June 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment
DISSENT : To differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority; to disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; take an opposing view; difference of sentiment or opinion; disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government.
There are 2 challenges facing us post the PRISM story that define a history of efforts to curtail dissent, though dissent is essential for democracy:
- The U.S. government approved — and reconciled itself with — the PRISM program without much debate. The public didn’t even know about it. The public sphere has been carefully eliminated by partisanship and media’s propensity for the extreme. This, more then any other story is the critical story of the PRISM leak.
- The U.S. citizen is literally clueless about surveillance and the trail we leave behind, which begins the moment we’re born and we receive our social security numbers in our utter innocence. It begins here — then we’re cataloged, followed through school, tax forms (in my case: selective service during Vietnam, and service in the USN), drivers license, marriage certificate, diplomas, CV’s, etc.
DISSENTERS: U.S. history is synonymous with dissent; their voices and struggles created this country. Someone like Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s original theological philosophers, was a dissenter. Dissenters landed on Plymouth Rock, in 1620, 83 years before Edward’s birth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, and his prodigal son, Henry David Thoreau dissented. A long line of American writers — Hutchinson and Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Melville, Whitman and Dickenson — through to Faulkner, say, and Zora Neal Hurston, who died a relative unknown, in 1960, until Alice Walker found her unmarked grave, in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, are dissenting voices speaking against the status quo.
The point I’m making is that the evolution of the American character — our beliefs, our personality, our energy and our dedication to civil rights and social justice — is synonymous with dissent; however, as we’ve journeyed into our very tenebrous times, media, corporate sponsored government and our entertainment industries have all worked assiduously to homogenize the American character, thus the American experience. Homogenization, on a mass scale like this, is, first and foremost, how dissent is repressed; it’s also how propaganda parades as truth. And from this lens, how people — and language and actions — are criticized, which is to judge. It’s why John Boehner can call Edward J. Swoden, the individual that leaked PRISM, “a traitor”. This is the same John Boehner that would parade through the halls of congress with wads of tobacco cash asking his colleagues to take it; this is the same Speaker of the House whose leading five contributors are AT&T, Murray Energy, First Energy Corp, American Financial Group and the Boehner for Speaker Committee.
Who is a trader to whom?
Edward Said is dead, as is Howard Zinn. Noam Chomsky is 85 years old. How long can he keep fighting the good fight? Bernie Sanders is all alone, a lone voice. Naomi Kline is working hard, and only 43. If you think, unless you’ve tuned into Democracy Now!, with another dissenter, Amy Goodman, and WBAI, something like that, nowhere in our crowded networks does one hear a single voice of dissent, ever. Colbert, Stewart and Maher are our contemporary — and popular — dissenters, speaking to the choir, but their comedy goes along, it reminds us that all we can do is poke fun at the lies, deceit and idiocy because we have to live what we have. Hell, Rush Limbaugh, for god’s sake, sees himself as a dissenting voice.
Where are we?
In Chatter: Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, Patrick Radden Keefe (2006) describes the Echelon project, the largest invisible eavesdropping architecture in the world:
The United States is the dominant member of a secret network, along with four other Anglophone powers — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that intercepts the chatter of people around the world. The pact between thee countries was initiated a half a century ago, in a document so secret that its existence has never been acknowledged by any of the governments involved: the UKUSA agreement. The network these countries have developed collects billions of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, and telexes every day and distributes them, through a series of automated channels, to interested parties in the five countries. In this manner, the United States spies on its NATO allies, and the United Kingdom spies on its EU allies; the network supercedes any other ties of loyalty… Signals intelligence, or Sigint, in the shorthand of politicos and spies, is the little-known name for listening in that it is used today by the eavesdroppers themselves. Eavesdropping has become an extraordinarily cutting-edge game, with listening stations inhaling conversations bounced via satellites and microwave towers; spy satellites miles above in space tuning in on radio frequencies on the ground; and silent and invisible Internet bugs clinging, parasitelike, to the nodes and junctures of the information superhighway…Though many Americans are not even aware that it exists, the National Security Agency, the American institution in charge of electronic eavesdropping, is larger than the CIA and the FBI combined…[And] Like any good conspiracy theory, this one contains important elements of truth. Like any good conspiracy, it is also nonfalsifiable: while it might be impossible to prove it’s all true, it’s also impossible to prove that it’s not, and the theory thrives on official denials and refusals to comment.
Has anyone read Chatter? Has anyone seen Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed, particularly since the PRISM story broke? Exactly.
In England’s North Yorkshire moors, Keefe reports, in cow country, “lies the most sophisticated eavesdropping station on the planet.” The five Anglophone powers — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — share it. British military police stand guard in front of a sign that reads: RAF Menwith Hill.
What we’re experiencing is a perfect storm right now: a long standing pact between certain powerful nations that created a world-wide — and very powerful — surveillance system; the unfettered dominance of the world’s largest electronic surveillance security agency, the NSA; corporate owned government that by design has to do nothing, because that’s what it’s asked by sponsors, and instead — also by design — harps on ideologies while privileging social issues over human rights and social justice, and dismantles public education; and the slow decay of dissent via entertainment and education, the only outlets for citizens, which is why mediated sports and pornography are the top sellers, followed closely by reality TV.
Very effectively, alternative voices — and alternative points of view — are marginalized through ridicule because they’re different, unable to adhere to jingoistic idealism, the bane of our existence.
The real story of the PRISM leak is here — in how dissent has been slowly silenced and how any alternative point of view, when voiced, is immediately rejected and ridiculed because it’s not following the ruling — and mediated — ideologies of our time, lending our age a certain degree of shiftiness, giving us a sense of transit where complexity — and complex figures — are introduced to produce, in us, an inside and an outside that figure to confuse our identity.
June 11, 2013 § Leave a Comment
SOBRE EL SER: LA VIDA, LA MUERTE Y LA AUTO CONFIANZA Por Héctor Vila* Traducción de Carlos Ramírez**
No sé cómo llegué hasta donde estoy, hasta donde he llegado. A mi edad, 59, se supone que sepamos, que tengamos algunas respuestas. Yo no. Es como si la vida simplemente hubiera ocurrido y yo siguiéndola, neblinoso.
via Cronopio U.S.A..
June 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.
The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.
The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.
And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.
We live in 3 worlds:
- The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
- The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
- The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.
We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.
Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.
An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.
Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.
This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.
The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:
Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.
In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”
As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.
We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.
We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.
Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:
Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.
Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”
There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.
What is our world?
As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.
June 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Since today, June 6, is George Orwell’s birthday, let’s begin with him. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” reads the opening line of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Looking around this morning, I find that the clocks are, indeed, “striking thirteen.”
So let me set things straight for President Obama and the NSA, this way no one has to come looking for me — or if you want to, I’m transparent: I frequently receive phone calls from Kabul, Afghanistan, sometimes even from other provinces; other times I receive communiqués from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong; I receive regular communiqués from Argentina and Great Britain, the odd couple, Spain and France, too. Sometimes Germany, though I’m sure you’re fine with that, unless it’s a white supremacist group. Welcome to the reality of global citizenry in the 21st Century. We’re all interconnected so we’re all under surveillance at all times — through Facebook, Twitter, etc. We’re all very willing to tell the world where we are at any given moment.
I am open about all of my communications because it makes little — or no — difference to the Obama Administration since it is pursuing with great force the Bush era Patriot Act section allowing for secret surveillance of US citizen’s phone records (number only for now). I am also a Verizon Wireless client, which is named in the New York Times (yes, I also have an iPhone — just keeping with the transparency). Screwed every which way, I guess.
And just to be clear, my conversations with Middlebury College alumni, which is mostly who I speak to, unless it’s family in Argentina, usually cover the following subjects:
- The rejection of the Bush – Cheney lies that got us into Iraq, forgoing Afghanistan, until it was time to enter there.
- The complete understanding that the government in Kabul is totally corrupt and millions U.S. dollars have been siphoned off and the Afghan people continue to suffer — and will suffer for yet another one or two generations. But we don’t really mind that.
- The disgust over drones that in Obama’s hands makes Bush-Cheney war-mongoring seem like Sesame Street.
- The militarization of key spots in the world to protect multinational oil business that, in turn, is channeling money to buy senators and congressmen, thus continuing our climate / environmental debacle and our dependency on fossil fuels.
- The continued global policy, by the most powerful nations, to disenfranchise the poor – those without voice – on whose backs our way of living is built on, though, by all logical uses of statistical models we see that it’s in decline but we don’t want to look inward. So it goes.
- The willful and systematic dismantling of public education in the USA — and education that’s meaningful globally — in order to ensure that production models of existence that malign one’s identity continue on our current conveyor belts to oblivion.
- I also discuss, just to create a list of themes: Inverted Totalitarianism, the environmentalism of the poor, world wide, climate change, the industrialization of food and our decaying health, as well as the confusion over health care, which is an inalienable right.
There. If anyone this morning is looking around, just browsing and skimming, it’s impossible not to be depressed. Besides the U.S. secretly collecting the phone exchanges of citizens, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe says the IRS scandal leads to Obama — and it’s as bad as Watergate. So Obama is being compared to Nixon? At this point, does anyone really care?
Obama, back in 2008, ran on the promise of change. “Yes we can.” Indeed, we can. We have changed — and Bush-Cheney are having a grand old time smiling away their respective retirements because never in a million years could they have imagined that Obama would out Bush-Cheney them. Frankly, I don’t really know why the conservative right is all bent out of shape about Obama; he’s outdoing even them.
- Obama is weak on the environment, the Keystone pipeline likely to be the next feather in his cap.
- Obama is weak on education, following No Child Left Behind — and Duncan’s rather mindless approach to any real education reform (I say reform rather then change, though they mean the same thing to this administration: privatization and homogeneity).
- Obama is weak on civil liberties, particularly when it comes to our rights as citizens, going full force with an Orwellian (thus the beginning of this piece) scheme that will blanket the nation — and the world. (See the book: Chatter)
- Obama is strong on keeping our banks strong, as I said he would during his 2008 election campaign; shortly thereafter appointing Timothy Geithner, a Wall Street insider, Secretary Treasurer — the fox in the hen coop.
- Guantanamo is still open — what more can we say?
On June 23, 2011, I said that even with an Obama victory, nothing will change. GMO’s everywhere so that we can’t tell what’s what; a Farm Bill that, according to Mark Bittman in Welfare for Wealthy, is, well, just that, welfare for the wealthy — multinational agribusiness will be guaranteed pay-offs and given an open door to increase their monoculture production that has ruined land and air, while the poor will get less; Eric Holder is still on the ropes with the FBI scandal, the aggressive probing of journalists.
Has anything changed, really?
