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28 Feb

A lot has happened since last I posted here.  I try to keep this focused on culture, and not on politics outside of cultural issues. As readers know, we’ve been kind of hit over the head the past few months. How this has affected culture is beginning to show more as cracks in the foundation.

Today I was listening to the normally great WNYC radio host, Brian Lehrer, whose local show in New York covers all sorts of issues and local politics.  He did an interview segment with writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon about how parents should or can introduce their children to political issues in these troubled times. Lehrer is also one of the hosts of National Public Radio’s new call-in program, Indivisible, which promises to get people talking outside of their bubble and in the words of WNYC President Laura Walker, “find common ground.” The way that the show is run, and indeed the ultimate direction of today’s interview to me underscored the failure of American liberalism and, in particular, that failure within the press, to address what has happened and is happening in this country and the world.

Lehrer asked about striking the balance between educating children on the significance of the current moment without telling children what to think, or letting them make up their own minds as independent thinkers.  Although I was taken aback by the explicit assumption that parents are not allowed to educate their children about ways of thinking critically, or that taking them to a demonstration might infringe on their rights to think for themselves (full disclosure here: one of the best things my grandmother ever did for me was take me around her apartment building to get signatures for her anti-Vietnam War petition to her senators), Solomon made the good point that parents can reframe the discussion away from telling kids whom to vote for, and towards the implicit moral distinctions made between love and hate, respect and bigotry, inclusion and exclusion, racism, and so on, assuming we choose to live more moral lives.  Like a good liberal, you don’t tell people, even your children what to think, you let them make up their own minds, but you try to instill in them a sense of your own morality or, as Lehrer interpreted it, the difference between good and evil (even as we’ve seen a wedge driven between different takes on “good and evil” in the new national discourse).

Some parents called in and made some good points and asked good questions, including one woman whose 11-year-old son turned to her and said, “They’re all crooks, Mom, even Bernie Sanders.”  (The whole 17-minute interview segment is worth listening to.)  And this to me is why liberalism is losing.  First, on this level, when people get disgusted with the entire political process, and turn away from all candidates as equally bad, we know that benefits autocrats and harms participatory democracy, by definition, really. So low voter turnouts are not politically neutral; they benefit right-wing candidates.  Turning people against politicians – a big part of the current rhetoric of the last political campaign – and encouraging them to sit home does not have symmetrical results for both ends of the political spectrum.  It disproportionately harms those who run on more transparent, egalitarian, inclusive platforms that emphasize sharing of resources, citizen and informed participation, and global sustainability.

But at no point during this interview segment did anyone mention that parents, like the press, have a responsibility to tell listeners, whether children or adults, how to assess fact from fiction, truth from lies. There is much in political culture that is based on “opinion” (whatever that means, which is a topic for another day). But reasonable actions, regardless of one’s morality, cannot be made on the basis of misinformation, whether deliberate or not, or lack of information. And parents, as well as the press and teachers, have the solemn responsibility to teach the young how (and why!) to be better informed or when something is an absolute falsehood.  Truth.  Truth matters.  The American press did not do this until too little, too late, for the most part.  The New York Times and Washington Post seem to have woken up to this now, and some of the Times’s recent editorials, such as this one on immigration, are model summaries of critical thinking and the application of facts to analyze and undermine lies, deliberate lies by our leaders. You can still be neutral while denouncing lies and misinformation.  There may not be one absolute truth, and facts (and their ramifications) may be debatable, but we can’t allow them to be tossed aside as if they don’t matter and just believe the fantasies that tell us what confirms our prejudices. We may not be able to determine with certainty how facts relate to causes and consequences. But the search for that connection is vital to our survival.

Unfortunately, whenever I try to listen to Indivisible (which I feel like calling Unlistenable or Insufferable), it feels as though there were a directive on high from the NPR management never, ever to correct callers’ statements, no matter how blatantly false or misinformed.  Invariably within the first couple of calls, a listener repeats some idea that is demonstrably, empirically false. And the hosts – seasoned NPR journalists – let these falsehoods not only sit there unchallenged, but even gain credibility as they are further distributed over the airwaves.  I’m not saying the callers are unintelligent, or uneducated, or that my opinion is more valid than theirs. We can disagree when we are all speaking from a position of being informed.  But there are times when they express beliefs about social conditions and historical events that are flat-out wrong.  It’s not politically correct to say that, and the shorthand way of dismissing this is to say it is “elitist.”  Yet somehow it would be hard to imagine a patient opining about how to conduct surgery and the doctor having to follow the patient’s instructions because all opinions are equally valid. For example, when people base their opinions about immigration on the belief that immigrants are “streaming” across the Mexico-U.S. border, that crime waves are higher because of immigrants from Mexico or the seven banned countries or simply that crime is at a 50-year high, and not a low, or that Obama increased the debt more than any other President – all measurably false, to remove any doubt – they are drawing conclusions and promoting remedies based on information and ideas that are completely erroneous. Aside from the moral dimension, it’s aimless to discuss whether building a wall is the best response if the so-called need for one can’t even be demonstrated in reality.  If the press isn’t there to report the truth, and to call out misinformation in an adversarial way, who is?

But there remains this need for liberals – and dare I say it, white liberals – to “find common ground” and be reassured.  One problem is, it’s really hard to find common ground when you understand the policies of those people who disagree with you are actually going to cause you harm, if not kill you. This is a loud and clear message coming from Black America right now, whether in the form of two essential and devastating documentaries this season, I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, in the need for discussions of reparations as voiced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or in the critique of broadcasters like Tavis Smiley, or on a less famous or public level, the lived experience of my students. It’s an uncomfortable truth that the ideal of “common ground” can’t fully be realized while “systemic racism” is a dominant cultural order, let alone one on the rise.

