Am I My Sister’s Keeper? Reading Chekhov’s “Neighbors” in 21st Century America

I am a bad blogger. Almost two years without a post is embarrassing. This is a moment of change inspired by Chekhov’s story.

On the surface, Anton Chekhov’s story “Neighbors” is about a young woman who goes against society. Zina is young, but an adult. She leaves her home, with her mother and brother, to live with 40 year old, and married, Vlassitch. Scandal! Outrage! The narrator views the events from the brother’s point of view, where he sees his mother collapse in depression, and the servants clearly expect him to do something about it. As the story progresses, he tries to decide what to do. At one point, he feels the urge to beat up Vlassitch, even though he knows he doesn’t have the right to interfere in his sister’s life to that degree. If you haven’t read it, I would urge you to go do so before I spoil it here, but obviously I have to talk about the outcome to some degree. To complete the short summary, the brother goes to meet his neighbor, a man he has known for years, and instead of beating him up, they talk. He sees that his sister is more or less happy, and she urges him to convince mother to accept the “position”. She refuses to apologize for what she has done.

The heart of this story is something more than morality. It is a battle between a conservative view of life and a liberal view. The main character is a self-espoused liberal, as are Vlassitch and Zina. The mother and the servants represent a conservative view. This is emphasized in the story. A key quote regarding gives us this from the narrator:

“He was riding through his wood and waste land, and he imagined Zina would try to justify her conduct by talking about the rights of women and individual freedom, and about there being no difference between legal marriage and free union. Like a woman, she would argue about what she did not understand. And very likely at the end she would ask, “How do you come in? What right have you to interfere?” ”

What would a conservative do? An example is given in the story of another character who does just that. A rich, conservative man named Olivier had a beautiful daughter and he suspected a local student of having an interest in the girl, and tortured the student to death. The story ends this way: “He must have tried to wring something out of him. Towards morning the divinity student died of the torture and his body was hidden. They say it was thrown into Koltovitch’s pond. There was an inquiry, but the Frenchman paid some thousands to some one in authority and went away to Alsace.”

This odd little story in the middle of “Neighbors” is meant to point out the distinct differences in the way Pyotr, the main character, can handle the situation. He can reinforce conservative values, and act upon them. He can beat up his sister’s lover, even kill him in outrage, but what will that get? On the other hand, he has a hard time accepting what is happening, not for his sister’s sake, but for his mother and the servants. Pyotr himself seems ok with the living situation, but it just doesn’t seem right to him not to say or do something to show his sister that she is hurting other people. In the end, he does nothing and leaves. He has to accept it, but now he also has to go home to his mother and live his life with her.

Perhaps, in the end, this is why liberals in America today don’t even want to stand by the term liberal. They believe in liberal values, but they are surrounded by conservatives who are continually hurt and outraged by activities they cannot accept. Even conservatives who accept a liberal’s actions are held accountable by other conservatives. Gay marriage, for instance, touches a conservative family and if the conservative family accepts it, they might face opposition by their friends and other family members. People living in interracial relations, living together outside of marriage, living as unwed mothers: all of these groups that find acceptance in the liberal world face criticism from conservatives. Pyotr, as a young liberal, is caught between the two worlds. He sees both sides, sees himself as a liberal, and yet understands that conservatives are upset. How can he push forward? How can he stand up for liberal values in the face of strong conservative opposition? He is in a tough spot, and his indecision sours his liberal position but also infuriates the conservatives who call for action.

This speaks to the liberal, but I would hope it would also speak to the conservative. What would Pyotr gain by “making it right”? Obviously he shouldn’t kill his sister’s lover. Should he humiliate him? Lecture him on morality? What right does he have to control his sister’s life? What right does he have to dictate anyone else’s life if they are happy? In the end, Pyotr should go home and explain it to his mother, to try to make her understand, but anyone who has tried to talk to a conservative about accepting someone else’s right to happiness, when all the conservative sees in “sin” and “outrage” knows how difficult that can be.

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Nietzsche and Rand and Thoreau: No Empathy Here?

Please remember, this is just a blog post and not a journal article. I am going to boil down some very complex philosophies in just a few sentences to make a point, but obviously it is not a well-researched and documented article, just food for thought.