In my mind it has — but it didn’t change with Obama. In my mind things began to change and become more violent and aggressive, government more elusive, abrasive and prohibitive, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At 12:30PM, Central time, on November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, the world changed — and if not the world, then the U.S. certainly did. A standing president could be assassinated. Shortly thereafter, Malcolm X was assassinated (February 21, 1965), in New York City. On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And, on June 5th of that year, shortly after midnight, Bobby went. In the span of 5 years, a sitting president, a brother running for president and two civil rights leaders were all shot down before our eyes. We were all witnesses. American violence played on the evening news, alongside harrowing images of Vietnam and dogs attacking Civil Rights marchers. We passed through the looking glass and became something else altogether different — callous, angry, colder and more reserved and reluctant.
It was no wonder that this lead to Richard Nixon and Watergate. The stage was set for the coming of our hostile age of surveillance and indifference, the twin brothers that accompany a politics that gives justice to malice.
In his seminal work, The Idea of Justice, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says that, “What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just — which few of us expect — but that there are clearly remediate injustices around us which we want to eliminate.” All around us, daily, we see, “inequities or subjugations from which we may suffer and which we have good reason to recent, but it also applies to more widespread diagnoses of injustice in the wider world in which we live,” continues Sen.
So I want to be clear, I want to be transparent about what I’m saying, this way, Mr. Obama and the NSA have a clear mission: the most profound injustice, which is evident in the U.S., as a leader, and the wider world, is a resentment towards creative, free and open uses of the imagination; rather, justice, now, is interpreted as equal to or consistent with the injustice brought about by homogeneity and subjugation, the children of surveillance and indifference.
In other words, when I talk to my former students in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Great Britain, Germany and France and Spain, we all note the same thing: the closing of the American mind leads the world so powerfully that the abuses and violence we see in the rest of the world are a mindless mirror of who we are and what we’ve nurtured. That’s been the big change. We’re leading the world in our repression of social justice, of humanity. We’re all interconnected; it can’t be otherwise.
April 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
For Leah and the girls down in Boston today
I’ve not been “on” this blog for some time. I want to apologize, say I’m sorry, but I don’t know who I’d say this too. And given what we face today, a darkness visible hanging over American culture, it’s hard for me to find the words to get through this. But here goes …
Boston changed everything. Boston brought me back to our interconnectedness, a notion or theme linking all my classes this term, a Writing Workshop and Social Class and the Environment. So that’s what I want to talk about. Interconnectedness.
CNN’s feed — such an influence! — compels me to create my own timeline to my emotions:
1. 3PM – 4PM, Monday, April 15: I was in a deluctible bubble, sitting in my warm, safe and bright college office with a student, engaged in an incredible conversation about social justice, environmentalism, writing and creativity, a healthier future we imagined conceivable.
2. 4:10PM: I learned about Boston — the ugly violence, the havoc and instant suffering, the confusion that turned into a tremendous weight — and disbelief.
3. 5:30PM: On the ride home from school, I learned of the cowardly defeat of the gun bill. A heavier darkness set in. The NRA and Washington cowards intent on keeping power, not saving lives, are more powerful then the voices of American citizens. Washington exists outside our American lives.
4. April 17, two days later: The news of the poison letters sent to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss) and President Obama. And the darkness reigned supreme, a suffocating feeling.
The winter winds have begun to change in Vermont. Indifferent clouds race across the skies, the air is lighter — you can smell it — the temperature rising ever so slowly, as it does this time of year. Hints of sun remind us that it’s still there laboring to find its way back to us — finally. Something other then death, destruction and callous indifference has to come our way.
5. April 19, Friday: When one suspect is dead and CNN works to fit into every aspect of the unfolding manhunt, a tropical wind is screaming across Vermont. My chickens had a hard time getting across paddocks, pushing against it, literally going airborne and tumbling when the gusts were incredibly harsh. It all felt surreal, confusing. At some point that night, maybe around 11PM, I learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second Boston marathon bombing suspect, was apprehended.
During the depressing malay, the chants of Boston Strong, the Red Sox game and Neil Diamond, my brain turned to a movie, The Siege, directed by Edward Zwick. This film is about a fictional situation in which terrorist cells make several attacks in New York City. Despite objections, the US President declares marshal law and the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, under Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), occupies and seals off Brooklyn. People of Arab descent are rounded up and detained in Yankee Stadium. New Yorkers stage violent demonstrations against the army and the racial profiling of the Arabs and the Army fights to maintain control.
The Siege, again, a fictional account — I’m compelled to repeat this, just to pinch myself — is not the Boston lock down, but it gave me pause. Is this what we’re facing, our future? Surveillance. Tighter controls, literally and virtually. A military-like presence in our cities. Fiction has been turned into our lives.
Regardless of the ethnicity of the Tsarnaev brothers, they grew up in the United States. In the West, many fundamentalist radicals intent on following terrorist actions are being bread in our communities. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whatever they did to get to that tragic day that colored the Boston marathon with such harshness, had friends in the community. They had family, went to schools like everyone else’s — even excelled. They went to work, too. In other words, they lead American lives in an American community. They were, at one point, normal, as we like to say.
In an interconnected world, everything is possible.
Welcome. This is our world now.
Where do we go from here, knowing what we now know?
I’m a father of 4. I’m a husband. A son. A brother. And I’m a teacher. This Sunday, April 21, my mind is on the Middlebury Women’s Tennis Team: they took the trek to Tufts, in Boston, yesterday, Saturday, because the original trip, a long weekend of matches, first against MIT, then Tufts, was put on hold by the Tsarnaev brothers. Everyone was on tender hooks. With some anxiety, these beautiful, wanting kids took the trip to Boston. They went to do something they love; they went to meet their responsibilities. That’s what we’re called to do. I know they’re safe, but I can’t help thinking of them because they’re young, like my children. Hell, they are my children — they’re all our children. They’re young and innocent working so hard that it sometimes brings me to tears to watch them grapple with our difficult world. Sometimes we cry together.
I feel totally guilty for the world my generation is leaving behind. It’s a world where neighbors can’t trust neighbors; where important people in important positions, graduates of our most elite institutions, can’t be trusted at all. This is the world we’ve given them, the tomorrows colored by a siege scenario. Unacceptable.
All I can say to them, my students, is I love you. I have nothing else, nothing left. How else can you teach any kid anything today? Love and Health are the only curriculum. What we pass along as knowledge and information makes no sense — not to them, not to us. The material I teach, I find almost irrelevant. In the face of Boston — and the Bostons to come — I’m driven to my knees. I’m sorry, yes, I can say that only to them. I know that now. I love you is what I must say to them and show them, let them know that in their time with me, they’ve been loved, unconditionally; that this is love in this heartless universe — so harsh. We’ve become so harsh and reproachful.
Why are we here?
6. April 21, about 1:40: the girls are on the courts at Tufts. Brazilian Girls: Some people want to burn the world with their greed. We just want to have a good time, all the time.
I had to travel some, today, to get to the Brazilian Girls. Given how dark I felt, after morning chores I turned on Al Greene. His Greatest Hits have a way of lifting me — even though my wife, Nina, laughs. You know nothing about music, she says. My son, Devon, agrees. But Nina is in a workshop in NY and I’m a weekend bachelor, left alone with the weight of things. But Love and Happiness — Love will make you do right, make you do wrong, just wasn’t doing anything for me; it existed somewhere else. Love is, Love is walking together, talking together…
Is it? Can it be?
Feeling so alone, I took to cooking. And somewhere between the chili con carne and the lamb (White Dorper, our own) with lentils, and Bonnie Raitt, Used to Rule the World began to lift the veil of darkness. I began to see, slowly, a bit. Brother lovejoy. Yeah, Raitt’s raspy voice, that guitar — she touched my soul, showed me the way, aching. With her cover of Right Down the Line — You know that I need your love, you got that hold on me – I had 3 dishes going simultaneously — the lamb, the chili and a kale and potato soup. And I was moving to Raitt. She was moving me towards light.
Lucidity. The agony of lucidity.
Lucidity is both a gift and a punishment. Lucid comes from Lucifer, the rebellious angel, the Devil. But Lucifer is also the morning star, the first star, the brightest, the last to fade. Lucid comes from Lucifer, Lucifer from Lux and Ferous, meaning that he who has light, who generates light, who brings the light allowing inner vision. Good and Evil together. Pain and pleasure. Lucidity is agony, and the only pleasure we can know, the only pleasure, remotely like joy, is that of being aware of our own lucidity. “The silence of understanding, the silence of merely being. There, the years go by. There, beautiful animal joy went,” said Pizarnik. Brilliant. (Lugares Comunes, Adolfo Aristrain, Director, 2002)
Lucidity is agony. This morning I sent my students a note, just a quote, something to ponder in this extraordinarily blinding world:
Academics who act as ambassadors of the oppressed are no substitute for enduring arrangements that might enable the oppressed to explain themselves and pursue their own interests as they wish … When humanists claim to set aside crude, worldly, practical concerns for the sake of purely ‘philosophical’ inquiry, they actually fall prey to the optical illusion of a pure thinker somehow separate from the world. (Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-first Century, Kurt Spellmeyer, 2003).
I blame myself for the world we have. Us professors, in our elite institutions, have presumed a position that is an illusion: the world is out there, we are somehow living in loftier terrain separate from the world. We have separated people; we have separated ourselves from feeling the world. This false position has created the world we’re in. We’ve failed to describe a world that Don DeLillo gives us in Underworld (1997) where everything is interconnected: the guy making toothpaste and light bulbs is also making nuclear warheads. How do we tell the good from the bad? asks DeLillo.
Our way of life has consequences. Our leisure, our comforts — and discomforts — come at a price; we can’t have what we have unless someone pays. This is what Rob Nixon calls slow violence (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; 2011). Struggles for existence, for human rights, are extraordinarily symbolic — as well as physical (banking; military) and intellectual (ideologies; academia). Thus, the overwhelming force of the West has created cultures of doubt coupled to systems burdened by national debt. It’s not a stretch to imagine the rise of terrorism from here.
Now it’s come home; it comes from us. If we are to enter into this age with meaning — to try to understand our complicity, first, then find a way through — the agony of lucidity must be central, and it begins by recognizing that everything is interconnected, as DeLillo would say; that what happened in Boston is not because of some foreign force, rather it’s, in part, due to our own force, our own blindness in our uses of force, the cataclysmic development of structural violence worldwide.
January 27, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My son just launched a new site featuring his professional photography. Cityspcapes, Sports and Nature, and Bali are great features.
December 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 16 years to get that many views.
December 17, 2012 § 2 Comments
Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.
Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.
There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town – to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.
Why? Why have we come to this?
A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.
But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.
Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?
What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.
Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?
When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.
Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.
Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.
As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.
Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.
We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.
Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.
Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.
From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.
December 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
for Heather and Cheswayo
He said it just like this: “Yo, brother Hector, why don’t you take me under your wing?”
He said it just like that at the end of one of our final classes of the semester. He reached over with his right hand and placed it in mine, and swung his left arm over and embraced me — we embraced.
“Yeah, brother Hector. Mentor me,” he insisted softly. “Mentor me. Why don’t you mentor me? Yeah, I’m serious. Take me under your wing,” he said with a pleasant, endearing grin.