So when Andrew Solomon ends his interview by telling parents that it’s important to avoid heightening their kids’ anxiety, by telling them that things may get worse for the world under the current presidential administration, but “we’re going to be ok,” that to me seems less a prescription for lessening anxiety than a recommendation to teach your children how to practice denial.  That may be not only how we got into this mess, but what will keep us from getting beyond it. It may make for nice parenting, but it is neither good journalism nor sound advice for the future of the planet. If you really believe you’re going to be ok in four years, you’re in pretty good shape, comfortable, sociologically speaking. We have to start by admitting that there’s a good chance most of us are not going to be ok – if you know anything about climate change and its consequences, which is to say, science – and that catastrophes like nuclear holocaust, genocide, widespread gun violence, and ruptured oil pipelines that can contaminate the water supply for millions and wipe out entire indigenous communities, are preventable. But that’s only the case if we come together to start naming the truth or short of that, seeking it out, and cease ignoring facts while our press looks the other way rather than confront dominant falsehoods as is their job.

Our Flawed Political Leaders

6 Nov

I wrote this yesterday – just some idle thoughts on this political campaign season, a throwaway – and posted it on Facebook. Already at least three of my friends have copied and shared it.  So I’m putting it here just as a record it’s originally mine (easier to archive than Facebook).

(Meanwhile I’ve been carrying two, maybe three more in-depth posts around in my mind since August, looking for the time to develop them further here.)

As I prepare to vote on Tuesday, I find myself thinking and talking more and more about Lyndon Johnson (whom my students have never heard of, incidentally). I was not old enough to remember him and the obscenity of our war in Vietnam (my first actual memories began under Nixon), policies for which history has decided he was rightly despised. There is no apologizing for this, and this is what brought him down and overshadowed his presidency and his legacy, at first attacked by the progressive forces of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, but undermined and succeeded by the likes of Nixon with the assistance of Cold War Democratic hawks and Dixiecrats.

And yet, here’s a list of what this often duplicitous and untrustworthy wheeling-and-dealing politician oversaw in just five years of his Presidency: The Civil Rights Act (actually two of them, the second including the Fair Housing Act), the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Law of 1965 that ended quotas and preference for white Europeans, the first Endangered Species Act, and the acts that created Medicare, Medicaid, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Head Start, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (NPR and PBS), the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the act that made food stamps a permanent program. (Not to mention appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.) None of these, which have altered and improved the lives of all Americans, would have existed or passed without him – flawed, dishonest, and hawkish as he was. Fifty years on it’s hard to imagine American life without these, even though arguably whatever social justice they helped to bring about at home stopped at the border of our empire. It’s also hard for us to conceive of the kind of political imagination that could envision these dramatic improvements that reshaped American life in just five years. (Even as there were more progressive voices inside and outside of government, some of whom formed useful alliances and some of whom remained in opposition.)

Little of this happened without considerable people pressure by progressives, progressives who were mobilized for years by violent and structural injustices in Southeast Asia and the U.S. South. As I’ve said before, democracy doesn’t end on Election Day, it begins then. No one we elect on Tuesday can or will be a savior. Not only is there no perfection, but it may take generations before we significantly change the course of our foreign policy away from its history of massive spending on war, violence, and weaponry, or address the damage we unleashed during “shock and awe” in 2003. Are we going to address economic inequality, racial injustice, or the steps needed to stop catastrophic climate change in the next four years? That’s up to us, but it will help not having someone in the office who would like to forcibly turn the clock back to a time before any of these social advances were part of the fabric of modern America. Nor will it help having someone in office too flagrantly disrespectful of science, sociological evidence, public policy, history, tolerance, and gender equity to recognize the relationship between the folly of willful ignorance, nationalism, hatred, and catastrophe.

The Feast Day of Óscar Romero

24 Mar

I have to start by saying I am not a Catholic, so everything that follows here comes from someone who is not coming from within the tradition.  And yet, every year when March 24th comes around, I find myself meditating on the life of Archbishop Óscar Romero who was assassinated on this date in 1980, just before – full disclosure again – I became involved in movements to keep the U.S. military and government from intervening in the wars in Central America.

Then I come across this Vatican Radio article (on Facebook no less) about the first occurrence of Romero’s Feast Day since his beatification by Pope Francis.  I don’t know how such things work, but I find myself moved that his first Feast Day can’t be celebrated as such because this year it falls on Holy Thursday.  I’m also deeply moved that there is also an effort to beatify Fr. Rutilio Grande, who is also known to Pope Francis himself.

Why does this matter, even to nonbelievers?  I mean, even if the idea of  Feast Day or a beatification has no meaning for you, what is it that makes this stand out as so important.  From my perspective, there are two reasons. Two very powerful, even emotional reasons.

First, especially in light of the illegal and inhuman EU-Turkey refugee deal last week, when all the governments of Europe and Turkey conspired to deny the most vulnerable populations of refugees their human and legal rights, it is clear that we live in a moment of such widespread mediocrity in our leadership worldwide (with the exception of the current Pope, but any others?) that not a one of these European leaders will go down in history leaving behind a single memorable legacy or achievement.  Every one of them is ultimately forgettable, because they stand for nothing when it comes to culture, morality, building a better and sustainable future, equity, vision, community, or humanity.  And at the worst possible moment: the decisions and actions we take over the next ten to twenty years in response to climate change will determine the fate of human civilization on this planet.  We can’t wait a couple of generations for better and more moral leadership to come along.  Time is running out, and the leaders we have selected are bureaucrats more interested in national security than human security, and profit and privatization instead of mutually supportive economic practices and goals.

Second, especially in the United States, the idea of morality has been almost completely hijacked by the right in the most sanctimonious of ways in principle and hypocritical ways in practice.  Moral leadership has become aligned with conservatism (even as the conservatives running for President sink to new lows in rhetoric and the morality they express from the campaign podium).  To read about the moral courage of someone like Romero amidst the background noise of the gutter and trivia of American politics is to throw our true bankruptcy into full relief.  And again, at a moment in geological time when we have to make life-or-death decisions determining the fate of life on the planet, our front rank of leaders (many of them elected) exhibit such moral weakness in the face of multinational corporations and the seductions of quick profits that we have little hope of ever finding our better selves, let alone putting them effectively into action.