Recently, Ayn Rand has been making more news through some political discussion, which I hope my readers would know about–if this title attracted you, I can assume you do. Check the links if you are unsure. Her philosophy has been cited as an outgrowth of Henry David Thoreau, and his emphasis on self-reliance, as well as Frederich Nietzsche, and his will to power concept. Powerful individuals push their way to the top, and as such, they earn their position in society, while the weak, who do not clamor and fight, deserve to the be the sheep that they are in society. Yes, a reduction to be sure, but there is something common between these sentiments. This article traces some of those similarities, and yes it was written by a philosophy professor who goes into more depth than I do.


My thinking of these three has been triggered in part by reading the short story collection by Jared Yates Sexton, An End to All Things. He was a classmate of mine at SIUC, and I’m reviewing his book for the Big Muddy here at Southeast Missouri State University. His stories feature hyper-masculine characters in a violent and sexist world. It has been bothering me, as I read, that in fact, it is a fair depiction of America, but a depiction that scares me. Why are there so many violent haters in this country, who respect only power and turn guns on one another to get what they want? In many cases, though not with the characters in his book, we hear the names of Thoreau and Rand in these discussions. The strong are strong for a reason. They don’t get there through the “sympathy” of others (those who depend on the “kindness of strangers” are apt to end up like Blanche DuBois). For all three, Thoreau, Rand and Nietzsche, there was something wrong with pity. It was an indication of weakness, a philosophy which has permeated our society to a fault. Helping the poor and defenseless used to be a sign of strength and honor, but it is slowly being eroded and made into a bad word. It is not just me saying that, but some psychologists have confirmed it as well–read here.

Are we all willing ourselves to power? Is it because “socialism” has become a bad word? Are the poor really dragging us down, and are social services on the way out because the powerful have inherited the position of God in society? After all, it was Nietzsche who declared the death of God because as he saw it, there was no punishment for those on top. They could do as they wished, and people, the sheep, would follow them. There is only one hitch in applying Nietzsche’s theories in this way. What did Nietzsche do, after saying all these things?


Though there is a bit of controversy to it, Nietzsche supposedly had a mental breakdown after watching a horseman whip his horse. He tried to intervene. Yes, he felt bad. He couldn’t stand the cruelty and he DID something to stop it. It drove him crazy. One account of it can be found here. God would not step in and stop the powerful from abusing their power over the weak and defenseless horse, so he did it himself. That should be the most powerful lesson we take from him. People will gather power to themselves. They will fight to the top. There is no God to step in and stop the powerful from doing those things, so you know what? We have to do it ourselves. Otherwise, the world will just become more and more violent and oppressive, and the world I’m reading about in Sexton’s book will be the only world we know.

Posted in Activism, American Literature, Ayn Rand, Empathy, Frederich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau, SIU | Leave a comment

A Writer’s Writer: Laferriere and his non-Japanese Novel


So much more rewarding than Teju Cole’s novel is Dany Laferriere’s I Am a Japanese Writer, which has very little to do with Japan, and everything to do with writing and identity politics. The bulk of the novel follows a writer, seemingly a shadow figure of Laferriere himself, as he considers writing a novel with the title on the front of the book. He tells his publisher that he wants to write a book called “I Am a Japanese Writer” and it sets off a series of reactions across the globe. He hasn’t yet written the book, and we read it as it unfolds in our hands. What does the title mean, though? Can he appropriate a nationality? Can he fictionalize himself to that extent? If you want to read a straightforward plot, or lots of action and dialogue, this book is not for you. Here’s a sample of what you will find:

“I have to obey the rules of suspense. We have to keep the reader alert. I don’t know why. It’s an insult to the art of writing. If the reader can’t stay awake to read a book he himself decided to read, then let him fall asleep. I don’t see why I should start pulling on his heartstrings, just to make him listen to me. Okay, there’ll be a death. It will be a concession to the genre.”

This is all in translation, from French, but the translation seems smooth, and for writers, it gets to the heart of the struggle. How much research does one do? Is authenticity necessary? Why can’t someone just make things up? He is pursued by Japanese cultural envoys, as he himself pursues Japanese cultural icons, new and old. He spends most of the book contemplating Basho, but also rubs elbows with Midori and a troop of her fans.


I can’t read Japanese, but I believe this is a photo of the singer Midori.

It is a short read, as novels go, and passes quickly, as the narrator goes from the research stage directly into dealing with criticism, before he has even plotted out the novel or presumably written one page of it. Some might call this book fluff or nonsense–those who read “traditional” realistic novels that climax with gunshots, hidden schemes or a midnight rendezvous. On the other hand, in the tradition of “new” which novels should strive for something unique, Laferriere’s work easily fits on the shelf with Don Quixote, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler and Slaughterhouse Five. I give it forty two stars.

