specialists in our fields but with the well-informed public as well. As a faculty member at a university that gets little or no respect, I admit I am quick to point out our achievements.

Second, it’s interesting that you insist on identifying Professor Rossinow’s op-ed as a “political message,” which you deem as inappropriate for ‘broadcast” on a workplace e-mail system. Internal communication about faculty achievements is quite common. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are only too glad to have their faculty’s op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal identified with their respective universities. They don’t make such a sharp distinction between “fact” and “opinion” because this line of demarcation is far murkier than you allow.

You seem to have an ideological criterion for distinguishing “fact” from “opinion.”  I read Rossinow’s column as an example of solid investigative reporting: he busted journalists for passing off “opinion” as “news.” He exposed the new media’s failure to vet a planted story.

As for William Ayers, no matter how odious his behavior in the 1960s, he is, and has been for years, a professor at Illinois State in Chicago. Until this story broke, I doubt that most of his colleagues were aware of what he had done 40 years ago. It is also unlikely that Barack Obama knew of his background as a leader of the Weather Underground.

Over the past 40 years, I have served on numerous boards and spoke on many panels. No doubt some of my fellow board members or panelists have committed past transgressions that I have no knowledge of–just as some of them would be startled by some of my activities in the Sixties. The point being, one is not guilty by association with someone whose previous behavior we have no knowledge of.

Yes, the Weather Underground would be, by today’s standards, a “terrorist” organization. Yes, they were a physical danger to innocent victims who might have been  injured by their bombings. Your next assertion, however, is a perplexing equivocation: “They were dangerous terrorists trying to overthrow our government by violence, or at least trying to get newspaper space and their message out.”

You got half that sentence correct: yes, they were self-promoting caricatures of media-inspired fantasies; no, they were not real revolutionaries who were trying to violently seize power. A pathetic lot, they had almost no support, even among radicals of the day. Further, they did not have the foggiest notion of how to make revolutionary change. And even if we were to allow that they were “dangerous terrorists,” what does that have to do with Obama, particularly if he had no knowledge of Ayers’ ancient history?

By failing to ”fact check” these spurious claims made by Hillary Clinton and Republican operatives, the mainstream media has been engaging in “opinion.” If the Obama-William Ayers’s story is not a case of media complicity with “Swiftboating,” I would love to see evidence for your explanation of these events.

In conclusion, I remember reading the September 11, 2001, issue of the New York Times. When I finished the Ayers’ interview that morning I thought, “what an unreconstructed moron that guy is.” Only later in the day, after the terrorist attacks, did I recall the Times interview. I saved that issue and, to this day, it sits on display in my office. If Hillary’s brain trust did not realize that the interview had occurred days before publication, they are too stupid to be in the White House; if they did realize it, they are too treacherous to be in the White House.


I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises. The great point is to bring them the real facts.  Abraham Lincoln

Does Lincoln’s 19th century faith in the people’s ability to discern truth and to confront national crises extend to the American polity of the 21st century? The answer to that question may depend upon whether we can “bring them the real facts” before November 4, 2008.


monte on April 9, 2008

An Epistle to my University President

Dear President Lowe,

I’m sorry to trouble you again about this library situation but the conflict has escalated considerably since yesterday and the Provost is out ill. Upon your suggestion, I went to our Safety and Security (SS) Director’s office to work out a solution. To say that the meeting did not go well would be a diplomatic euphemism.

Let me review the background story. My geography colleague and I returned from spring break to discover that our I.D. cards no longer seemed to work. I was on my way to have a new card made because I thought I might have accidentally deactivated mine. I stopped at the security desk to check if others were having trouble. The security officer gave me a very ambiguous and evasive answer. He said something to the effect that some changes were due to Daylight Savings Time and that others were due to security issues.

Neither of us received any prior notification of these changes. The SS Director later told me that the security officers were to have advised us of these changes in advance. I talked with the day security staff: they said that they had never received any such instructions.