It’s not a question of waiting for leaders as if they are going to be anointed and appointed from party apparatuses above to look after us.  It is instead a question of how exceptional and moral leadership bubbles up from the bottom but inserts itself by shifting the channels of power like small rivers that set their own course as they stream.  Think of not only Rutilio Grande, a priest rather than a member of the hierarchy, but of young leaders like John Lewis and Cesar Chavez and Berta Cáceres.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to pursue that mystery of our culture: Why is moral courage despised, to such an extent that we reward and let our world be run by those who instead value expedience, profit, and self-aggrandizement?  How did we develop a social system that from an evolutionary perspective works against our own species’ long-term interests?

Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil,
    but those who promote peace have joy.” – Proverbs 12:20


The Decimation of democracy’s critical class

13 Mar

There are two social institutions whose independence and viability are essential for the functioning of a democracy, and which are vulnerable to structural dismantling in a way that take at least a generation to repair.  They are vital for a democracy precisely because they muster the ability to criticize, question, and push back against Power, against the walls behind which government, business, military, or religious institutions exercise control. These sectors are the press and higher education. They operate, outside the walls, not as isolated voices but as collaborations of research and revelation, networks of thousands of individual voices operating as a chorus with shared commitment to uncovering and approaching the truth and then disseminating their findings to readers, students, and other colleagues.  (And I’m under no illusions any kind of uniformly enlightened academia or journalism – there can always be reactionaries and hacks in any large tent.  But then again the complexity of those sectors make such a spectrum possible.)

It is kind of accepted worldwide that a free press is absolutely essential for that reason, though it is not as widely accepted about universities in that kind of constitutional sense because there are those who believe universities are just for the teaching and mastery of job skills, not for the independent voice of social critique.  After all, freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution, though academic freedom is not.

The press does not exist merely to record and transmit the official story.  Universities do not exist merely to provide job training for future workers who will serve government or business without being called on to make decisions.  The basis of living in a democracy is the right to participate in decisions about the community’s future, and the basis of being a moral and effective worker is the ability to have a say in decisions that affect the corporation as well as the surrounding environment (natural as well as human).  The essence of good decision-making is not just critical thinking but also having a well-developed body of knowledge about the issues before us, knowledge that can be complex but one that includes valid evidence and perspectives, rather than ignoring them.

In this context, it is frightening to read, in a very moving investigative article by Dale Maharidge, that the number of full-time reporters for daily print newspapers in the U.S. has dropped 40% in the past nine years, and that rate may accelerate. (This article is really worth reading, devastating, and was the inspiration for this post in the first place.)  As Maharidge makes clear, it’s not just a question that daily print newspapers are being replaced with Internet journalism, but that older reporters with long and local historical knowledge are being let go while inexperienced younger reporters are stepping in. Second, the web-based news is more likely to be national or global rather than local, and even worse, as Maharidge contends, more likely to be to be centered on celebrity and what is entertaining, rather than on what has implications in people’s lives.  But perhaps most devastating is that this new generation of freelance journalists is being asked to work or write for little or no pay, or at best are paid only for the stories they can sell.  Certainly only in the rarest cases are Internet reporters well-compensated and receiving benefits, although recent unionization at Gawker and other news websites is an encouraging start.  At the same time, the type of stories being covered are changing from local and hard news that require interviewing and digging, to the kind of pieces that are either unquestioning repeats of political declarations by our leaders, or that are entertaining (including fear-mongering as a form of horror-show entertainment).

A 40% cut in practicing, full-time personnel would be devastating to any industry.  Not just for the lives and families affected, but for the loss of output, historical knowledge and knowledge of the craft by the elders in the field, and for the inevitable rush to the center among the survivors.  Picture a fishing vessel facing waves crashing over the sides and sweeping the crew overboard.  Those who want to survive will run towards the safer center and cower, rather than ever risk standing near the edge or exposing themselves to risk of any kind.

That kind of sizable cut would also imply that even assuming the nature of news stories were to stay the same, there would be that many fewer stories exposed by the press because there were more topics than the remaining writers could accommodate.  Imagine a 40% cut in the number of stories about climate change, for example, or remaining reporters now having to cover, say, the environment as well as another beat.  They won’t be able to produce as much, investigate as deeply or broadly, and will also have to master multiple fields with professional sophistication in order to interpret what they are being told. (I gnash my teeth sometimes when I hear even NPR reporters who can’t get the details right in immigration law reporting. And we are all still waiting for just one reporter with evidence to confront Ted Cruz on his oft-repeated claim that Obamacare has cost thousands of jobs.)  Put another way, instead of 50 reporters on the ground covering a war, now there would be 30, or there might be 50 but they have to cover more countries and more conflicts, and obviously can’t be two places at once. Stringers are constrained by having to write what will sell, rather than having the financial support of a newspaper to pay for their livelihood while they dig.  In every case, depth as well as the inductive and experienced knowledge from being on the ground are all sacrificed, and can’t be easily recovered. 

Once the business plan of daily newspapers and the field of journalism in general shifts to such an extent that such a high percentage of practitioners are lost, it’s hard to imagine the equal and opposite reaction on the other end of this.  In other words, the proverbial pendulum may not in fact exist and there won’t be a time when suddenly there’s  40% growth in jobs in declining industries like print media.  Newspapers are shutting down much faster than they are starting up. After all, even if there is a massive rehiring, it will take at least a decade for all the new hires to begin to acquire the kind of experience that presumably makes specialists wiser and more able to develop a network of sources.  (Personal pet peeve: there is nothing I hate more than random “person-on-the-street” sound bites, to get the impressions of either totally uninformed or prejudiced people, and usually just one at that, on the air, especially in lieu of interviews with informed parties on multiple sides of an issue.  But I will return to this in another post.)