Posted in Book Review, Dany Laferriere, I Am a Japanese Writer, Identity Politics, Literature, Open City, Teju Cole | Leave a comment

Back in the Saddle: Reviewing Open City

It has been a quiet time for my blog, but then, I don’t like to post if I have nothing new to say. Life has been like that, just going on, teaching, reading and watching Breaking Bad. Recently, however, I was asked to write a review for the SEMO journal, the Big Muddy and it seems I might be a regular reviewer there. My first review is for the political fantasy The Mirage, by Matt Ruff, and just let me say here, I wasn’t much impressed by it. Yes, there were lots of good reviews, but I just couldn’t buy into the premise and outcome. I won’t repeat that review here so you have a reason to buy the Big Muddy, but I have returned to reading books (yes!) after a long hiatus. The PhD just killed my desire for a while, but it has returned, and I decided to pick up another international bestseller that has attracted a lot of attention recently, Teju Cole’s Open City.



I have to say, I wanted to like it. His writing is very sharp, his observations interesting, and the few characters his narrator meets are quirky, worldly and artistic. While reading it, I felt like I could like the narrator and his New York City lifestyle, which mainly consists of long walks and old friends, though he is also a young psychiatrist busy with his work. The narrative was interesting, but the problem I found was the plot. There was no plot. At times, I thought he was about to have something happen–a riot on the streets, an interesting patient story, an old friend with a complicated back story–but in each case, the episode ends without so much a sense of closure as a “real” encounter which doesn’t develop.

Halfway through the novel, his narrator goes for an extended vacation in Europe, searching in some ways for his roots, and there also he meets a cast of interesting characters. In one section, there is some interesting dialogue about the complexities of identity, African, muslim, Western, but it doesn’t go anywhere. He raises questions, considers possibilities, and then just goes on to the next place, or in this case, returns to New York City and starts his life again.

For a first novel, it isn’t bad, it just isn’t very satisfying in the end. Why did I read it all? Why did he write it? I’m still not sure, but I hope he keeps writing because his ability to craft a story is much better than the sensationalism of writers like Ruff.

Posted in American Literature, Book Review, Identity Politics, Literature, Muslims in America, NY, Open City, Teju Cole, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bunnies Bring Me Back

Yes, it appears that I disappeared from the blogoverse for a long time, with the excuses of teaching, parenting and trolling other people, but a little event today sparked me to write what is longer than a Facebook status update, and shorter than a full blown essay. It has nothing to do with education, Bangladesh or anything I normally write about, but it did take me back to previous events. It was something as simple as raking the yard. And making a discovery.

We have moved into a rental house, and for me, this is a new experience. I have lived in apartments now for the longest time, and mostly in big cities, like Chicago, Honolulu, Portland and Dhaka (yes, that’s a big one), so my encounters with wildlife have been rare.  Yes, we found a rat and a bat in our Dhaka apartment, and yes there were spiders and roaches and mosquitoes and what not, but not real wild life. Some hummingbirds would fly near our apartment in Carbondale, Illinois, which was nice, and I saw one two days ago, flitting around our potted flowers. I should also tell you that where we live is like a retirement neighborhood. It is very quiet. Squirrels regularly hang out in the street in front of my house without worry. I have seen no less than six rabbits running across the yard near our house, and today, while I was raking the yard for the first time, I made a startling discovery. There was a pile of straw, or so it seemed, tucked between a few tall pieces of grass, and when I pushed the rake into it to pull out the mess, two baby rabbits came darting out and ran in circles before sprinting towards my car.

A small indention in the land, a perfect hiding place for baby bunnies.

A small indention in the land, a perfect hiding place for baby bunnies.

I thought that was it, but when I continued to rake, a third one came running out. They were all babies, about the size of a hamster, with tiny little ears. They were so cute. Then, I had a terrible sinking feeling. I might have inadvertently destroyed them, and I most certainly have put them in danger. Nice job Carl, you did it again.

This is my problem. I try to do something good, or at least, in this case, keep the yard nice and tidy like everyone else does. There is a pile of rubbish in my yard, so I go to clean it up. Yet as a result, I endangered these poor little bunnies. I put them out of their element and on the road. They were safe where they were, and now,.. Well, I hope they make it back home, but if I see an eagle swoop down and scoop one up, I will feel sick. Maybe I should go back out and cover it up? Of course, then they probably won’t come back and I’ll go out and find a snake there next time. Aww, the joy of having a yard and encountering wildlife. Well, go forth young bunnies. May the world serve you well, and not serve you up for dinner.