Mentor — having the form of an agent. Latin, monitor — to remember, think, counsel. The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus; allusively, one who fulfills the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus — hence a common noun: An experienced and trusted counselor. Thank you OED.
I’ve been grappling with this word ever since I first heard it in conjunction with my name. The weight of it — the history, the expectations. Homer‘s Odyssey, for god’s sake. How do you fit into those shoes? Kids don’t know the gravity of their questions, the load.
The most difficult challenge for me has been taking jurisdiction over myself and moving my entire being — my sense of self — into feeling that I fit in, anywhere, any time and under any circumstance. Why don’t you take me under your wing? clung to my conscience, a hallowed white wing, outstretched, soft, protective. And I’m looking down on it, spread out over the student’s head, carefully drawing him in, just a wing, an allusive one at that, referencing something implied, as in a life, your life, the student’s life.
Adaptation One. Hands. It was -13 C (9F) the other morning when I did chores — moving sheep from one paddock to the next to continue grazing on fresh grasses even in December, feeding chickens and cleaning their coop, and bottle feeding Sandy, the two-month old Jersey steer, cleaning the barn, leveling the water. They depend on me, I on them. If their lives are good, mine will be too.
If the lives of my students are good, fulfilling, creative lives full of promise — mine will be too. It’s a law of the universe, unspoken but true. This kind of interdependence feeds adaptation, nurtures it. Adaptation requires abandonment, letting go of some aspect of yourself; it’s essential for evolution, for evolving.
Sunlight was barely pushing through weighty blue-gray clouds that morning. The still visible full moon waned. It was going to stay cold. All the signs were there.
I pulled open the barn door, Sandy’s bottle cradled in my left arm. Steam rose from my nostrils when I got out a push and my back creaked a bit down my left side to my waist; a stiffness in a shoulder. The chickens fluttered, jumping off bales of hay. The roosters that sounded off at 4:30 that morning and made me stir turned and faced me with dignified, proud looks, heads raised. I knew exactly where I was, what things would be like on this day because of the way things felt in the barn. I keep time with these creatures– they give me time. It’s a better idea, a better feeling to know where you are, what you need to do and why.
I set out across a tough earth for the paddock gate to move the sheep. An Arctic wind kicked up. It made me tear.
When I got to the fence, I noticed that the earth’s shift to freezing had leaned into a post and the top hinge of the gate had come off its back plate. The gate looked wounded, tired. It snowed a bit the night before, barely a cover — but what had fallen near the gate had seized the bottom rung. The gate was frozen.
The sheep took two steps towards me. I faced them and they took two steps back. I pulled off my gloves so that I could get a better grip on the frozen fence and yanked until it broke lose and I could maneuver the hinge back on the back plate, holding the fence up with one hand, helping the hinge with the other. I had to bare knuckle whack the hinge a few times and in a couple of minutes I had the fence back on. I was winded. Nose running. A finger and a knuckle bled only a tiny bit and I knew, after I licked them, that in a few seconds my system — and the cold — would seal the cuts.
Would there be scars, a record of this event? I wondered.
I noticed my hands. Who is this performing these tasks? Who — or what — is the I in the I? Am I me or some aspect of me that is a part of the spectacle? Perhaps both. Who — or what — will give testimony to my being here? Hands move between reality and fiction, like phantoms.
Philosophers have spoken about the hands. In the documentary, derrida, Jacques Derrida says that what interests him about the eyes is that it’s the part of the body that doesn’t age. “In other words,” says the French Philosopher, “if one looks for one’s childhood, across the signs of aging in the body … one can find one’s childhood in the look of the eyes…Hegel says that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul…But I translate this thought as follows: That one’s act of looking has no age.”
As for the hand, “There is a history of the hand,” says Derrida, “the evolution of man, what we call the hominization of the animal, occurs via the transformation of the hand. I think that it’s not the body of the hand that stays the same, the hand changes from childhood to old age. It is the eye and the hands that are the sights of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it’s very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our hands as they are moving. It’s the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like.”
I look at hands, intensely, fascinated by them because they say a lot about a person’s life, his or her beliefs. The phalanges of both my hands are bent in different directions, particularly the ring finger of my left hand — and I can’t tell you how this happened; the index finger of my right hand won’t close all the way; and I have what’s called a “boxer’s break” in the carpal behind the pinky of my right hand, which happened when I was kneeling before my 6 month old warm blood and he took a step towards me and my pinky jammed up in his powerful chest and he broke it as I tried to hold him back. It’s a break that often happens to boxers. I have what looks like a burn on my left hand, but it was really a saw I use to cut metal that brushed me; and I have a “V” scar there too, beneath it a steal pin holding my wrist together (this came from sports, not farming, another story).
The academic’s hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don’t want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach?
Can a mentor have soft hands? Easy to mould, cut, compress?
Have we left the hand behind in our cultural adaptations? Those among us using their hands at ground level — this is where the hands live, after all, where they’re necessary — how can we understand You, the Other, without become You, entering Your I as our own and abandoning the spectacle that is us? How do I speak to You if I’m not You, You who uses Your hands?
My journey: from what am I going to do with myself ? to the teacher and now to mentor, it’s been impossible for me to feel good about the answers to these questions where and when I’ve been involved. I could have done better.
The other day, I received an email from a young colleague and friend I respect immensely. She wrote to me about her family’s venture, a Wisconsin experiment with 50 grape vines. The family has been winterizing them over a few months, Thanksgiving closing off the project. They use chicken wire around the base and fill these with leaves. The chicken wire has to be strung around each of the 50 vines. She tells me that the “scratches and cuts are beginning to fade on my hands.” I immediately fell totally in love with the “scratches and cuts,” that beautiful image that eventually will “fade.” Irresistible. I don’t want them to “fade” — like an old photograph, a node in life’s road. Her hands would be so lovely, I thought, with a hint of a few scars that named a passage about love and family and growth and beauty. And that, in its course, touched me with such melancholy, brushed against me like that and I ached at the thought of it fading. I had the same feeling when I first read John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale and came to Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self! And then Keats says, Adieu!, which he repeats soon thereafter, Adieu! adieu! they plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side …
Fade, the scars fade but never really go away, do they? Do we all fade like this?
Hands tell us our approximation to love, to life itself. Hands are better then pictures. Van Gogh’s Two Hands. We learn nothing from Facebook, not really, because we leave the hands out. We leave hands out a lot these days — and most of the hands we see are either killing or keeping someone from harms way, embracing an Other who is suffering, distraught. Follow the hands (where they’re pictured, that is) in the 45 most powerful images of 2011 and tell me, what do you see hands doing? What do these hands say about our struggle to Be.
I remember my grandmother’s hands. Worn, working hands. My hands have been compared to hers: round, strong, used — not the hands one associates with turning pages of a book. The problem of the hand is that it resides at ground-level — where hands actually work. Knowledge, economies of scale and technology have created an upside down model where the consumer economy is privileged over all else. Hominization without hands — or is it with unseen hands, unacknowledged hands, hands we don’t want to see? We believe that we are evolving differently and that the hand is somehow secondary. Soft hands have drawn this conclusion. Round and round soft hands go into carefully orchestrated meetings to discuss threats from different epistemologies. We meet to discuss how not to use our hands. We don’t like dirt. We don’t want to get our hands dirty.
Why don’t you take me under your wing? Is this the right question, my brother student? For me to enter the I that is you, we need to be in each other’s hands, spreading our wings together. This is adaptation.
Was it a vision, or a waking dream? We ultimately ask ourselves along with Keats. Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep? Hands always know the answer.
November 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices
and for Jon
I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.
Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?
My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book 1 of his Confessions, speaks to my core: “I alone. I know my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” This is not a conceit. It is. That’s all. It simply is what comes to me after I ask, “Who’s the director of my life?” It comes from not knowing; it’s the feeling of being out of sorts, different. And it may have everything to do with having lived in two very different cultures.
My mother tells me that I’m traveling pathways paved long ago. She tends towards mysticism: my ground was set, she says, between 1294 and 1324, in Monatillou, France, when Pierre Maury shepherded his sheep across the Pyrenees into Spain for wintering. My mother argues that we descend from this Cathar line of heretics. This might account for my rebelliousness, my always ongoing push against any and all constraints; this may account for my disdain for authority, too. It may also suggest why I find myself on a farm raising sheep.
My sister tells me that my entire life has lead to this critical point, and that it has something to do with my immediate past, filled with recollections of my grandfather – ranchero, un campesino in Argentina’s Pampas, and my own father and mother on horseback in the hills and valleys of La Cumbre, Argentina. There are pictures of me sitting on horseback, my mother or my father holding me in the saddle. There’s one of me on a burro, my uncle Julio holding me in place. There are images of me chasing chickens towards my grandmother — then she’d grab one by the neck, whirl it around close enough to my face to touch me, bleed it at my feet, and dunk it in steaming water. We’d feather it together and she’d force my tiny hands into its warm cavity so that I’d pull out its lungs. Seems as if I’ve always had this gentile country life at my back urging me along.
But I still don’t know. I don’t know how or why I’ve come to this place.
I live in Vermont. I teach at Middlebury College. Eighteen or so years ago, when teaching in NYC and our youngest son was in diapers, fast asleep in the car seat, my wife, Nina, and I drove through Middlebury. We were dreaming. And she said to me in our fantastic conversation, “Why can’t you teach here? It’s beautiful.” I replied, “They don’t take people like me here.” Fifteen years later, here I am. Middlebury knocked on my door and asked me to join them — and changed my life in the process.
Who directed whom to what?
I’m not sure why — or even how, still, but here I am on a 47 acre gentleman’s farm (for lack of a better way of saying it) trying to make what to outsiders may look like two lives work. But they’re really one: what I do as a professor in an elite, residential liberal arts college and what I do on my small, always changing farm are one in the same. I can indeed see that much — but little else.
Students always ask, “How did you get here?” When they’re really asking, How does an immigrant from Argentina end up a professor in Vermont? (Student’s questions are never what comes out of their mouths; they’re always looking for something else, more, a deeper inquiry.)
Answer: I don’t know. It just is.
Here’s what I do know. “This is what I have done,” says Rousseau, “what I have thought, what I was … I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false.” It’s good enough for me.
Middlebutry College gave me room to run, a luxurious open field to experiment as a teacher and a scholar – writer, conflating all my interests — technology, teaching, literature and culture and writing. It’s not surprising that the college is in the heart of Vermont — the Middle. Vermont has brought me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of self-reliance:
Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that never took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
From the first moment I read Self-Reliance as an undergraduate, these words have haunted me. My spiritual, American father is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in my mind always decadent, always an aesthete, always the father of American philosophy, something that’s grand and strong, unique, and that gives rise to so much, politically, culturally, and, yes, even technologically in this country. But we may have forgotten this.
I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I’m comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself — that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes.