The same goes for universities, especially researchers and writers.  Much more has been written on the shift over the past twenty years from full-time faculty, engaged in research and writing as well as teaching, to adjuncts hired to teach only, and at such low wages that they are forced to take on extraordinary teaching loads to make ends meet.

Universities are famous worldwide as crucibles of dissent and of research and science (no contradiction there).  And while teaching the young – not just teaching material but teaching the right to question – can be an exercise in freedom, the time and resources to conduct research is at least equally important.  It’s the R&D division of democracies, if you will, and what company can innovate and respond without investment in R&D?  Wipe this sector out and you wipe out an entire intellectual class (like it or not, for millennia every complex society has had its scholar class).  If governments and church denominations can control universities, especially the time and liberty to conduct research, as well as what is taught and what is disseminated to the public, then the critical potential of universities can be circumscribed.  In its most extreme form, this state or military control can lead to the assassination of university leaders, faculty, and students (for example, the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana in 1989).  But there are more subtle and systemic ways as well, for example by tying research funding to military and business ends, cutting government funding, and most recently, filling boards with figures from business, not academia. As many have pointed out, this leads to restructuring the faculty so that the majority of classes are taught by underpaid, contingent workers with neither job security nor research portfolios, rather than comfortably-paid professors with lifetime appointments, institutional memory, and the ability to work with students on social and political issues without fear of losing their jobs.  I’m not saying anything new here that hasn’t been said and documented in more detail by others, both the “adjunctification” of universities, as well as the retreat from enlightenment, if you will, described by Jane Jacobs as well as, most recently, Marilynne Robinson, among many others.

In about 25 years, the percent of college courses in America taught by full-timers has dropped from about two-thirds to 30%.   The number of full-time faculty has not expanded with the increase in the population attending college, meaning that student-faculty ratios have increased as have faculty teaching loads.  The emphasis is less on the productive work of professional intellectuals as scholars, and more on providing credits for students to obtain their degrees, and in fields in which they are more likely to be able to pay off their debts, because tuition has outpaced inflation and so college is actually harder to afford now.

As I said, others have written about this more than I, and even I have written here about some of this.  But here’s the significant point: in one generation, American universities have changed to a business model that favors training, employment and paying off debt (for alumni) and part-time, contingent work over lifetime investment in faculty to do work including research, writing, and occupying a critical role in our society. Adjuncts can be outstanding teachers but their job function does not permit them the time or resources to be researchers or voices of conscience. And then, will it even be possible for current graduate students and undergraduates to find full-time careers as scholars and professors?  Some will, but how many – and who – will be sacrificed in the name of competition?  (A little bit like the journalists who are getting laid off.)  My heart broke for the young poli. sci. major from Florida who told Hillary Clinton in the Miami debate that she wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.  Sure, we need people like that, but will there be enough chairs in the market for her?  Or will she invest 5-10 years of her life only to get jobs that pay, total, $25,000 a year with no health insurance?

As for the research itself, why wouldn’t you want to be creating positions for more medical researchers, more sociological researchers, more science researchers, to address the most pressing problems of our time?  After all, if you want to find a cure for, say, colon cancers or dementia, why wouldn’t you want to have more researchers working on this and involving more young people in the research and showing them the ropes?  It’s simple common sense that 200 scientists working on a problem or treatment are more likely to come up with useful results than just 120 could.

It’s going to take a lot more national imagination to figure out a way to restore that intellectual class, including a restructuring of education funding  so that tuition doesn’t become the main economic lifeblood of every college and university.  That not only makes students feel they are “consumers,” it also means there is less money to invest in projects that may or may not produce significant short-term results. Such a renaissance of what universities can achieve for democracy and humanity is years away.  Same thing with rebuilding the journalism industry.  It’s not just local print dailies, but the kinds of stories and reporting, and as a by-product, civic involvement they were able to support.  That means getting readers to be interested in learning what is going on around them, and not just parroting and reinforcing their prejudices or following their favorite celebrities (including news personalities) as news.  Yes, the next generation could take this on, with the help of current (tenured) academics and experienced reporters – if they can find the money to support such work.

Alarmingly, we’re at a historical period when we really don’t have time.  The press and universities cannot be absent at what all evidence suggests is a crossroads in our decisions about how to handle climate change and whether or not to continue extracting fossil fuels.  Unlike past generations, this generation has the unique timing to come along when the decisions we make will affect habitability for the next few centuries, if not the fate of humanity itself.  We don’t have twenty years for universities and the press to come up with a critical agenda of questions and answers to allow us to find solutions and grill our elected leaders to do the same.  The disappearance of universities and reporters as significant critical voices is coming at the worst possible time, and we haven’t even found a way – or the political will – to begin to reverse the trend.



30 Dec

There’s a moment of dialogue at the end of Ron Howard’s film, In the Heart of the Sea, that pricked my conscience when I saw it last week.  The film is otherwise formulaic in its writing, although being a Ron Howard film the technical side (namely the directing-cinematography-editing troika) can always be counted on to deliver, especially in the sailing sequences, which can be breathtaking.  The Herman Melville character, played by Ben Whishaw, turns to the narrator/interviewee who is the subject of the film, and says something to the effect of: The plot of the story I could come up with, but you have given me the courage I need to write this book.

This was the first in a series of three films in three nights, a kind of paroxysm of release from the semester and other tensions.  The next night I went to see Trumbo, a film that takes on the thought crimes against the American Left in a way that is not only engaging but fun, followed by the new Hungarian Holocaust film, Son of Saul, with its unrelieved claustrophobic tension, no fun and no uplift.  Where Trumbo is a paean to writers who have the audacity to hold on to their morals, stand up for their values, while subverting what they must in order to survive, Son of Saul is a portrayal of Auschwitz as a chamber of horrors so circumscribed that one can hardly come up for air, let alone get enough distance to even begin to consider acts of rebellion.

