When I was a teenager, my father passed along to me a “Question Authority” button that a student had given him. Immediately, I affixed it to my Army surplus satchel, which I had named “Walden Bag,” after Thoreau. It stayed there until I finally bailed on the whole ironic-appropriation-of-Army-goods thing. In truth, I seldom carried enough books and effects to require a bag of any kind. I had never read Thoreau, either, and had learned my two cents about Walden from Doonesbury. All my authorities were fraudulent, and would have collapsed under the gentlest questioning.
My Dad – a jazz pianist with the Swinging Professors and a political moderate with a barely detectable leftward lean in his thinking – taught Math and Science Education at SUNY-New Paltz throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, making students into teachers. Some of his peers were outraged by the hippies. Others swung hard. His attitude toward the activism and the hedonism of the counterculture was benign, but not exactly collegial. “I’ll just wave from the other side of the generation gap,” as my friend Reed’s uncle Bill said. My father was authority, and thus not much in the habit of questioning it; but he thought that I might like the button and find its broad sentiment useful while I fished around for someone to be.
Still fishing today, Dad, and “Question Authority” seems to me – now as then – to be sturdy, open-ended and wise advice if applied without selective bias. It’s an evergreen and culturally neutral directive that assumes no conclusions and dictates no action other than critical inquiry. Our questioning might well come out in the favor of authority (not likely, though, because authorities are like sausages…).
In the late ’80s, as a fledgling academic myself, I began to see the buzzword-laden slogan “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm” on bumper stickers and buttons. I was struck by the change in the tone of revolutionary injunction. The inclusive term “authority” had given way to the implied violence (and secret pleasures) of domination. “Paradigm,” a word virtually unknown to English-speakers before Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 essay on paradigm shifts and the structure of scientific revolutions, had trickled down into hipster rhetoric everywhere, to be used interchangeably with “system” or whenever you needed to score points.
And where “question” is a soft command, a Socratic nudge, “subvert” is blunt and certain, an agenda. Tear sh*t down. Do not ask why: just for kicks, a revolutionary joyride, like rock ’n’ roll. Academics today were raised very much in this spirit of questioning all authorities, including their own. Their paradigms are pre-deconstructed, self-subverting. And this irony is cheekily expressed in the name of SUNY-New Paltz’s long-running, all-faculty rock band: Questionable Authorities.
The authorities in question are Peter “Sticks” Kaufman (Sociology) on drums; Glenn “the Caveman” Geher (Psychology) on lead guitar; Maureen “Mo’ Betta” Morrow (Biology) on bass and vocals; Annee “Roach” Rochelle (Sociology) on percussion and flute; and Brian “the Reverend” Obach (Sociology) on rhythm guitar and vocals. I have heard this band several times, and these cats can rock, make no mistake. In the playing of some of them, you can hear traces of a time when music was central, before the gantlet of tenure, publish-or-perish, increased teaching loads and class sizes and committee work.
Their repertoire – 100 percent covers – emphasizes the cathartic, first-generation punk of the Ramones and the Clash, but also nods to classic rock. When they play out, they draw well in the bars, in part because of the novelty of professorial punk and in part because people love that music; and these guys throw their hearts into it without reservation. While there might be a touch of pedagogical intent in their music – hipping the kids to the revolutionary foment of the late ’70s, expanding the academic purview and all that – mostly, the Questionable Authorities rock out because (like their students, like us all) sometimes they just need to tear sh*t down.
Questionable Authorities, joined by additional faculty and even some administrators, perform in Bacchus in New Paltz on Friday, April 18 at 5 p.m. happy hour. Voluntary donations are to benefit the SUNY-New Paltz Emergency Student Scholarship Fund, which helps students when they or their families experience sudden financial hardship.
Questionable Authorities, Friday, April 18, 5 p.m., Bacchus, 4 South Chestnut Street, New Paltz.