A Truth: There’s nowhere to hide on a farm. The animals — in my case, sheep, chickens, a cow (the second) — need attending, constantly. I am tied to their cycles, to the always present rhythms of nature. Fall into winter, where we are now, at 9 degrees F this Friday morning, the 30th of November, one week left of regular classes before exams; then dead winter and our January term; it slides into Spring — and the term begins in February; which slides into the bliss of spring, graduation’s anxious joy, and summer and the rest of life. The agricultural calendar and the school’s calendar are strangely in sync. And the rhythms of my body with them both. I adapt and negotiate the life of the farm with the constructed semester and the merciless whim of nature that, like this morning’s Artic blast, is indifferent to my freezing fingers, even under thick gloves.
No matter what Nature presents — Nature + the Human Hand, that is — I have to be out there, inside it, learning, making choices, adjusting moment – to – moment, staring into the eyes of my animals — the chickens, the ewes and their lambs, the cow — to see what they’re telling me about how they want to live. They depend on me — I them.
My wife says that all animals thrive under my hand. My sense of things is that I’m merely responding to what they’re asking of me. It began long ago, it seems now.
We had horses long ago — 4. This was when our daughter, a great equestrian from a very young age, rode; she did dressage at college, too, competing and doing quite well in the NCAA’s. But like all children, she moved on and I was left a groom to 4 very large horses — a Belgian draft (17.2 hands), a draft-cross, looking like a warm blood (17 hands), and two other draft-crosses, a paint (15 hands or so) and a cross with a black like the night Percheron (15 hands, too).
Horses are a unique animal. They’re a flight animal: when they scare they fly. But they’re social, too, and want to trust. A huge horse, like my Belgian, can feel the touch of a fly on his rump. The horse is sensitive; it needs to be approached quietly, slowly but with a kind of strength and security that it can trust. Much like students. If a teacher is too agressive, the student flies away, literally and figuratively. To get to where the heart is, which is all that matters in teaching, really, particularly if we’re wanting students to be self-actualizing citizens, we have to proceed with great imagination, treading lightly, finding our way in their worlds — but with strength, a secure touch and resolve. A horse is like this. I listen better because of my horses. I see better too — perhaps because I spent years learning the horse’s language, the twiching, the movement of the ears, the eyes.
My teaching and my farming have expanded together — and become one. My education is pretty traditional. I have a PhD in American and English Literature from NYU. I wrote my dissertation on Henry James and aesthetic decadence — and Emerson featured heavily. But mysteriously, adaptively, I teach classes in literature, composition, education studies and, now, environmental studies. I’ve been teaching since 1985, and have done so in poor schools, rich schools, private schools, public schools; I’ve been fortunate enough, given the kind of academic work I’ve done, to have spent time with students in every single grade, K-16, and graduate students. I’ve done projects, assignments, courses in each and every level. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly; it has forced me to learn — a lot — from various disciplines, which is usually not the norm for a college professor that, even as far back as undergraduate studies, s/he works in silos.
I, on the other hand, can argue that Emerson really begins the technological revolution we’re experiencing today; it could have happened no place else but here, in the USA. What does this mean? It means that my life, as I see it and understand it, has been a series of adjustments — call these adaptations. Adaptation is how we all evolve.
In The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha contends that, “Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the boundaries of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”
Don’t we feel this? Don’t we feel this “living on the boundaries” of this or that, “in the moment of transit” and complexity, so much so that we’re unsure of our centers?
The farm centers me. I understand that now. It protects me. I’ve abandoned myself to its life, its subtle language. It’s more powerful and significant then I am. But it’s hard, very hard. ”Let’s face it,” says Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved, “Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay … You don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”
Almost a year ago this coming January, Franky, our Holstein, had to fulfill its promise.
The hand-raised, docile steer — all 750 beautiful lbs — is feeding our family, others too, friends and so on.
That was the mission, the goal: what can we produce to sustain ourselves, while looking to sustain others? What can we do organically, working with the land’s language, learning it, and letting it help us use it, but making sure we were nurturing it?
These questions were our early business plan, a design for a different future. I was trading in my Henry James for Wendell Berry and Joel Salitin, for Ben Hewitt that, up here in Vermont, is showing us how we can change, how we can live embracing a fortified self-reliance.
Sustainability requires we come into dialog with death. Eventually, it comes. It has to. Death is always present on the farm; it’s always also present in life outside of the farm, too, but we have so many distractions — particularly those mediated ones that profit from death, cover death, excite us through images of death — to help us repress this most creative of realities about life. Life is death. When we look at the fast-moving hands of a clock, is not that a reminder of the end of things? When we look at photographs taken yesterday, a month ago, several years ago, are these not meant to excite memories of a time lost, gone, left behind? In museums, what are we looking at?
The notion that we have to abandon one thing for another, constantly, is something I’ve come to accept. The challenge is to not abandon yourself and keep to a view, a wide view.
On the day of his death, I slowly walked Franky out of his stall. I had him on a rope halter and he looked at me playfully, as he’d done thousands of times before when we played in one of the paddocks. I’d chase him. He’d stop and face me. We’d challenge each other. He’d half – charge, as if he knew his power would certainly crush me. Eventually he’d settle and I’d sratch his huge head, the one that I would eventually carry to the back of our property and bury in the cold.
In January it will be a year since we put him down. We’ve enjoyed him immensely since. “Go get Franky,” we say to each other when we want a cut of him waiting in the freezer in the basement. We say, “Thank you, Franky,” when he graces our table. Franky was the first. It’s taken me a year, almost, to write about this, to come to terms with how I feel about what we’re doing, but on the day of his death, I was okay. It was natural, a course that he and I were on. We both had a purpose; there was order; we’d helped each other — and he was going to carry on, help all of us through.
I slowly walked him into the barrel of gun. In a split second it was over and we were raising him up to prepare him for the butcher.
I put my hands inside him; it was warm, soothing. As he hung there, I was in awe of his beauty, his mass, his gift to us. This is what moved me to look deeply into his dead eyes that were once so playful. I wanted to reach for him, thank him, tell him, Gracias hombre. Like that, in Castellano, like my campesino grandfather must have done before me — and before, his father, and before that, Pierre. Backwards and forwards like that, the same human action, the same human urge to produce, to nurture, to sustain inside the cycle of an indifferent nature. Ironic. How indifferent nature is to our wailing at windmills is always ironic. In such irony, the most intimate relationships, even with an animal — or perhaps especially with an animal — are what matter most. There’s the possibility of changing anything with intimacy.
I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real — life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted.
November 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I told you so.
It’s not a hospitable way to begin this piece and draw your attention, but I just had to say it . I told you so.
In “Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election,” written June 23, 2011, I said that, “the state and the corporation are the main sponsors and coordinators of an ‘unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalitarian tendencies, powers that not only challenge established boundaries — political, moral, intellectual, and economic — but whose nature it is to challenge those boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself,’ says Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.”
Here we are again, debating tax reform, taxation of the rich and entitlements. Mitch McConnell is still obstructing by any means necessary. Paul Ryan is still showing his colors, suggesting that they lost the election because “too many Blacks voted.” Too many? And Mitt Romney, acutely blind to what happened, before, during and now after the election, insists, speaking to the LA Times, that Obama won the election because he gave Big Gifts to Latinos and Blacks.
The rest of us, meanwhile, exhausted, are looking optimistically for a compromise. Sound familiar? Have we been here before?
In Obama we’ve chosen a kind of struggle that will work only be degrees, slowly, gradually — yet not alter the state of affairs at all. Romney wanted to drastically change everything and place a perverse oligarchy at the helm. With Obama, we’ll fix a tire here, a spark plug there, a belt, a carburetor — but the fact that the system is fundamentally flawed is not going to be addressed. Remember: I told you so. And I’m telling you now.
On January 28, 2012, looking at this system keen on manufacturing illusion as its primary feature, I wrote “Vero Beach, Florida and the Manufacturing of Consciousness: How the GOP Will Give Obama a Victory in 2012“, and said :
Vero Beach is the American Paradox: the extraordinary cost of creating and maintaining such lavishness and the economic drain of a lifestyle that is characterized by total mechanization, as the pudgy elderly try to stave off the inevitable by walking and biking, their lives well kept by Latinos and some, very few, African Americans usually found behind counters at Publix markets, gas stations and sanitation trucks. The divide is the evolution of manifest destiny that has assumed a contemporary look and feel.
We can hear Karl Rove’s grandiosity; we can also see the denial of the changing face of the American electorate: younger, bolder, Latino, women, the LGBT community, and African Americans that are now looking for Obama, their president, to address their ills in more concrete ways then he did his first go ’round. Privilege is indeed blinding. The GOP never saw it coming.
But things have changed. And we have to help things change even further.
Robert Wolf, Obama’s top Wall Street ally, says that the rich can tolerate tax hikes. As reported by Andrew Rosenthal, in The New York Times, Bill Kristol, the stalwart conservative of the Weekly Standard, has endorsed raising taxes.
So immediately following the election — and the devastation from Sandy that brought so many together in a dramatic tableau of self-reliance — we have reason to, well, hope for change. But don’t get carried away. As Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion, our best and the brightest are educated, by our elite instutions, to be mechanics, not change agents — fix this or that, never changing the system; the status quo is accepted. It’s how we roll in America — and why we’re fat, too.
What do we have wrong? What do we have to change?
For me, this can only be done through education, a creative struggle with ideas, difficult ideas, challenging ideas that are, if they’re to be effective, questioning the status quo and offering alternatives. We need to work to transgress. We have to re-examine what we mean by “progress” and, likewise, we have to conflate our sense of it with what we “value”; in the journey, we have to look back and try to also define “virtue” and “virtuous action,” the keys to any foundation that is looking to move to new and better ways of living. These are the road to happiness.
So let’s turn to our socioeconomic challenges, first, since these are on everyone’s mind. Please run to your local bookstore and, whether you’re on the right or the left or somewhere in-between, pick up a copy of Bill Ivey’s Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy. Read it. Then let’s have an educated discussion about who we want to be.
But if we’re going to do this, as Ivey says, we have to first accept that our values have been corrupted by consumption; this is why the constant affirmation of growth has lead us to a precipice — the so called fiscal cliff. (I can already hear the claims of “socialist”! from folks I know.) Here, listen:
Americans have been converted; we’ve internalized market values. We experience consuming as a liberating activity, strong enough to at times present the illusion of social rebellion. ‘Freedom’ is no longer a condition defined by the absence of debt and envy. Instead, modern-day advertising has transformed freedom into a central tenet of consumerist ideology.
This is called “Freedomism,” says Ivey: “the sentiment that allows buyers to somehow believe that the purchase of a new SUV is a ticket to the great outdoors, when the real effect is a hefty installment loan and the inevitable truth that to service the debt, one must work more hours, inside, at a desk.” Thus, “the transformation of every facet of human activity into marketable product in the end conflates money and meaning.”
We got to this place because we’ve been blind to the idiocy of growth, the notion that if we just expand, buy more, create more stuff, we’ll somehow buy our way out of our socioeconomic woes. In this world the Corporation is viewed as a positive “fixture of America’s democracy,” says Ivey. It happened gradually, but we accept the Corporate Ideological Apparatus and its insistence on the illusion of growth.