Speaking of audacity, I know that there is more to these films than a springboard to thinking about my own individual courage (at a time when I happen to be dealing with ongoing writer’s block and a relentless year of personal tribulations that has made any focus on my own creativity a distant possibility).  All three are about acts of moral courage (although to be certain, the story within the frame story in the Melville film is about physical courage), with Dalton Trumbo having the guts and also necessity (psychological as well as financial) to keep writing because that’s what writers must do. Not that all writing is courageous, but writing when the world wants you to be silent is. Auschwitz on the other hand was a world in which even the moral space needed for a courage response was so squeezed as to be impossible – and I don’t think Primo Levi would disagree.  That there managed to be rebellion at all makes us consider how we must be wired for this on some level, or at least a few people, since moral weakness seems to be more the hallmark of the human condition than moral courage.

Full disclosure: Dalton Trumbo’s National Book Award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun was one of the most influential books in my life, one that, more than any other, turned me irrevocably against war and violence (and as the subject of a pivotal application essay that got me into an elite summer program in high school, also had an instrumental effect upon my intellectual careers as well).  Years later, when asked to recommend books for the “Suggested Reading” bookshelf at a local library, I had to have the librarian rescue the book from the depths of “young adult storage” where it most certainly did not belong for a number of reasons.  I didn’t just want to be a writer after reading Johnny Got His Gun for the sake of being a writer, I really saw what writing could do when it came to ideas and ideals and social change and how writing itself could break free from conventions of not only politics (which I would later see again in The Jungle) but formal written language (language without commas(!), language that represented interior thought and image, which I would come back to in Light in August, penned just a few years earlier).

At one point I wanted to be courageous, but somehow I had lost that over the past few decades.  Although in fairness to me, not giving up and still trying to stay within the bounds of the kind of career I wanted – which is to say, not working for any entity governed by the profit motive, while still occasionally being able to speak my mind in the form of a lecture or more collaboratively via a community or artistic project – took just about all the courage I had left in the tank. It wasn’t that I had lost hope that prevented me from “bothering” to write, it was that I have so profoundly lost courage because I’ve come to believe that nothing I have to say matters, in any way or on any level.  (And not being, like Jimmy Carter, a person of faith, I don’t have that pillar to lean on either.)

Trumbo reminded me that this is a time of exceptional moral challenge.  I also happened to have seen a production of Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller (himself a playwright concerned with the very theme of moral courage over and over again, from The Crucible to All My Sons) just last week, and my friend remarked that the play seemed relevant “especially now,” and I too felt that urgency.  Why?  We are not occupied, nor at war to any greater degree than we have been since 2001, and yet it does feel especially with catastrophic climate change, a widening war against and by ISIS, along with the current crop of presidential candidates as well as the failure of our educational system to inform students about enough of the basic issues to make intelligent, i.e. informed decisions about policy, that each of us is being asked to take a moral stand, or simply give in, to consumerism as opiate.  Excuse me, but it does feel like at least once a day I have to make a decision that reflects my ethical stance in the world, from the class lectures that I give to the food I buy – maybe because I’m a teacher and I see most of my students living lives that are reactive to the economy, while more than a few are standing up to everything they have had to overcome just to get to college.  The courage of writers like Trumbo and Miller is handed down from generation to generation like a baton in a relay towards justice.

So as luck would have it, I picked up a paperback copy of Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create, that I found in the trunk of my car, and began reading.  With the break between semesters, I’ve also been able to do some “outside” reading for the first time since at least the summer.  There’s a lot in the slim volume, and to be honest, he does still subscribe to the Western, high art bias that creativity and imagination require on some level novelty, something new, something replacing the old.  While that is an ethnocentric view of creativity, for me already there are at least four takeaways that have added to this week’s ruminations on art, writing, and courage.

I’m deliberately oversimplifying, but here are the main points (for my purposes):

  1. The act of creativity is fundamentally an act of courage.  (Although he contrasts “moral courage” with “creative courage,” and I see them as complementary, if not overlapping.)
  2. Artists have to deal with the existence and synthesis of several conflicting pairs, including chaos vs. form, conviction vs. doubt, and the “solitary” with the “solidary,” meaning, after Camus, the need for solitude as well as the need to connect with others out in the world.
  3. This: “the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as opposed to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the god of apathy, material success, and exploitative power” (p. 26).  He wrote that in 1973.
  4. Psychoanalysis historically viewed creativity or the imagination as something negative, even a kind of neurosis, whereas May writes that “The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health” (p. 38).  (To me the whole diagnosis of ADHD as a kind of “disorder” reflects this residual hostility towards creativity and an institutional desire to destroy it.)
  5. Creative people use threat and anxiety as motivators that push us to creative action in response, while resolving those feelings of anxiety and tension through techniques like meditation can actually dampen our need or desire to resolve them creatively through action; they help us to tolerate the anger and imbalance rather than channeling them into something communicative as art is.  “Bliss” and the need to write can be antithetical.

I don’t know where I’ve misplaced my courage, but I’ve got to take it out of the drawer and start to wear it again.  Without it, in a way, I am and have been nothing.  I don’t have the kind of flow that Trumbo had to keep going, keep going, keep going, but neither have I faced the threats that he, or certainly Primo Levi, ever faced.  Although, that said, these are times when the gods of conformism and materialism are particularly harsh and destructive.  Maybe that’s why it feels that “especially now” the moral choices we make – whether speaking out against injustice or simply welcoming a refugee – are so immediate, a daily occurrence, even as we go off to work or pay the bills or learn the identity of the latest unarmed shooting victim.  That and the threat of a climate that we may soon need to renegotiate on a massive scale if we are going to continue living and flourishing, which will take all the courage and creativity we can muster, morally, socially, artistically, scientifically.

Hope is all very well and good.  But I wish you all Courage for 2016.