The SS Director has now sent an e-mail to his bosses that he thinks will retroactively vindicate his actions. In truth, his message only indicts him. Exposing his real intent, he cites a security report that documents my having unlocked and used, without prior authorization, an empty classroom for a 30-minute small group session. I had previously apologized to the Educational Services Director for my offense and endured a lecture about the sanctity of classroom security. Obviously, I had not shown enough contrition. The removal of my security clearance is punishment, pure and simple.

The library also houses several faculty librarians. It is now obvious that the stripping of only the third floor faculty of access was a thinly veiled attempt to disguise my punishment. In his e-mail, the SS Director attempts to rationalize why the library faculty retains full access while the social science faculty on third floor lost theirs. Unbeknownst to the SS Director, one of three faculty members he reduced access for is a newly hired faculty librarian. Unwittingly, he has exposed both how little he knows about the library and its inhabitants, and that his grounds for depriving non-library faculty of access are spurious.

The last time I checked, the SS Director neither is the Vice President of Academic Affairs nor is he the Library Dean. When did he acquire the omnipotent knowledge to decipher the daily activities of library faculty? How did he discern that their needs for access to classrooms differ qualitatively from those of the social science faculty? What is the justification for support staff having almost unlimited security clearance, while the social science faculty is restricted?

This whole Keystone Cops routine has been nothing more than a poorly disguised case of retaliatory action.

The issue is simple: do teachers or do bureaucrats control the classroom? Is the Facilities office here to serve the academic mission of the university; or, is the faculty here to serve as obedient subordinates to the Facilities staff? The bottom line is that Metropolitan State University is not the Oak Park Heights “Supermax” Correctional Facility nor is the SS Director in charge of Homeland Security.

I have repeatedly taught in every prison in the metropolitan area. I no longer see any qualitative difference between prison security and our own Facilities office when it comes to command-and-control techniques. It would be a wake-up call for you to realize how similar Oak Park Heights and our Library and Learning Center are in their use of apparatchiks and electronic remote control to discipline space and access.

Some of us have devoted a good share of our working lives trying to being good citizens of the Metropolitan State community. For us, this is not a career but a calling. Sometimes it seems that the administration is unwilling to concede that faculty members have reached the age of reason, are competent professionals, and are not about to steal markers or erasers from a classroom. We are not infants, inferiors, or criminals.

As a member of this university’s faculty for 24 years, I increasingly feel as if we are working on a campus occupied by foreign troops, an imperial army of bureaucratic mandarins. Rest assured, this is about more than the intrusive directives of the Minnesota State College and University (MnSCU) system’s central office—we have our own oversupply of quislings. To paraphrase Emerson, inhumane bureaucratic rules are in the saddle and ride the faculty.

I am not naive. I realize that this über-centralized control of college teachers by bean counters and paper shufflers is ubiquitous. Nevertheless, I remain a realistic resister who will not go quietly. I refuse to be a spectator as this increasingly dehumanized university hastens the early retirement of valued colleagues.

Let me pose a simple solution. With a single act, you could re-establish the principle that administrative services exist to meet the needs of teaching and learning. The library is a peculiarly unique entity on this campus. It is nearly singular in both its mission and function. Make the Library Dean the czar of the Library and Learning Center.

Oh My God, wouldn’t that violate the institutional chain of command? “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Monte (#2010012000210)

P.S. Perhaps the central administration is really conducting a cruel replication of Zimbardo’s infamous prison experiment at Stanford University in 1971. If so, I’ve checked with the Institutional Review Board—they have not yet received an application for approval of this research project.

56 Hours Later . . .

I wanted to let you know that your security card access was restored to the level that existed prior to the recent change.  It is possible that your card may not work. If that happens, please contact the Library security officer and she will resolve the problem. Thank you.

Dan Hambrock
Associate Vice President for Capital Planning and Campus Services

A pre-Simmelian Social Type

Why do I do these things? I am, by temperament, an anti-authoritarian populist. Since early childhood, I’ve impetuously challenged any perceived abuse of power or authority. To be honest, sometimes my little outbursts are quixotic in nature—not all windmills are giants.

From time to time, however, others share my grievances against the powers-that-be. At those moments, my rebellious lead attracts a following and the battle is on. Although primarily a man of action, I am still enough of a contemplative to crave those second-order concepts that help elucidate my first-order experiences. I am not one of those constipated sociologists who shy from the interpretative power of metaphor and analogy. This propensity draws me ever closer to Georg Simmel, particularly his literary renderings of social type.