Grow where, though? How?
Look around: the earth’s resources are dwindling; we are being lead to believe that because we’ll be drilling our own fossil fuels, becoming less reliant on the Middle East for production, we’ll be better off. But here’s another I told you so: if you think that somehow this is going to change anything — price at the pump, price of heating oil, nurse the environment — you’re dreaming because, in the end, whether we drill, baby, here or there, this fossil resource is dwindling, too. It’s scarce any way we cut it. The costs, I tell you, will be higher. Watch.
The way to turn this around is in yet another source: Bill McKibben, my colleague and
friend, in his Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future argues that More does not necessarily mean better. There are three fundamental challenges to the notion of growth, says Bill (it’s worth citing all):
One is political: growth, at least as we now create it, is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress. This is both the most common and the least fundamental objection to our present economy … By contrast, the second argument draws on physics and chemistry as much as on economics; it is the basic projection that we do not have the energy needed to keep the magic going, and can we deal with the pollution it creates? The third argument is both less obvious and even more basic: growth is no longer making us happy. These three objections mesh with each other in important ways; taken together, they suggest that we’ll no longer be able to act wisely, either in our individual lives or in public life, simply by asking which choice will produce More.
I dare say that this is, in fact, true, particularly if we go back and look at what I said, above, and examine the relationships between “progress,”"value,” and “virtuous action” and Happiness. In this exercise, it’s incumbent upon us, as civilized humans, to examine Happiness for all, not just for the few. How can we work to create environments of Happiness, which could, in turn, be very different for different people?
To answer this question, we have to turn to another source, Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. In Nixon’s words,
…we can recognize that the structural violence embodied by a neoliberal order of austerity measures, structural adjustment, rampant deregulation, corporate megamergers, and a widening gulf between rich and poor is a form of covert violence in its own right that is often a catalyst for more recognizably overt violence…[an] insistence that the systematic burdens of national debt to the IMF and World Bank borne by many so-called developing nations constitute a major impediment to environmental sustainability…To talk about violence, then, is to engage directly with our contemporary politics of speed.
If we then conflate our “contemporary politics of speed” with the illusion of growth, we have our perfect storm, our current state of affairs that, following Ivey, McKibben, and now Nixon, create vast disparities between us, exciting an air of negative competition that seeks to outdo someone else — the Other — for my selfish benefit only.
But, finally, there is an answer — missed by the GOP during the election, noticed by the Obama campaign, but, yet, it’s still living in a kind of fog, just out there at our fingertips, waiting to be noticed and appreciated for its, yes, mathematical accuracy: DIVERSITY. Not growth, but diversity will give us the future.
We thus turn to Scott E. Page’s The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. (Here is Page speaking on leveraging diversity.) Page tells us that, “Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores.” This is a challenge for a society that “prizes individual talent and achievement”:
Diversity is a property of a collection of people — a basket with many kinds of fruit. Diversity and ability to complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple … We should encourage people to think differently. Markets create incentives to be different as well as to be able, but perhaps not to the appropriate level. We have to do more.
Page goes on to prove his thesis mathematically and logically; it’s undeniable — except to the GOP that lead Romney to defeat and continues to deny the very real diversity evident in our election results. Notice, too, that critical interdisciplinary work is an essential component that will excite market-driven diversity, since we’ll need people who are not necessarily smarter then you and me, but rather, people who actually can address a problem by thinking differently. Mathematically, Page shows us that a group of diverse thinkers in a room can actually solve problems more efficiently, faster and more creatively.
What does this mean?
The challenge for politics, for instance, is that the same people are always in the room: corporate spokespersons parading as senators and congress people; we impose, on the poor, for instance, how they should live, rather then asking them, at the seminar table, what solutions they see; we impose on teachers standardization, across the board, without asking teachers to contribute to their profession; and, likewise, we impose, then, structural imperatives on students without asking students how they learn, how they go to school, what challenges they face in this community or that community.
In other words, the challenge today is far more complex — and subtle; it’s about understanding our diversity, acknowledging that what we may be doing in the name of growth isn’t better — and it hurts many, many people.
In this long piece (sorry), I am compelled to leave you with a shocking, 1991 confidential World Bank memo, written by the esteemed Lawrence Summers, and found in Nixon’s Slow Violence, that actually demonstrates all I’ve said; it’s the ultimate I told you so :
I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country impeccable and we should face up to that … I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles … Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?
Don’t be shocked by this, not if you’ve read Empire of Illusion. Summers served as the 71st US Secretary of the Treasury, from 1999-2001, under Bill Clinton; he was Director of the White House US National Economic Council for President Barack Obama; he is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; and, he’s the recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal for his work in several fields of economics. Summers also served as the 27th President of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006 (he resigned after a vote of “no-confidence.”) And he received his S.B. from MIT in 1975 and his PhD, from Harvard, in 1982.
I mention all this, even though I link to it, because, if you’re reading this and got this this point, you have to ask yourself: What are we breeding in our institutions? And, how is it that thinking like Summers’ lands a man a job at the right had of the President of the USA, in this case, two Democratic Presidents?
See, I told you so. How do you want to live? How well are we doing in our pursuit of Happiness?
October 28, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’m feeling a bit depressed coming into the final weeks of the election — then I saw Barry Blitt’s incredible New Yorker cover in the October 29 & November 5, 2012 issue and I went over the edge. I’m feeling as if a dark, ominous cloud is over my head, a weighty thing. Something heavy is in my soul.
In Blitt’s cartoon we see an overwhelming Romney, eyes shut, complascent, sitting erect. His left arm is being tattooed. All his major issues are being crossed over: Pro-Choice, Tax Cuts, Immigration, Stem Cells, 47%, Romney Care, Outsourcing.
Framing this rather ironic scene are a clipper ship, Caymen or Bust!; a top hat fat with dollar bills; a SEVERLY CONSERVATIVE GOP elephant; a heart: ANN, but of course; hands shaking on the $10,000 BET; CORPORATIONS ARE PEOPLE; BINDERS OF BABES; the infamous 5 -POINT PLAN to nowhere; and, of course, with his head cut off at the upper right-hand corner, DADDY, SIR! — an anxiety, much as W had for HIS DADDY.
The cover depressed me because it signifies a recipe for a dangerous freefall into old fashioned oligarchy and tyranny manufactured by the Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Ayn Rand myth-making machinery hell-bent on destroying how this country came about through gradual growth and social protective legislation, once understanding that we are all bound together in this democratic — and humane — experiment. This is what we mean by community and moderation. Growth is moderate.
Blitt portrays a slithery Romney — immoral, elitist, self-righteous, and willing to sacrifice anyone, particularly the young, the poor and the old and the infirmed, the white workers who follow him though Romney’s career shows he’s always taken their work away in order to promote himself. Romney has profitted from others’ suffering. This history is crystal clear. Let’s be hard on China while he’s made over 13 million dollars by selling US jobs to the Chinese. To the victor belongs the spoils — and they’re in the Cayman Islands. That’s what we want? A carpetbagger?
What does Romney stand for, asks Blitt? How do we perceive him? What’s he done?
The best answer came in another Blitt cartoon, this one in The New Yorker’s October 1, 2012 issue. An elegant and indifferent Romney, sitting on a great white stallion, is driven, by his stately groomsman, to the edges of Washington, D.C. — the disconnected elites, that 1%, are encroaching without a care in the world. They will continue on their journey — million dollar dressage horses and an aloofness spray painted by a lack of empathy for anyone that’s not like them. This is why Tagg Romney wanted to punch President Obama after the final Presidential debate. These people respect no one.
Where are we? What kind of a country do we have?
I’ve come to see that we are in an age of transition where old forms of thinking and living are slowly and reluctantly giving way to more humane ways. This movement is happening everywhere around the world. But what is most depressing — and quite obvious — is that in the US, a reluctance to accept this change means hostility and anger and what is quickly emerging is the legacy of Slavery — Romney – Ryan as plantation owners.
The Plantation Economic Model lives on. First, as I said above, there’s Tagg’s incredibly disrespectful desire to punch the president; second, there’s Donald Trump’s calling for Obama’s college record; and, third, there’s the most flagrant comment made by John Sununu on CNN: “When you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama.” Isn’t that racial profiling? Sununu doesn’t leave it there: “I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”
Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, “My party if full of racists.” The GOP, with Romney-Ryan-Rand at the helm, is completely racist. The evidence is overwhelming. Powell and Wilkerson are soldiers, having taken an oath to fall on their swords, as Powell did for Bush – Cheney when, before the UN, said that we had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, clearly and, even by then, when he made that statement, we knew that this was not true. Powell is loyal. He fell on his sword. These guys tell it like it is.
Many around Obama, particularly those that are close to him, don’t want to go here and deflect the race question. But isn’t that the point, the central issue of the election if we follow Tag’s disrespect, Trump’s clear rascism, wanting to have more evidence of his president’s authenticity, and Sununu: the most powerful office in the world is held by a man of mixed race?
It’s as if Obama had suddenly risen to be the first mixed race owner of an NFL franchise — this one called America. It’s unacceptable. Field hands, even those earning 40 Million Dollars, stay on the field.
Obama, I’d argue, to his detriment, has not done well in addressing Race in America. He’s paying the price now, especially in Florida where the Republican lead legislature has cut early voting days, which benefitted Obama in the last election, from 14 days to 8 days. Similar legislation — and obfuscation — abounds in other states. It’s an all out attempt to make it difficult for African-Americans, Latinos and the disenfranchised to vote.
Where does this come from, if not from ye olde grand days of southern plantation owner supremacy?
Now, to fully get depressed, place on top of the race problem the continued Romney support of Tea Party-backed Republican Richard Murdock who declared that he was against abortion even in the event of rape because it’s a “gift from God”; Joe Walsh, another Tea Party – backed Republican Representative of Illinois, who opposed abortion even in cases where the life of the mother is in danger, saying, “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance” in which a woman would not survive without abortion, though doctors and researchers have agressively come out against this statement; and, all this in the wake of Representative Todd Aikin, Senate hopeful of Missouri, who said that pregnancy as a result of “legitimate rape” is rare because “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down”: what do you have?
We have one racist, anti inalienable rights, hostile to self-reliance and social justice — and social mobility — GOP.
I’m totally depressed because many Americans are choosing to vote for a slick carpetbagger, an opportunist on the grandest scale, forgetting that US History tells us that our progress and work towards Democracy is slow, arduous, full of potholes, which is why we need social protective legislation that helps us, together, help each other. That’s Obama’s Forward, looking back to a poignant history — and not Romney’s future, an America ruled by oligarchs.
The 2nd Presidential Debate and the Return of West Side Story: Obama’s Sharks 1, Romney’s Jets 1 and the American People –1
October 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Many times during last night’s second presidential debate, from Hempstead, Long Island, NY, I found myself laughing. I realized that I’d seen this before — been there, done that. When some guy would come up to me and say something I didn’t like, blow up his chest, push up against me, there we went, bare knuckled, toe-to-toe. These testosterone years traveled foggy memories last night.
