Weekend Reading

From the moment the New York Times took it up as a cause, the Kitty Genovese story has counterposed police rectitude against community violence, cowardice, and confusion. Genovese’s murder is a parable in which the absent cops are the heroes and her neighbors eclipse even her killer in their culpability for the crime. Subsequent debates over the story’s meaning have centered almost exclusively on that claim of culpability, and on the question of to what extent those neighbors can or should be exonerated.

But Genovese herself lived in fear of police persecution, both at work and in her personal life. At least one witness to the crime, a friend of Kitty’s, also had good reason to be wary of law enforcement. And once the cops did engage with the case, they failed spectacularly to provide the kind of assistance the legend assumes they stood poised to offer that night. The Genovese story isn’t just a story of individual moral culpability, it’s also a story about malign and corrupt institutions and the corrosive effects those institutions have on our lives, and one of the real services Cook’s new book provides is the restoration of those effects to the broader narrative of the case.

Universities trade on our hopes, and on the fact that we have spent many years developing skills so specialized that few really want them, to offer increasingly insecure careers to young scholars. Although a fortunate few make smooth transitions onto the tenure track, many are lost in a phase of lecturing, adjuncting, or even unemployment. To those of us on the outside, the current academic employment system resembles a two-tier contract in which we are punished simply for having made the poor decision to graduate in the middle of a recession. Compensation for our labor is unprofessional, and we and our families are expected to bear this as a sign of commitment to disciplines and institutions that reserve the right never to commit to us.

I could perhaps hang on for another round: after all, I’m in for 9 years, what difference is 10? But I know also that each time I apply, I lose a little bit of something I’m afraid I’ll never recover. Depression has been the predictable price of failure in the past few years, and I know that it has sometimes robbed me of the experiencing the joy of having young children. It has certainly made me a less patient husband and father. Next year would be my fifth on the job market, in one way or another. Not so very long ago, I might have earned tenure with as much as I’ve done. Now I’ll spend the next months praying for the chance to move my family across the country for a one- or two-year position.

I wonder if I should work so hard to stay. My older son is the same age as my Ph.D., and he’s grown from a blob to a little person who can tell you about the moons of Jupiter. Is it time to trade my hopes for his? To give up on the work of my adult life, and just find a way to give my family some security? If I could do it all again, it would be madness to say that I would take the same path. But now, another year will pass, with no promise of success. And I wonder, channeling John Kerry but with lower moral stakes: how do you ask a year to be the last one to die for a mistake?


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