June 9, 2014

The Trending Infection: An Open Letter to Mark Oppenheimer

Today’s guest blogger is author and editor Rae Bryant

On May 29, 2014, The New Republic ran an essay by Mark Oppenheimer titled, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” The essay goes on to pose questions about honorary degrees and entitlements. It just so happened that minutes previous to reading this essay by Oppenheimer, I had finished watching, for the third time, the recently released HBO film The Normal Heart, a fine adaptation of Larry Kramer’s original play. The parallels between prejudice in education and prejudice in sexuality struck so clearly for me, I was stunned not only that Oppenheimer had written the essay but also that The New Republic had published it.

I was nine-years-old in 1981 when HIV/AIDS—then termed “Gay Cancer” by straight media—forever changed social, medical and sexual landscapes in local and global communities. The combined infectious spread and mortality rates would be unprecedented in the United States. This is how I came to age, in many ways a product of the Generation X AIDS misunderstandings, prejudices and fears. My core developmental years, both physically and sexually, formed by this disease. Prejudice had come out of its closet as a much larger paradigm, the majority controlling the minority in everything from gender to ethnicity, sexual identity to educational canon and elitism. All of these prejudices led to an avoidance of public health and social equality many times throughout history, and here it was again, with the gay population. It would be years later before the facts about AIDS began circulating publically through media, communities and schools, and even then, the facts suffered such distortion by media, politicians, educators and the moral majority, public understanding of the disease was more often myth than reality. What made the disease so frightening to the public? We didn’t understand the realities of the disease. We were afraid an infected man jumping into a community swimming pool could infect an entire population of swimmers. What made the disease so frightening to the CDC? The disease presented as opportunistic. It depleted the immune system, the least understood in the body, and left its host open to infection by viruses and bacteria a healthy infant’s immune system could fight without issue. As fearsome as this disease was and is, it is not, and has never been, as disastrous and contagious as the prejudice that surrounded and perpetuated its infection. The disease was allowed to replicate and spread due to this prejudice and to the in-fighting between political and medical professionals who might have otherwise sought quicker funding, research and treatment. In the end, it wasn’t the disease that killed so many people. It was the prejudice.

Women and minorities have been fighting prejudice in higher education since the dawn of thought. Prejudice is as contagious and detrimental to our socio-political and physical health as AIDS would be to our immune systems. In his essay, Oppenheimer exemplifies this prejudice with his question, only days after Angelou’s death, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” The short answer: Maya Angelou was awarded several honorary doctorates from various post-secondary institutions due to her extensive artistic and professional successes, including a Pulitzer. The doctorates were awarded to her with an eye toward transcendence of voice over majority biases and prejudices in her lifetime, biases and prejudices that made it difficult for some and impossible for others to attain such degrees, leadership and academic equality. To be more pointed, Mr. Oppenheimer, “People” call Ms. Maya Angelou Dr. Maya Angelou because she more than earned the title in her craft and activism as a doctoral degree holder, a craft and activism doctoral candidates hope to one day attain as degree holders. Maya Angelou, before and after her doctorates, took this calling. She was at the top of her class. Not only was she your senior, Mr. Oppenheimer, in every way, she did not require the degree to further her art and social activism. Her art social activism furthered her degree. The honorary doctorate, if one is to employ reason, masters the “earned” doctorate in this case and many more.

Though some writers neglect their doctoral responsibilities, such as Oppenheimer confesses he does, Maya Angelou did not. She engaged in her medium as a forerunner before and after her awards—i.e. the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage and anti-apartheid activism in Ghana to name two. She battled prejudice and misinformation, as damaging and infectious to thought as communicable diseases are to the body. She did this not only for herself but also for generations of readers now and ongoing. She helped to change cultural understanding and socio-political practices.

Writers are well aware of the power a single work of fiction can hold. Well-crafted fiction does not force change or seek to indoctrinate its readers. It invites readers to form critical thought and change for themselves. A well-formed book of fiction can be an antiviral to prejudice, oppression, misogyny and fear.

As Oppenheimer suggests, scholarly doctorates need not be waved about at cocktail parties for any reason other than to bolster one’s ego and hierarchal positioning. Agreed. However, when the degree earned or awarded belongs to an individual whom the white, male majority would not regularly recognize as part of its hierarchy, the cultural responsibility of the honoree is great. For the minority to tuck her degree away would be to minimize the positive social and cultural impact of her degree. The giving of Angelou’s degrees, as honorary, are in part to inform and model opportunities for women and just as importantly minority men. Higher education, in no uncertain terms, is a pathway toward defeating oppressive paradigms both externally and internally. A woman brought up within this oppressive culture knows why the caged bird does not sing. She also knows the importance of the beacon in encouraging her to one day “sing.” More leadership diversity in gender and ethnicity perpetuates a more diverse culture and understanding of culture. An honorary beacon, such as Angelou, must be heralded and seen.