Posted in Baby Bunnies, Blogging, Cape Girardeau, empty field, Small towns, Stupidity | Leave a comment

Writing for Another Blog!

Recently, I was invited to add articles to another WordPress blog, focusing on higher education. I’ve just posted my first article there. The blog is entitled Tactical Educationism, and is also on both Facebook and Twitter.

I have also had a few other recent invitations, and as a result, my blog here has slowed down from its normal snail’s pace to a rust-covered standstill, but fear not! I have hopes that there will be more news and reflection to come, and that it will be of some interest to the world.

Posted in Blogging, Corporate Education, Facebook, Graduate School, Interactive Education, Liberal Education, Public Education, Teaching, Tenure, Uncategorized, US Government | Leave a comment

Robots in Cape

Last semester, one of my students told me about the robotics competition coming up in Cape Girardeau, and lo and behold, Alisha and I attended the event this afternoon and I have to say, it was remarkable how many kids can create operating robots!!

One of the high school robotics teams.

One of the high school robotics teams.

I had thought it would be an exhibition, but the team areas were not set up for display. Instead, they were having a competition to complete certain tasks. In this case, picking up plastic rings and moving them over to pegs. Ideally, they would make lines across the peg board, like tic tac toe, but as we watched, many of them had trouble maneuvering their machines around.

Robotic arm places a plastic ring on the peg.

Robotic arm places a plastic ring on the peg.

I had hoped for some robot wars type stuff, or at least R2D2, but it was amusing to see serious, working robots taking on these tasks. There were even big cheering sections for some of the teams. Alisha told me, these are all nerds. So I asked her, are you going to do this when you get in high school? She smiled, yes, of course!!

Three in a row!! We have a winner!

Three in a row!! We have a winner!

Posted in Cape Girardeau, Children, Public Education, robotics | Leave a comment

Endnotes on the Mayan Calendar

Personally, 2012 has been a remarkable year. Too bad the Mayans have said this is the end. The end, however, of what? Some say the world, others say an era. The calendar, just like any other, will now start at the beginning and go round again. That’s a loooong calendar however, and I really wonder what the next couple thousand years will bring, and how mankind will be different.

Hopefully, this young generation, raised on technology and computers, and with increased IQ potential, are the first in a long line of new humans who see themselves as interconnected to the world, and with a goal of interdependence, instead of independence. As Americans, that proves more difficult for us because of learned value of self-sufficiency. That value is still there, but no doubt it has been brought down a few notches, and every one of my students who read Walden this semester can tell you why. No one wants to live independently, at least, not the young people who know what they can get by working together. Obviously, we all benefit from shared living, and a look at early America will tell you its true! Think of barn-raising, for instance, when a whole community would come together to help a family build a barn, or a house, or a second house, or a common area. They would all show up with their tools, some people would bring food, and they’d all sweat together with pay just to help a neighbor set up!! Or to help a community grow! That was America. Isolationism was only an international policy, not an internal one.


Isolationism didn’t fare so well either, in light of the Great War, fascism and now turbulence in the oil producing regions of the world. Our government very clearly sees the need to be all over the world, and especially in the markets that effect us as consumers–and producers. We need to buy some things, and we want to sell some of our … stuff. We are not so self-sufficient then. Or perhaps we are, selfish in the world market just as we have become selfish at home.

Selfishness is the flipside name of self-sufficiency. I don’t help anyone, and no one helps me. As Thoreau put it, and I think Ayn Rand as well, those poor people don’t need a leg up because they are just going to die and drag us down with them if we do help them. So nice. They are true heroes of humanity.

We will finally become a global community during the next calendar… era? It is so long, I can hardly hope to understand where our society will go in a few thousand years. Will my blog post live that long in some archive? Will we have all of these records preserved for “eternity” or will it just be lost data in some future war on technology? It remains to be seen. And not by us.

Posted in American Exceptionalism, Autonomy, Blogging, Children, Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond | Leave a comment

Target: Children

The recent shooting of kindergartners in Connecticut has brought out many voices on the internet, and there is no doubt that the deaths of children as young as six should raise some cries. Unfortunately, this world has many suffering children, and though gun control is an important issue, the other object under scrutiny is the emphasis on children when talking about social problems. When something effects them, suddenly it seems that we (or our governments) need to do something to protect those kids!!