Whether at the schoolyard or the athletic field, boys are asked to never back down, push up against someone else and have it out. This was last night’s second debate. Short on substance, long on cockfighting, and the American public is still left wondering what the next four years will look like.
Last night’s debate reminded me of West Side Story. Romney’s Jet persona trying to counter Obama’s Shark attack.
There wasn’t much more besides entertainment. Obama spent his time aggresively defending his territory — his record — and pushing Romney into corners — “That’s not the truth.”
Romney spent his 90 minutes in campaign slogan- land, sound bites reminiscent of graffiti on a wall. No substance, just smoke and mirrors. Romney is vulnerable on foreign policy, education and health care, the environment — drill baby drill — and, most of all, he’s vulnerable in the area he says he’s the strongest, the economy. He’s a Jet running for cover because he can’t explain why his plan won’t drive the debt even higher; his reluctance to explain, in detail, what cuts he’ll make to grow the economy, something he repeats constantly, suggests two things: (1) the loopholes will be far greater for the 1%, who will keep more of their income, while payment for this Reaganesque travesty will be paid for by (2) cutting all sorts of programs, from early childhood education, social welfare programs that are, already, barely keeping people afloat, and the dismantling of public education. Thus, Romney’s plan is to be carried by the middle and lower classes in America — beautiful.
What was laughable, last night, was that as both men played the Jets and the Sharks facing off, we still remain in the dark with no clear understanding of where we’re going.
Romney is slippery: he’ll say anything to appease anyone so as to be able to be on top. Is this how he’ll handle the Tea Party? He lies, this is obvious; nothing makes sense because he’s unsure who he needs to appease. Obama, likewise, doesn’t supply us with much, other then we need to stay the course; however, he doesn’t tell us how he’ll try to address congressional gridlock, for starters, a condition that will be twice as problematic should he win again and the layout of congress remains the same.
Obama has been weak on immigration, we know that; he’s been weak on addressing the needs of the poor, particularly poor Blacks who are reluctant to put his feet to the fire, though he continues to depend heavily on them. Obama’s race problem began early on in his administration, as chronicled by Naomi Klein in Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks, and the “Post-Racial” Presidency, covering the Durban II conference, in Geneva, that focused on reparations for American Blacks:
If Obama traced the Wall Street collapse back to the policies of redlining and Jim Crow, all the way to the betrayed promise of forty acres and a mule for freed slaves, a broad sector of the American public might well be convinced that finally eliminating the structural barriers to full equality is in the interests not just of minorities but of everyone who wants a more stable economy.
This has not been Obama’s interest and poor communities of color continue to decline; this, too, is evident in education that, while Romney wants to fast track privatization, Obama’s Race to the Top merely wants to go at the same thing quietly, slowly.
Education and health care are one issue, not two; they’re inextricably linked. Without equal access to each, for everyone, we continue to exist in a bifurcated society where some win and some lose. The most significant example of this was last night’s West Side Story face-off in Hempstead, L.I., where, outside of the tight Hofstra University luxury, Blacks continue to spiral downward and the streets are held by central American gangs, the El Sal Salvador MS-13. It’s West Side Story all over again.
It’s a circus alright. Only we’re the clowns being taken for a mysterious journey into unknown — but divided — territory. What will the U.S. look like in four years? Where will we be, given that we have such daunting challenges, nationally and internationally? Romney’s Jets live on slogans and Obama’s Sharks attack the same and provide no middle ground, thus no vision.
I’m laughing because I can’t cry anymore.
October 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
October 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Following the first presidential debate, I asked friends, “What do you think?”
Response: “We survived Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes — we can survive Romney.”
This is the sense of things today — survival. This is the outcome of an American Political System where the select win, the rest of us are left to survive. It’s a tragic truth that defines what is arguably the most perfect socioeconomic system in the world, ours: it controls, manages and induces people through the mindless insistence that what’s happening in front of our faces, on screens, is reality; it pushes, not ideas, dialog, negotiation and collaboration, but rather, sound bites, jingoes, and substanceless generalizations. It’s all about the performance, the sense that we’re watching an end product; the powerful punditry that critiques the acting — all the world’s a stage — then submits a critique of the unnatural surface structure.
The most profound evidence for this argument — that we have the most efficient form of capitalism tied to the illusion of democracy — can be found in the ever holy polls. The best example I found happened the other night on the PBS Newshour where Margaret Warner talks to the Rothenberg Political Report’s Stu Rothenberg, USA Todays’s Susan Page and Pew Research Center’s Any Kohut about the latest elections polls coming out of the first presidential debate.
Polling is not about a deep inquiry into an issue; instead, polls question only the surface action, the performance, basing their questions on image — the one liners, the sound bite, the images of the candidates, the “battles” in debates. In other words, polls measure Americans’ reactions to the glitz, the buzz, the immediate. Polls are about instant gratification scheduled to begin right after an event.
Susan Page, of USA Today, for instance, speaking with Margaret Warner on the PBS News Hour, said that, “the Romney camp understands that he needs to be seen as a credible commander in chief if he’s going to be elected president. There’s a bar he needs to get over there.” This is pollster talk: bar to get over, needs to be seen are suggestive of what the poll will ask after the second debate. There’s nothing here about the historical value and insight of the policy, this is because what comes out of a candidate’s mouth is a cascade of over generalizations meant to create a caricature, not a thinking individual grappling with subtlety.
In-between the first and the second debate, Romney, to appease the testosterone – laden, NFL-like politics of America, needs to show that he’s a man; that he will command and shape history using the most powerful force in the world. That no one asks whether this is imperialism and neo-colonialism on steroids is lost on me; that no one asks how we’re going to pay for this muscle flexing, and the aftermath, is also confusing given that the state of our union is directly related to the Bush-Cheney muscle flexing, and their looking the other way as banks pillaged our village. And that no one asks about what we will say to the thousands that are surely to lose lives as we expand our need to control history by force, well then, this too is very confusing.
This reality demonstrates the perfect congruence of baseless, narrow politics, media and technological power, and how pollsters actually work in support of both, creating narratives that suit television and social media that will suit the unfocused American public that wants no pain, only a pill that will fix this — an easy answer. Polls give us easy, immediate answers; they help cast a black and white narrative that anyone more focused on the NFL and the Kardashians can understand. Only the world doesn’t work this way. Our problems are deep and complex, requiring a nuanced approach.
Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, also talking to Margaret Warner, said, about Romney, that “people say he’s the candidate with new ideas. He ties Obama now on the — for strong leader, when a couple of weeks ago and when we did our September survey, it was Obama who was seen as a strong leader.” How viewers can change their minds after a single event suggests how uniformed — how unconscious? — the American voter actually is. And then to actually say that Romney is the candidate with new ideas seems like a delusion of epic proportions since Romney spoke about policies that were Reagan’s on steroids, for starters — nothing new: deregulate, open it all up to anyone, cancel out or carve out the cost of this on the backs of existing programs, including education, early childhood education, social services and Medicare. This is not new — nothing here is new; it’s been tried, but Obama’s more nuanced argument couldn’t get through the thick wall of pollsterism, the narrative consistent with image and the hunger for an easy black and white narrative.
And even though Romney contradicted everything he’s said prior to the first debate, Stu Rothernberg, of The Rothenberg Political Report, told Warner that the debate made “Romney more likeable, and the leadership is really strong,” meaning that as long as we imagine we see, on the surface of things, the sense of a constructed strength that comes to us through mediated sports, movies, songs, etc., we’re comfortable — even though the moral underpinnings of the individual are questionable, even though his past business practices are highly questionable, and even though there has always been an issue of trust concerning Romney that confounds us all. Who is this man? Polls, focused on performance, removed this question from the electorate. I’d argue that this is extraordinarily immoral.
In the end, pollsters are not asking how moral it is that we may be heading towards a government intent on building its economy on the backs of the disenfranchised and needy — a plantation model; pollsters are not asking about the ethics of a militarism that expands US imperialism in a big way rather then negotiating, which will certainly create more enemies; and pollsters are not addressing the very large education crisis we have that fails to address how children go to school, particularly in communities where the cycle of poverty has stifled social mobility.
Solutions, from either candidate, are slim, though we see the slow, hard road ahead that Obama paints, something we can actually sink our teeth into, regardless of how we feel about his change mantra of 2008, a moment, like this one, that no one asked about how to change. We went along because we were desperate after Bush – Cheney; we went along because we’re always in the position of having to survive the idiocies of our elected spokespersons for special interests. We’re short on ideas, wedded to imagery, which means we have to, once again, embrace our beleaguered image of the dying person crawling to a distant oasis — perhaps a mirage, after all.
October 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This is exactly what I’m talking about, what I blogged yesterday, below, and if you pay close attention you’ll note two things: (1) how much like the previous night’s debate this is, only under better control and (2) how the GOP’s side really doesn’t have numbers — and ideas — that add up, unless, of course, you do it on the backs of the middle class and the poor. This is indeed frightening, especially once you add the social constraints that want to be imposed — same sex marriage, women’s right to choose, and so on …
October 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
The real winners of Wednesday night’s first Presidential Debate were President Obama and former Governor Romney. I have to say that. They win — a tie. And we lose. Last night’s debate is a perfect mirror of who we are, what we’ve become.
And in this America, defined for us last night, we, the people, were left wondering what’s going on? Where are we? Where exactly are we going? We’re still left wondering who these people are and, given our challenges, how are we going to approach an equitable future where everyone has their shoulders to this daunting wheel we need to push up this steep hill?
Obama and Romney, no matter who is president, will forever be absolutely fine, sailing a prosperous wind to posterity. The rest of us, as it’s been made clear by both Obama and Romney, will hold them up — as we’ll hold up others, too, that have their grip on the socioeconomic reins that pave our future and may deny our dreams.
In the middle of this circus, adding to the confusion, the media insisted on covering the debate as if we were watching the NFL or a boxing match, looking for zingers — body blows, as one commentator called them. Mark Shields, on PBS, actually went as far as using boxing terminology — who won what round — to bring the debate’s substance to light. Who’s ahead now? What will the polls say? The sports metaphors — all of which are place holders for a confused American masculinity — abound, but without substance; these metaphors are kept alive only to bolster a narrative that is not about us, the American people, but about them. The debate was a splendid picture of a divided America — one that’s confused, even desperate and longing, the other that demands, confines, privileges.
History could have a lot to say about this, but it’s being left out as a framing device that’s essential for us to to be able to contextualize what each man is — and is not — saying about the role of government. This, after all, is at the heart of the election, at the heart of ideologies that are always warring in America. How much government do we need? For those that need a hand, those that are struggling, how big should that hand be? And how should it be applied? Who will determine when enough is enough?
The debate about the government’s role began with the Federalist Papers, a document that is the foundation of this country but which no American has actually ever read — unless you’ve studied American Government in college or gone to law school or graduate school in political science. This magnificent document is left solely to those people that have to read it. Yet, America’s current ideological struggles begin and end with the Federalist Papers, a sweeping work that defines our character, our principles — and not our ideologies.