A Brief note on Malala, her father, and the War on Education

23 Nov

One of the most striking moments for me in the new documentary film, He Named Me Malala, comes in the words of her father, Ziauddin Yusufzai, who is credited with having, at the very least, a strong intellectual influence on his daughter. He says at one point, “Education gives you the power to question things. Education gives you the power to challenge things. To be independent.” (Apologies if the syntax is not 100% accurate. I went reaching for my notebook in the dark theater at the DOC NYC Film Festival, but since then, I have seen this quote transcribed in various ways on different websites.) I kept thinking of my college students with whom I was seeing the film. Are they getting this message from their college careers? (I’m sure this group did not get that in their high schools, although some do.) For those who read my earlier post on Senator Rubio, who has since gone on to repeat the message I wrote about back in August into the most recent debate performance in November, that’s not what “education” is for – it’s for getting a job and increasing earnings. At least that’s the case for low-income and working-class students, not necessarily the elite who will go on to become the decisionmakers. Ziauddin’s ideas have come to be radical in the vacuum of education-for-the-economy mentality that pervades pretty much most of the world.

As for Malala herself, a friend posted a quotation of hers, which dates back at least as early as October 2013, in which she said, “The only thing that can fight terrorism is education.” While much has been made of the criticism that she is a media darling, and perhaps even a creation, of the West’s need for a “safe Muslim,” she has stood up to that by admonishing President Obama about the use of drones. And in the wake of this months bombings and shootings in Lebanon, Paris, and Bamako, she emerges as the sole voice for an approach to terrorism that calls for more education, less ignorance, and greater understanding as a way to bring people together. Have any of our Presidential candidates in the U.S. called for more education as a response to terrorism? Those who turn to terrorism do so out of the false belief that violence, especially against innocents, is the path to social change (a social change that makes claims to justice, that is). This, of course, has never worked in human history.

On my office door, I have put up a bumper sticker that reads, “In a war on education, no one wins.” The reaction worldwide against Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris and Lebanon attacks shows just that. Public opinion is whipped up against the millions of innocents fleeing the same violence and the same perpetrators who carried out the attacks in Paris and Lebanon. But the fallacy of public opinion polls is that they rest on the false assumption that all opinions are based on equivalent foundations of knowledge. Most people who are against allowing in refugees have no idea about refugee resettlement processes and screenings, about who refugees are and what they have been through, about the history of the region from which they are fleeing, and so on. Differences of opinion are fine, and welcome in a democracy. But they have to be based on some kind of empirical knowledge, evidence, or understanding of history, not just hot air and smoke. How can you have a valid opinion about something about which you know nothing? Otherwise you are susceptible to every prejudice and every hatemonger out there. Which, of course, is what we see, as war spreads.

Only education gives you the power to question things, to be independent, and to truly fight terrorism. It must be our first response to any crisis.

From Athens: The Dangers of agoraphilia

23 Jun

Last night on the Athens metro I started a conversation with a young man because in this trip to Athens, I am more eager than ever to learn about the current mood of the people, how they feel about Syriza, the economy, and the E.U. It may just be me, or because I tend to talk mostly with immigrants, but Greece has a much more open feel to it, a markedly different atmosphere than when I was here in 2009 and 2012.

I was heading to the same place I stayed last time, with friends in a residential neighborhood, but in the last year a new metro station has opened up near their home so I no longer have to wait to transfer to a bus from the metro. I asked if they were still extending the subway even further, and how it had differed from ten years ago, but he said he only really started riding the metro seven years ago when he was at university. I asked him what he studied, and he said, almost apologetically, political science and history, with a special interest in music, even though these days there isn’t much he can do with that in terms of work. I asked him what his job was, and he said he hands out leaflets (although there was some humility here on his part, or literalism, since it came out later he is a guitarist in a band). He wanted to pursue his studies in post-graduate school, but there was only one program in Greece that dealt with these interests, and they take only 20 students a year, “and you need money.” I’ve learned that at least undergraduate education is free here at public universities, if you have the scores to get in. I asked him about studying in another country in Europe, since his English was quite good. He said, yes, with money anything is possible, but without money, well, no.

He didn’t know about political music in the U.S. of the rock era, and though he knew Pete Seeger he did not know Phil Ochs (and I later sent him websites about Phil Ochs, who I suspected would be a kindred spirit).

I told him in the U.S. it is possible to study for a master’s or doctorate, with money of course, but that even by us the possibility for finding work in a field related to this is difficult. (The default for us is law school, among the educated class, but I didn’t say this.) I did tell him the rough statistic – I think I saw it somewhere – that even among Ph.D.’s only one in eight is in a full-time teaching or university position. We came up the escalator and though it was nearly ten p.m., a man was handing out leaflets about working from home. My new friend took one, and said to me, “We are misleading the people, telling them they can make money from home.”

For some reason, this conversation and the issues it raises lodged deeply within me. No mystery there, as I was and am one who has wagered everything on pursuing the questions I am interested in. That is the life of the scholar, though it need not – and should not – be restricted to scholars. Still, therein are the catch and the contradiction. We have, anthropologically speaking, two worlds: the world of youth, in which questions of history, politics, science, philosophy, literature, the arts and music, matter, and the world the adults have made, which channels everyone into wage-based occupations.   The round and open-ended questions of the student do not fit into the square cubicle of the workplace. There is no place for so many students like the guitarist, like myself, unless one is extremely lucky, privileged to be connected, and tenacious, in some combination that borders on the magical. What future is there for anyone to ask questions, in places and ways that matter, in the constant slog for reliable wages?

There has to be more that we can do than shrug and say, “Too bad, brother. Now grow up and go hand out some leaflets.”

The so-called “free” market has created, and continues to re-create, a system that is anything but free. The market dictates what is considered a worthy use of time and intellect, and that most worthy use is, of course, profit. Within that system, where is the space for the most imaginative and curious minds, unless – again with luck, privilege, and connections – one can find a way to spin that yarn of curiosity into gold. The irony is not lost on me that here in Greece there is no use for philosophy, and almost no place for it either.

And what about “use” for that matter? Even within the scholarly community, use-value is not a primary criterion for good scholarship. In an ideal world it need not be, and in fact, we need scholars and teachers of every aspect of the world. But in terms of cultural studies and historical studies, where does the spiral of knowledge lead, if not often down a chute from which there is no connection with application?