Peanut Vendor in Dhaka

Peanut Vendor in Dhaka

When I was living in Dhaka though, I realized how difficult it was to even define and talk about children because of cultural differences. No one saw, for instance, that this boy selling peanuts on the street was underage and should be in school. What kind of people did he meet working on the streets, and what did he learn from them? His work looks relatively easy, too, so the fact that he walks around all day doesn’t seem like a serious problem. In America, on the other hand, we seem to have an over attention to children and their needs. Among other things, this is behind the abortion debate, in which pro-life supporters ardently believe that abortion is murder, though clearly the fetus cannot survive without the host mother, and her health should come first. I would never want to be raised by a mother who wanted to abort me but couldn’t, because of the law. What a grim prison for a child and human being! It is also part of our extreme reaction to protecting underage women from male predators, which goes a bit far in excusing promiscuous teenage girls from responsibility, rare as they might be.

I’ve also had numerous conversations on Facebook about the children killed overseas by our military forces and their drones. Of course, no one is targeting the children, and yet, as collateral damage, there is only a murmur of public uproar. These are also children! They have parents who cry when they hear the news, and who is the villain? The USA. Of course, what I’m saying is that other innocent people are also killed. Innocent people of all ages are suffering. Mothers are suffering, grandmothers, young, healthy men are suffering. Lots of people are suffering, and dying, and working slave labor, but when it happens to children (of some age, according to culture), then …

Sometimes, I guess it just takes it happening to a child to bring out the cruelty of the whole system. Children shouldn’t be in the system, some will say, but the fact is, the system exists. That our world runs the way it does means that children will come onto those paths too early, like squirrels in the road, and they’ll get confused about the hard, cruel world, and it will just strike them down. Like it strikes down all kinds of people. Perhaps those older ones “deserve it” because they were born poor, or in another country, or with a difference of some sort, so we can overlook, accept it as their fate. We justify, or just shrug. Somewhere along the line, as children grow up, we (many of us) lose sympathy for their bumbling. It simply becomes part of life or part of growing up that those things will happen.

That shouldn’t be though! I have been guilty of it in the past too, in which I didn’t see suffering, or understand it, until I could see it on the face of a child. And then I was even told that that was “no child” for me to be so concerned. Of course, instead of defending the child as not worthy of sympathy, I see that I should, instead, have seen the suffering before that, when it was happening to adults. As it was too. Now I have seen that, I try to see it everywhere. Adults suffer even more than children, yet we don’t bother about that because that’s our world. We have to grow up and accept that it will happen to us… and perpetuate it as well? No, I hope not.

Posted in Activism, Barack Obama, Children, Facebook, Terrorism, War | Leave a comment

Am I a Good Teacher?

I teach concepts. Concepts? Skills. Skills? What about information. What is it? In this case, rhetoric. I teach rhetoric. So how’s that going?

Recently I have had to contemplate the notion of a teacher’s merit measured either by a checklist of ideas, facts and definitions, as well as student success on tests and student feedback. Evaluations done by students. Not just done, but placed in the forefront of my qualification packet, ahead of my successes to date, my reputation in the professional world and my track record. Nice. This allows them to get rid of teachers who might be perceived of as “too hard,” or “strange.” Is that such a good thing?

Oh yeah, and since I teach rhetoric, I had a student today tell me that some of the other sections of my course don’t require students to write papers. They just learn concepts. Concepts of rhetoric, I guess. Isn’t that like learning the rules of basketball but not playing that game? Isn’t rhetoric something learned by exercise? A skill? Sure, I can teach the book and make them understand, this is what is rhetoric. They can checklist words and definitions. This is rhetoric, they say. Little robots. So, I hand them a journal article or editorial and say, show me rhetoric and they are dumbfounded. This is a text, they tell me, this isn’t rhetoric. No, show me your ability to do rhetoric, and they laugh. What? What are you talking about?

I suggested to one of my colleagues today that if students were going to evaluate us, it should be the day they graduate, when they look back at all their teachers and assess which one(s) were the best and should have the highest position in the school. Certainly, that might make some sense, but students don’t always like teachers for the right reasons. There are prejudices among them, just as in the rest of our society. Schools might choose diversity, but students might reject it. Their local feelings might cloud the university’s global perspective, and they have the power to curtail any such excursions as well, if the administration lets them.

So when the time comes to think of your teachers, and the good ones… oh, who does that?

Posted in Activism, Autonomy, Corporate Education, Dress Code, Ethnic Diversity, Identity Politics, Liberal Education, Public Education, Teaching | Leave a comment