Ideologies have come about because of bipartisan rancor; they come about when politicians need to conceal the true engine of government — money and who controls the purse strings. In our case, the purse strings are not held by politicians we elect; rather, they’re held, in a broken system, by those that fund the careers of politicians and demand that they receive something in return. This is why, when we need to know what’s going on, we get two adults that don’t know how to speak the truth.
The end result is the debate we just witnessed — a listless encounter between two men that are nearly saying the same thing. The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is but a sliver; the difference, defined by the extreme right, is being made more evident solely by misguided social concerns that, when you think about it, is the most egregious infiltration by government into our private lives. Nowhere in the Federalist Papers do we see such a desire — and need — to enter into the private lives of citizens, yet extremist fundamentalists want it this way. Go figure.
Both men will use government to cut taxes (Romney and Obama) and create some revenue (Obama); both men will use government to regulate, differing only by degrees; both men agree that health care is a problem, and in last night’s debate Obamacare became Romneycare; both men also agree that education has challenges, Romney opting for vouchers and charters, Obama for bolstering public education and charters — both plans disastrous and failing to see some real urgent problems, such as ridiculously bogus teachers, a lack of resources, standardization, and the effects (this data from science and medical research) of poverty on the minds of children; and, both men agree that a strong military is essential, particularly as demands in the world continue to challenge our readiness in cyberspace, clandestine operations and special forces. We’re nowhere new.
So where are we?
We’re in the same Bush-Cheney era, showing us how damaging it is to follow this uncreative path: drone strikes will continue, as will clandestine operations, as will the support of Israel, even when hawks rule this policy; poverty will increase as either man’s broad, even ambiguous statements pursue a line that’s been always ongoing, business first, the rest will just have to come along, picking ourselves up by our bootstraps — sink or swim; education’s achievement gap will widen, as some kids will have better access to better teachers and creative uses of technology, others will whither; health care costs will increase as America continues to increase its girth, beers in hand, pop corn on the lap, chips flying into our wide open mouths, watching the NFL, which is far more important to us (witness the outcry during the referee strike) then how we’re going to get along, move forward, and provide a future that is healthy, safe and creative.
Prevention, whether its preventive health practices, a preventive, inclusive educational system that conflates socioeconomic needs, the environment and health care with self-actualization, an energy policy that prevents further deterioration and that doesn’t sustain us, because that’s now impossible, but rather begins to learn how to live with the disasters we’ve created, offering up creative, technologically rich solutions, is out of the question. Not even on the radar for Obama and Romney. Frankly, it’s disgusting.
Both men failed at describing, concretely, how we’re going to pay for the mess we’re in — except to say that the middle class is going to be burdened, either way; we’re the ones who will lose footing, while some, granted, will gain something or other, though very little and will always be looking over their shoulders wondering when it’s all going to cave in. But it’s safe to say, in either man’s rather nebulous picture of the American Future, the ideological lines of demarcation will be greater, the fallout more dramatic, the result being two, maybe even three unrecognizable Americas. Nothing like this was foreshadowed in the Federalist Papers. Nothing. A selfish ambition, rather then ambition tempered by ambition, which is what Hamilton said, is killing us.
We don’t know where we are, in then end, nor where we’re going, except that it looks bleak.
September 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Scenarios for Teaching Writing is a one semester long (12 wks) course in the Education Studies Program at Middlebury. It is supported by Middlebury’s Education in Action, The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Dean of the College. It is also supported by Middlebury alumni and parents of current Middlebury students, all of whom reside in New York and provide housing for Middlebury students. And it’s supported by Media and Communications High School. What makes this collaboration possible is the idea that education requires responsibility; that what we learn and how we learn have to be shared, particularly with K-12 partners; and that education has to be thought of as a K-16 continuum since the challenges we face as a society – early education, on one end, and an ongoing commitment to continue an education, on the other – have to guide us towards creative solutions. Scenarios for Teaching Writing is one small step in this direction, modeling a living classroom struggling to create byways for self-actualization.
September 16, 2012 § 6 Comments
The Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a perfect storm without solutions: teachers are unhappy about stringent evaluation methods that rely solely on data, the Board of Education wants to determine the best qualified teachers by linking teacher performance to student (tested) performance, and politicians, realizing that American education is, at best, woeful, are feeling the pinch and want to increase standards, particularly given the rising cost of education. Not sure how to do this, politicians hammer at collective bargaining. And all this is agitated by a media hell bent on reporting on the process, unable to locate the right questions that will get us to the origins of the problem. Caught in the middle of this tempest, students and their families, many of whom are from the poorest communities, are left alone in a dinghy of despair and confusion, the sole concern being how are the kids going to spend their day. Thus, the perfect storm — but there is a solution, a simple one.
The strike is a sign of unprecedented frustration. There are no solutions, from any side, that make sense because everywhere we look, solutions look like methods of discipline and punish. We’re proceeding on shaky footing. There is one truth, though: there will be more suffering, more confusion and, most importantly, no learning. Unable to ask the right questions, we’re destined to repeat what we’ve done in the past, ensuring a continuing decline in education and a further separation of socioeconomic classes. We will then fall further behind in this transition period where we’re moving towards a more science oriented, technological society.
The frustration all sides feel is caused by perspectives that still follow an analog view of the world. We’re looking for solutions that look back to the old brick and mortar school house: kids in neat classrooms, a tired curriculum, standardized, high-stakes testing; and the teacher still standing in the front of the classroom talking at students, rather than working with students. It’s a static view of a dynamic, always changing world outside the school house, captured beautifully by the graphic novelist, Chris Ware, in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker: Students enter a dark, ominous school, the last young girl in the line looking sad eyed at the parents who have turned their backs on their kids and are enjoying their bikes and lattes while texting, chatting merrily away from their dejected children. Parents have not asked the right questions either.
We are in a digital world, yet we remain mired in the muck of analog solutions. Today, education approaches learning hierarchically,when we can only change — and better — the system by thinking horizontally, the promise of technology used creatively. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman informs us constantly, but education doesn’t seem to see it that way.
Elite higher education institutions understand that the world has changed. Stanford University, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, MIT — have all launched online systems for free in the hopes of attracting people from all walks of life. This will allow these schools to corner a market while learning a lot about those who participate. It’s an effective way to keep their respective brands at the top of a vertical educational system, while also pushing education forward.
In this very interesting online experiment there is a solution that can literally alter education for some time to come — but it takes courage and some doing, with little money. All that’s needed is will and fortitude, imagination and a desire, a real desire to do what’s best for kids — the bottom line.
Here’s how it can be done:
- Lectures, interactions, critiques, assessments, student work, etc, is online, constantly being tweaked, re-assessed, revised and re-delivered. In the meantime, knowledge is being built in unprecedented ways. This is knowledge about how students learn, as well as content specific knowledge. It’s too vital to dismiss; it’s also a tragedy if we leave this learning only in the hands of elite institutions, though these schools are open to all comers.
- Elite universities and colleges have incredible programs for incredibly talented students. I know, I teach in one. I know what these students can do — and I’ve tested what I’m saying here. For 3 consecutive years I’ve been teaching a course, Scenarios for Teaching Writing. This is a course for kids in education or for kids interested in teaching at some point. And for 3 years we’ve been working with the Media & Communications High School in Washington Heights, NY. We do the work face-to-face (we visit the campus), and we then work online, using a simple tool — Google docs. Students submit work and Middlebury students guide, mentor and tutor the kids in Washington Heights. Middlebury students follow the theoretical frameworks of composition theory that they learn in class; they have to present, day in and day out, their work to the class, justifying their approaches. My role is to help them; it is also to work with the principal of the high school and the teachers involved. Everyone wins. The most important aspect of this is that the model is highly scalable and cheap. The technology — thanks to Google — is free. (Community Works Institute will publish an article about our work in an upcoming publication.)
- The what if: What if, as a way of proving what these students are learning, college students in, say, History 101, take their lessons — from online and in class — and tweak these lessons with a partner in a public school — a teacher and her staff — to fit the needs of her students?
- What if these lessons — the revised lessons meant for students in the public school setting — are piped through the same online tools used by elite institutions, delivered straight to their classrooms, their homes, their communities? Automatically, the school day — and year — is extended.
- And what if the students in our colleges and universities, as part of their curriculum, work together with their respective education studies programs, psychology and sociology departments that know about “how children learn and succeed,” and use this knowledge to tutor and mentor the younger kids in public education?
This is not rocket science and very easy to do. Within two to three years of launching this process, literally all public education would change in America. In fact, education K-16 would change as well.
What are the outcomes of this model?
- Students in public schools spend more time learning, though not necessarily in the school; the “longer school day” isn’t more busy time, more brick and mortar thinking, more traditional high-stakes testing, rather, education is fluid and dynamic, inspirational and meaningful, meeting the student where she lives and how she lives: knowledge applied to real world learning to solve real world challenges.
- Students in public education are then assessed dynamically because technology enables an easy flow for assessment; it is a natural piece of the learning — and immediate, which is vital to learning, the red line appearing the minute a word is misspelled in a document. That’s how easy assessment is done on the fly.
- Technology, as we now realize, requires face-to-face interactions that are intense and focused on what has evolved online. My Scenarios for Teaching Writing students learned this. For public school students, this means that demonstrating what they know, in face-to-face interactions moves away from the standardized test or rote learning, engaging them in more meaningful and realistic ways.
- Likewise, it means that all of us can more critically and creatively work on non-cognitive skills, in person, such as the building of character, as recently shown by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed. For the very first time, by partnering with technology, we can educate the whole person.
- The college/university student is engaged in community service, able to fully realize how and why theoretical frameworks actually work — or not. And the college student, along with her professor, are immediately assessing and adjusting, fine tuning lessons to suit individual students, another characteristic of technology.
- The college/university student serves as mentor and teacher, collaborating and cooperating with her university teacher and with the public school teacher, becoming the bridge for life-long learning.
- Public school teachers receive ongoing, dynamic development, guided by the university curriculum, enhancing content knowledge, pedagogy, and a new understanding of what it is to work side-by-side with machines — the future.
- And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.
This is not pie in the sky thinking, not romanticism; rather, this is how this new scientific-technological world works. At the end of my Scenarios for Teaching Writing, literally all students did presentations using Prezi, responding to a singular question: given your experience in this course, and your students in Washington Heights, what do you know and what do you see? The students in the Scenarios class have become even more committed to education writ large; many are education minors and see education as a future. Don’t we want more of this from our college students?
This work begins to solve problems: all teachers, whether in public schools or the university, working together, building models for life-long learning, a pre-requisite for the “good life” in the coming century; the assessment tension is removed since it’s ongoing, fluid and dynamic, always present and performed per task, per endeavor; these endeavors are rich in inquiry and what we’re looking at are the solutions, the varied applications to problems, be these social, economic, pedagogical and scientific – technological. Thus we are engaged in a process of building new systems to address yet unforeseen challenges in economics, society, the environment.