The Market has not yet realized, and will not realize until it is too late, that we are in a global crisis, particularly generated by climate change but also by the over-consumption of natural resources. It is precisely at this time that we need political scientists and historians, social scientists and social workers, ethicists and philosophers, artists and musicians, in addition to natural scientists to avert the coming extinction of our species, and of many others along the path.

In the social sciences there may be no more compelling problem than the question of mass migration over the next 35-50 years. With an 8 million increase in the number of refugees and displaced people in the last year alone, that crisis is not only beginning, but shows little chance of abating on its own. It represents, among other things, a complete abdication of responsibility and humanitarianism and brotherhood (if I may use that term in a gender-neutral way) on the part of all of our national and state governments. We don’t need 10 universities where those problems are being studied and solved, we need hundreds. We don’t need a handful of scholars engaging in research and the rest teaching as adjuncts or teaching too many classes with too many students to provide individual feedback. We need thousands. We need grants and start-up funds not just for a few tech innovators and “geniuses” who have already established themselves, we need seed funding for thousands of young people and the mentors with whom they will work, not in lecture classes of fifty people, but small research seminars of four and six.

There is tragedy in the fact that we cannot support our most curious and imaginative young thinkers, and that the pool of people who will be tasked with coming up with the solutions to the crises facing us will be so small as to limit the amount of research and interaction that can take place (not to mention the vital task of educating the young and ignorant not to follow blindly and in mindless hatred). If we want to find a cure to a disease, for example, we do not limit the number of people working on the problem to just ten or a hundred; we want thousands of minds engaged. So why are social problems, cultural problems, economic and philosophical problems any different?

How many thousands of young people are saying, I studied this in university because this was what I was interested in, but now the market tells me this is of no value? How many more thousands are saying, I am going to university, but I can only afford to study and master the material that will land me a job? And how many still more thousands are saying, If only I could go to university, this is what I would like to learn about and think about?

If Allen Ginsberg wrote that he “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” then I am seeing the best minds of my and subsequent generations destroyed – consumed – by the market.

On Labor Day

1 Sep

Somehow the summer came and went, I got nothing written or revised (not on this blog, not in my professional life), and tomorrow I start a new full-time job, my first in over three years. I’ve written a little bit in informal comments on Facebook about my life as an adjunct, but I was inspired to say more after reading Robert Reich’s post this morning. I don’t know how to link to a Facebook post, but the operative quotations are these: “The official unemployment rate is 6.2 percent but if you include everyone working part-time who’d rather be in full-time jobs, and all those too discouraged even to look for work, the real rate is closer to 12.5 percent… A higher proportion of jobs are part-time, temporary, contract, or otherwise with unpredictable wages and hours than at any time on record.” I’ve been through all that personally the last three years. So I am setting this down in public as a kind of baseline post as I begin the next chapter in my career – an academic career at this point, having working in non-profits and museums for the first 16 or so years of my professional career, followed by five years of academic employment, with some consulting. Then three years of part-time research, adjunct positions, and summer school, while looking for something full-time in my field.

Here are my two operative facts and figures: In all that time, I tried to keep my employment record with no conspicuous holes or gaps, I applied for over one hundred positions, and I managed to only have 1-2 months on unemployment. The rest of the time I had some form of underemployment – not much money coming in, no health insurance (for 38 months), and no position that lasted longer than an academic year. I didn’t go on food stamps, qualified for the new Medicaid under Obamacare (though I ended up then making just too much money by the time I had to submit the application), and got to the point where if I hadn’t found something full-time in the last application cycle, I’d have had to have changed careers, or taught high school full-time. Over the last four years I applied for 131 full-time positions in universities, museums, and non-profits. I got rejected 130 times. And while I can’t say I have empirical proof that if you never give up you will eventually get something, I can say that had I given up at any point along the way, instead of coming back week in and week out, then I would have lost for sure. In the end it was not just persistence: I learned from my mistakes and shortcomings, I adjusted my search accordingly, re-worked my application materials and my interviewing skills. Though luck undoubtedly played a role, it was a combination of persistence and adaptability that set the stage. And in the end, I ended up with a wonderful position that offers all that I want, in a location where I want to be – I did not have to “settle” at all. It’s even a union position. And no, I did not know anyone on the hiring committee; it was a clean search. I am a statistic in so many groups: underemployed, overqualified academic, long-term without a position or health insurance, and this economy is not kind of any of these. There aren’t even enough positions for people in my situation, so we even can’t all be “lucky” (the worst I heard about was a job that attracted 450 applicants). I’m glad I ended up in the right column of the statistics, but I have many friends and colleagues who have not, and this Labor Day I hope they find subsistence and fulfillment in whatever field they end up in. These are bleak times. Not only are “good” jobs falling by the wayside (see Reich’s columns), but meaningful jobs that are tenable are becoming rarer still.

I heard a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman on NPR this afternoon. I find him naive in the extreme – nowhere does he attribute any of these changes to the structure of the job market to forces like global consumer capitalism, the calculated ruthlessness of the ‘free’ market and its protectors, or the pressure of widening economic inequality. He suggests that entrepreneurship is going to be a vital skill for building a career, which suggests an extreme survival-of-the-fittest-go-getters, but also that higher education itself may go the way of the newspaper because the investment is getting larger but the preparation for the job market is even less certain. (He says this, without any examination of the question whether the purpose of higher education should be employment training, what it means to have an uninformed populace voting (or not) in a democracy, or the fact that we can’t all start global industries on our laptops and be hugely successful; someone is going to have to have the funds to purchase all the goods and have the money to invest. At least Jaron Lanier points out that if we minimize the number of professional jobs that pay a living or middle-class wage, we won’t have enough consumers with the disposable income to buy all the products that consumer capitalism has to sell to stay afloat. All of these “thinkers” and “futurists” fall into the new unquestioned belief of the age which is that the purpose of higher education is job readiness, and learning “just enough” to get a job and compete in the global marketplace, or to be an “innovator” (for the sake of innovation, or making money, or making things), which is how MOOCs will replace humanistic teaching and learning, critical literacy skills. This fails to recognize the essential link in a democracy – which Jefferson realized – which is that the people are ignorant (not informed, and not knowing how to question the concepts that are fed to them). Otherwise they vote what they think is their short-term self-interest, and this perpetuates empires and global environmental destruction. Hell, I even heard a TED talk (again on NPR) yesterday in which the lecturer – a million-dollar TED awardee! – says we really need nothing more for our education than access to the Internet and a grandmother to encourage us. These people are trying to scuttle higher education, and retool education merely to be preparation for working in someone else’s factory, and the odd Jeff Bezos will come along here or there and ‘save’ us. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge the gutting of higher education is already taking place, with the shift over the last 20 years from 70% of college courses being taught by full-time profs, to two-thirds being taught by part-timers with no benefits and 1/6 to 1/4 of the salary.