Oppenheimer would have us believe that a doctorate is easy to attain, because it was easy for him: “Graduate school is not even that hard. I am a good cocktail-party bullshit artist, but I was that before grad school, and some of the best BS’ers I know have only a B.A.” He would also have us believe that a doctorate should be an elite benchmark: “We use titles…to denote a credential, awarded by ratifying experts, to one who has attained a certain level of expertise.” He also insists that titles should not matter: “I believe the academy, in particular, is a place that works best when it’s collaborative, not hierarchical. Respect does not come from titles.” Finally, he insists that those who have not “earned” the easy degree through coursework and dissertation, should not be allowed to claim the degree as he does in his essays and on his website. The resulting impression of the essay suggests that this elite benchmark is easy for Oppenheimer to attain and therefore should be easy for everyone to attain, and though he attained a doctorate and writes essays highlighting the doctorate as well as mentions his doctorate on his website, no one should pay attention to the doctorate. In Oppenheimer’s perceived world, sure. Outside Oppenheimer’s perceived world, not so much. Even if Oppenheimer subscribed to the naiveté of a current ‘prejudice free educational culture,’ he surely couldn’t subscribe to a prejudice free educational history, a history Maya Angelou suffered, surmounted and then became an integral presence in its ongoing change. If one is to believe Oppenheimer is both adequately intelligent and cerebral—he does have a doctorate, after all, he reminds us of repeatedly through the essay—one would believe Oppenheimer could understand Angelou’s position within the very real gender and minority educational prejudice. Based upon this premise, one would believe Oppenheimer, as a writer, understands the power of words and how titles do make an impression within the traditional biases of canon culture. If one accepts these premises as axiom, one would have to question the intention of Oppenheimer’s essay, and here is where the contagion presents.

Writers of the doctoral elite and writers not of this elite are at risk of the industry-driven and opportunistic infection known as Trending. Trending is as infectious to the mind for the writer as HIV/AIDS and any number of communicable diseases are to the body. A topic pops up on The New York Times, Washington Post, Facebook, Twitter and so on, and writers begin drafting words with the frenzy of a retrovirus attacking reason. It is not enough to replicate an already trending topic in an already trending frame. The infected writer must seek a new way to frame the trend so to give his story its own trend about the already trending topic. What’s worse is that new media has built itself on this very infectious principle. Newspapers and journals have willingly succumbed to this Trending infection as a way to stay current in the ever-evolving market. Historically, male writers have found female writers easy targets—i.e. early industry male reactions to Ms. Magazine’s launch. For Trending-infected writers, celebrated and recently deceased writers are headline savvy marks. Obituaries are already running in the major newspapers and social networks. Punching out a quick and somewhat controversial essay is one of the more lucrative options for the Trending-infected writer. The disease and those infected perpetuate the practice top down.

We mustn’t blame Oppenheimer or The New Republic. They are victims, too. They have lost the ability to fight off opportunistic infections—snarking, elitism, prejudice… Trending has taken over reason. No one can really know the extent of the infection, right now, and readers can only hope the infected will not get into bed with more partners and instead will seek treatment for the infection. Sooner rather than later. Myself included. In hopes of caring for and curing infected family, friends and lovers, I and other writers will offer criticisms and counter-criticisms, which in many ways adds to the infection. It is a cyclical and ongoing problem, but this is what we do. We write about Trending topics then we write criticisms to the writing about Trending topics and so on. Perhaps the most important question to ask one’s self is, What is the intention behind writing this piece? My answer: To critically support Maya Angelou’s academic position as a woman and minority in a male biased academic and media market. I am curious as to what Mr. Oppenheimer’s intention was in writing his essay. He asks, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” Here is, perhaps, an answer he will understand: Why not?

Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals (Patasola Press, 2011). Her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s, Huffington Post, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications. She is the founding editor of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Follow her on Twitter at @raebryant

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

2 Responses to The Trending Infection: An Open Letter to Mark Oppenheimer

  1. Al Davis says:

    Good essay. It never seemed to bother anybody when Hunter Thompson called himself Dr. Thompson. I also like that you focus on intention and motivation, which are always revealing. I had the good fortune to see and hear Dr. Angelou perform and read on several memorable occasions. As for myself, I have a Ph.D, but I seldom mention it, except sometimes when I’m checking into a high-end hotel; calling myself Dr. seems to get me more respect, oddly enough. I wish I could say it was because hoteliers respect learning, but I’m thinking it’s because they assume I’m a medical doctor and have more disposable income to spend on their services.

    • Rae Bryant says:

      Thank you, Al. Much appreciated. Yes, passing respects can make a day or evening a little more palatable. And on intentions, I agree. It’s important to explore one’s intentions and try to see them for what they are, the good and the not so good. Fiction and nonfiction are equally important in this respect.