I recently discovered the xia, an ancient social type who predates Simmel by over two millennia. Albert A. Dalia, a Sinologist and novelist, devotes several posts to explicating the historical and literary lineage of the xia ( Dating from the Warring States (403-221 B.C.E.) and Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) periods of Chinese history, the xia is a venerable ancestor of the anti-authoritarian populist.

Relegated to the lower ranks of society, and with many of the options for advancement closed to him, the xia was not held in very high regard by the elite. To the masses of common people however, the xia was frequently a person to look up to. He was a mythic character who opposed the oppressive landlords and corrupt officials. . . . Their parallel code of ethics and behavior represent the flip side of the Chinese establishment, and rather than being antagonistic to tradition, xia behavior is complementary—yin to yang. This duality of nature is reflected in the juxtaposition of xia and scholars. The xiarespected in times of chaos, while the scholar is highly regarded during times of stability. Thus, the xia in his youth frequently becomes a scholar as he matures and gains wisdom.—Eric Jin

The Human Genome Project will never decode the genealogy of this xia.

Last fall, the University of St. Thomas provoked global condemnation when the Catholic institution banned South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu from speaking on its St. Paul campus. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate soon found another host. Tutu will deliver the Metropolitan State University President’s Lecture on Friday, April 11, at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Tickets for the 7 p.m. event are still available to the public (call 877-772-5425). Reduced price tickets are available to students, faculty, staff, and alumni (651-793-1816).

The news media so sensationalized the story of “where” Tutu would or would not speak that they missed the more important journalistic question—“why” was he coming to Minnesota? The Archbishop and his daughter Naomi Tutu will also be involved in the nonprofit youthrive’s PeaceJam conference for youth on April 12 and 13 at Metropolitan State.

Last November at the PeaceJam Slam in St. Paul, I gave the keynote address, “New Tricks from an Old Dog.” Click here to read “New Tricks from an Old Dog.”

I am a sociologist. I inhaled my sociological moxie the old-fashioned way—as a deviant, a dissident, and an organizer. I will probably never receive the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) seal of approval. In truth, I am a backstage sociologist. I would like to share with you, in the words of the Grateful Dead, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Come. Let me take you backstage. I want you to see the “dirty work” that went into the making of this sociologist.

This invitation comes from an essay of mine, “The Making of a Backstage Sociologist” (which you can read here). That article is adapted from a speech I gave in 2004 upon receiving the Distinguished Sociologist award from the Sociologists of Minnesota.

The essay introduces you to both the “Full Monte” and the presuppositions informing my posts. In this blog, I will be speaking to you from my civic soul, visiting with you from time to time about topics that have allowed me to make some sense of my life and times—biography, society, history, and civic action.

Growing up, I lacked what Tillie Olsen called “the soil of easy growth.” I spent most of my high school years as a convict in the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing. Today I am a professor at a state university. How did this improbable chain of events occur? Education awoke me from my slumber. I gradually came to realize that for my first 18 years, I had been little more than a sleepwalker—the lights had been on but nobody was home.

I eventually developed an interior compass. However, it would be a few more years before I would discover the kinds of history making in which I might take part. Once that fog lifted, I quickly became a fool for the radicalism of the Sixties.

Years later, when I first read Peter Berger’s little Invitation to Sociology, the following passage was more than words upon a page or a scientific proposition. No, this existential truth had pierced my very soul:

Sociology is justified by the belief that is it is better to be conscious than unconscious and that consciousness is a condition of freedom. To attain a greater measure of awareness, and with it of freedom, entails a certain amount of suffering and even risk.

Now for all too many of us, when shit happens, we may get angry or become despondent but because we feel too weak to fight the power, we resign ourselves to inevitability. To be blunt, all too many of us do not yet have our own shit together.

“What matters,” wrote Max Weber “is the trained ability to scrutinize the realities of life ruthlessly, to understand them and to measure up to them inwardly.” By intentionally choosing how to think and behave, we can opt to improve our lives and, in turn, improve the world around us.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”