But back to Labor Day itself. The other story that has slipped up on us is that Labor Day used to mark the end of the summer and back to school. My father, a tax accountant who never got more than two weeks vacation any year in his working life, used to take the last two weeks of August off religiously every year, and go back to work the day after Labor Day. School didn’t start until then, and the school year ran from September to June. But this year, even more than before, I noticed more and more school districts and universities are now beginning in August. The Ferguson, Missouri school district had to cancel the first days of classes in the middle of August, while on the East Coast, which starts later, it feels like New Jersey may be the last state in which the school year begins after Labor Day. Most colleges and universities start the week before now, too. Labor Day weekend used to be the end of summer vacation and was a big tourist weekend, but as one friend pointed out to me in New York this weekend, really everybody is back to school or work in August these days. So even the concept of ‘summer’ itself as time off has been taken away from the American worker and the American student. One of the most pernicious ways in which Americans have perpetuated their own oppression is in allowing themselves to have so little vacation time, less than any other country. And that’s for people with paid vacation. Many American workers don’t even get that anymore. So instead of Labor Day marking the psychological end of summer, even if it ever did honor the American worker, it now is just another Monday holiday. And many districts want to move to year-round school anyway, which would strip teaching – the last of the professions to over a reasonable annual leave policy in the U.S. – of its humane vacation policy. I am lucky my new job will be at a university that, for now, begins after Labor Day (which means that, in theory, I will still be able to attend the Montreal World Film Festival even though I could not afford to do so this year). But we’ll see how long that calendar survives the attempts to shorten summer and force the school year to bear more similarity to the working world, since that is all it is seen to be good for anymore, anyway.

May Day

1 May

It’s been so long since I’ve published anything I actually forgot how to log on. I don’t know why, I’ve had a lot on my mind, but haven’t been sitting down to add to this for months.

Having just gotten back from two weeks in Bangladesh the day of the Savar building collapse, I’ve been preoccupied by that disaster. There are now some 400 dead and, depending on which list is accurate, between 130 and 1,300 people unaccounted for.

I was very moved by Charlie Kernaghan’s interview today on Democracy Now!. Codes of conduct are not enough. The U.S. (and other countries) can legislate that imported goods and clothes must be made in factories that don’t exploit child labor, that allow workers to organize in unions for better working conditions, and that meet certain safety standards.

I’ll leave this post at that. I have lots more to say about Bangladesh, a country of incredible hospitality and warmth, and beauty and culture (epecially literary) yet at the same time a country where certain individuals are capable of treating their fellow citizens with sometimes astonishing cruelty and callousness, with total impunity.

I hope this May Day signals the beginning of some real change for workers in Bangladesh, now the 2nd largest garment exporter in the world. We in the West have our work to do too, to use the leverage consumers (and other workers) have to bring about positive change.

More on the death of critical higher education

31 Dec

This article from the AP yesterday confirms a great deal of what Jane Jacobs was writing about in Dark Age Ahead as I discussed the other day. The education story of my lifetime is not the development of the Internet, or the rise of literacy, but the major transition in higher education – at first in the U.S. but spreading – away from the classical liberal arts and towards the study of business in particular, followed by other subjects that train for the primary purpose of finding a job.

Centuries from now (or perhaps only decades), the survivors of our species will look back on our times, and try to understand this. Faced as we are with impending environmental catastrophe, depletion and unequal sharing of natural resources, overpopulation, and violence of a scale that could annihilate every living being, the wealthiest nations on earth discourage their most creative young people from learning the processes they need to come up with the innovative solutions to our planet-threatening problems.

This happens thanks to a “free market” that forces post-secondary institutions to change their curricula from courses that emphasize critical, creative, and ethical thinking, to tracks that train people to follow their leaders and employers (aka “job creators”) without having the breadth or depth of knowledge to challenge dominant, even self-destructive, ideologies. And the labor force that made up these post-secondary institutions, what once largely consisted of free, creative, and critical thinkers themselves, is replaced by those who are forced to teach skills, with less job security, higher workloads, lower pay, and less opportunity to conduct research that speaks to the wider public about the major ethical issues of our time. What this article shows – unwittingly – is that it’s cyclical: colleges make decisions because of market forces, decisions that reinforce the market notion that higher education is not about critical questioning, research, and ethical and aesthetic thinking, but that it is the commodifiable (and branding) bridge between the basic skills learned in primary and secondary schools and the workplace.

Make no mistake, it is market forces that have accomplished this. Major cuts in unrestricted government aid to education – especially under Reagan – force colleges and universities to turn to private funding from corporations or other wealthy donors, or to government aid that is attached to specific research projects, such as Department of Defense initiatives. Higher tuition costs force students (and university deans) to think about cost-benefit analyses of their education, and the lack of economic security in this country understandably pushes people into choosing job safety and security over education that prepares them to live a moral and ethical (not to mention artistic) life.

The quote from Paulo Freire that frames this blog in the About page could not be more apt here: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Despite his writing, we are going in the opposite direction.

Jane Jacobs was right. We are in deep trouble.

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