The mentoring public school children need, particularly if they’re from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, is always ongoing; the move from high school to college, would be fluid, seamless — and inspired early on. And if the child decides to work and go to college online, that’s also available. All options are on the table and students and their families are free to choose. The point is that education is, here, available at all times and able to fit different types of learning needs and goals — all assessable.
If we continue to search for solutions by simply saying that children aren’t learning and that unions are obstructionist and politicians are only focused on getting re-elected — the old way of thinking today — we won’t get anywhere. The tit-for-tat world we find ourselves in isn’t working. We need a fresh start — or, rather, we need a start using what we’re already doing in select circles, Stanford, et al. Political will, clean universal design where everyone benefits and a desire to also change how college students go to school, giving them more responsibility for the way we actually live, is a great leap forward to solving our problems. It’s not hard, but this approach, if we can all put our shoulders to the wheel, will change the face of education and begin to address the many problems we face.
Let’s get to work — but let’s do it creatively. Nothing else is working: we know that.
September 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
So, being the politico junky that I am, I pre-gamed the DNC. Now, while the RNC was ALL WHITE, Monday night, watching the PBS coverage of the DNC, I turned to my wife, Nina, and said, “Is it me or what am I seeing here? Every other person is either African American, Hispanic, Asian, some other.”
I looked again, with an “huh,” and said, “It’s as if two conventions are imaging – or is it imagining? — drastically different worlds. One wants super whites to reign supreme, while the other has that BIG TENT we’re always hearing about. Only in this DNC tent, there really are a lot of different people.”
America, once an idea born from enlightenment thinking, that is suppose to be tolerant and inclusive, open and honest, hard working and kind, understanding.
Who reps that?
August 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
Last night I’m watching the RNC on the PBS News Hour. (I love PBS’s Multi-Channel Livestream, by the way) Anyway, as the cameras panned across the RNC convention floor, up and down, I came to a conclusion: Gwen Ifill, of PBS, Herman Cain and Condoleezza Rice were likely the ONLY 3 Black people in the entire arena.
It’s uncanny because no one in the media is reporting anything like this: why? There’s no story about how the GOP is calling out — yelling, actually — that they are the party of inclusion, one big tent, they say, but not a single black face, or any color other than WHITE, is visible anywhere. That’s not a story?
The Illegitimate Dismantling of Decency, Humanity and Inalienable Rights: The GOP’s Dark Soul of Indifference
August 22, 2012 § 5 Comments
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual violence organization: 44% of sexual abuse victims are under the age of 18; 80% are under the age of 30; every 2 minutes in the United States someone is sexually assaulted; each year there are 213,000 sexual assault victims in the United States; 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police and 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail; 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim and 38% of rapists are a friend or an acquaintance.
Tod Aikin and Paul Ryan are legislating to ensure the RAINN numbers remain the same — or increase.
When Aikin used the term “legitimate,” we got a glimpse into the dark soul of the extreme right of the GOP. In their minds, rape is a legitimate tool — for war, for pornography and its increasing violence against women, as a way to tilt Roe v Wade.
The party that argues for less government interference wants to enter our lives even deeper. They want to legislate us out of everything — Medicare, Medicaid, Roe v Wade, education. And the list goes on. The GOP wants to deny our propensity for self-actualization.
Might it not be more relevant to turn around those 15 out 16 rapists that never spend a day in jail? Might it not be more relevant to examine why and how, as a society, those we know most intimately are the ones — 38% — committing rape? Who are we? Why can’t we answer the question?
We have been fixated on Aikin’s ridiculous assertion that women can somehow will the rapist’s sperm out of creating a life. But the key word we should be talking about is “legitimate,” which later Aikin said was the wrong word. He meant to say “forcible” — as if then there’s a difference.
Legitimate: being exactly as proposed; accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements; conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards
Rape, by definition, is forcible. Aikin’s use of “forcible” merely reiterates his deeply held believes — and those of others in the Republican party — that there is a “legitimate” form of rape; that rape conforms to the needs of the larger world, society. Aikin and followers — including some women — acknowledge the cultural acceptance of rape as a weapon for control, through violence and fear, and an instrument for perverse excitement that’s directly linked to money and profits, via Mastercard, Visa and American Express.
In Pornography and Silence, Susan Griffin tells us that the prostitute and pornography remake the image of the feminine, placing knowledge of the body beyond man’s emotional reach at the same time that experience of the objectified female body satisfies sexual desire. Aikin’s use of “legitimate” has everything to do with how some experience their bodies and sexual desire — total fear. This is why the insistence on negating women’s LEGITIMATE right to govern themselves, especially their bodies.
What Aikin, et al, want to do is to “murder the natural feminine,” says Griffin: “…feeling is sacrificed to an image of the self as invulnerable,” a reason to rape, and a reason to deny women control over their bodies. The only recourse for the male — Aikin’s “legitimate” — is to punish “that which he imagines holds him and entraps him: he punishes the female body.” This is peculiar, of course, when you throw in women such as Bachmann and Palin. Interestingly, though, Condoleeza Rice is pro – choice, and denounced by right to life groups.
Aikin, Ryan, et al, want to segregate women, the vulnerable and poor, people of color — you name it. The want to do this by entering every aspect of our lives — education, social welfare, health care, even our consciousness. While the Republican party argues that they are for inclusion, as Aikin’s statement is being pushed about in popular media and social networks, the GOP convention is drafting a platform that is hostile to women’s rights. Inclusion? Tolerance?
We are being shown that the GOP is intolerant of anyone that is not male, white and upper-middle class.
In “Rape — Does it have a Historical Meaning?,” Roy Porter posits that, “Rape generally leaves its stain on the historical record only if it comes to trial, and the analogy of today’s experience suggests that only a fraction (but how small a fraction?) even reached court in the past; and even those cases, the evidence that survives is far from the whole story.”
The rest of the story, I’m afraid, must be carried by the victim alone, and it’s ongoing, a notion lost on Aikin, Ryan, Romney and the GOP platform. They are fixated on the other end of the deal: controlling a woman’s reproductive rights, controlling our moral lives, controlling our inalienable rights. It’s medieval.
But more importantly, we’re not dealing with the larger issue, which is people such as Aikin and the hostility shown by right to life folks, including Ryan — and Catholicism — want to legitimize a subservient role for women. Why? There’s something in Susan Griffin that speaks to this, of course.
In A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by Randy Tornhill and Craig T. Palmer, a study not without its problems, mind you, we do find the following useful bit of data:
In one study, 13 percent of the surveyed American women of ages 18 and older reported having been the victim of at least one completed rape — rape having been defined as ‘an event that occurred without the woman’s consent, involved the use of force or threat of force, and involved sexual penetration of the victim’s vagina, mouth or rectum.’ Other surveys using slightly different definitions or different data-collection procedures have found high rates too, especially when the survey procedures have given researchers access to victims of alleged rapes not reported to poilce…Of women who had experienced a rape involving penile-vaginal intercourse, from 37 to 57 percent experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome afterward — a frequency higher than that associated with any other crime against women, including aggravated assault, burglary, and robbery.
Okay, let’s see: in the recent past few months we’ve seen brutal attacks in a movie theatre; an increase in gun-related violence in some cities such as Chicago; increases in gang violence and now this nearly impossible to understand statement by Akin; devastating draught and a continued denial of climate change; and we also see that Romney and Ryan — and the GOP — want Aikin to remove himself from his senate race, but we have to wonder why since he’s speaking the truth about his party, what they actually believe (Ryan and Aikin worked side-by-side to address issues of abortion, an attack on Roe v Wade — this is history, it’s verifiable).
Given what we actually do know, the data around rape and the victimization of the victims of rape, the silence imposed on victims by harsh policies, might not we do a lot better considering why we believe “legitimate” to be viable? Why we turn from Aikin’s use of “legitimate,” which means he and others believe that it’s culturally acceptable to “murder the natural female,” to use Griffin’s prophetic words here?
Tornhill and Palmer say that “most people don’t know much about why humans have the desires, emotions, and values they have, including those that cause rape. This is because most people lack any understanding of the ultimate (that is, evolutionary) causes of why humans are the way they are.”
We don’t know, for instance, why the throw money at tobacco, always weepy Boehner, does, indeed, always cry at the drop of the hat, but particularly when things don’t go his way, in-between anxiously chain smoking; we don’t know why Cantor is more willing to genuflect to defense, big oil, the destruction of the environment, and lay blame for this mess on those most needy in our society; we don’t know why Mitch McConnell’s only job is to destroy the Obama presidency rather then addressing the needs of the people of the United States. We don’t know any of this. We don’t know anything.
If we find that we’re in a surreal space, look no further then the people we’ve elected — and the rather dangerous, nasty people that are running for office, not least of which is the ugly Paul Ryan bent on destruction as a way to a future that only he can imagine, and doesn’t include us.
Instead, before we go over the edge into the abyss, might not we spend some quality time on these ideas, these issues and shed the soulless nature of the dark GOP’s center?
August 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
Mitt Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his VP demonstrates a conservative embrace of ideology. Ideological pursuits are anathema to humanism. Ideological pursuits negate the struggle indicative of the human journey towards anything resembling self-reliance, which is, ironically, what Ryan, et al, are suggesting we pursue. Ideologies tend to nurture solipsism and harbor a disdain for democratic decision making. Ideologies silence hope and give voice only to the most dominant. Ideologies establish a vituperative vertical system run by the inflexibly self-righteous.
November’s presidential election is asking that we either abide by a strict ideology suggesting that in times of confusion and insecurity we let in a version of Big Brother, as Whitaker Chamber’s suggests in his elegant review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or about pursuing a humanistic road, with its roots in Socrates and Romanticism, and emphasizing the individual’s drive towards self-actualization. These are our choices: the Republican’s pursuit of a strict ideology or the Democrat’s insistence that we protect self-actualization (they can surely be criticized for not nurturing it, however). How’s that for black and white?
Ideologies require a simple good vs bad dichotomy. So we’re forced to speak this way, as I’ve done, above. Humanism is cloudy, messy and ambiguous because it confirms the existence of “human nature.” An ideological apparatus denies the relevance of “human nature,” arguing that a person can be disciplined into a way of life, a way of thinking. The problem with this, of course, is that ideologies need efficient ways of transmitting discipline. Enter Paul Ryan. And in case anyone missed the point I’m making, Ryan’s appointment has been followed by another: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will speak at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The junkyard dog is being released to bark and threaten, show his teeth. The ideological center of the GOP means business. Mitt Romney is actually rather unimportant at this point, which is always the case when a fine tuned ideology trumps everything — and everyone.
The last, great conservative, when we actually had the semblance of a public sphere in America, William F. Buckley, who, when he died, left a void currently being filled by buffoons, said, on Charlie Rose, that Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is “ideological fabulism.” In Rand’s Atlas, so passionately embraced by Paul Ryan and conservatives, it would be very easy to send anyone to the gas chamber, says Buckley. Fascism follows. And it is a world that, for us right now, as we watch China and other economies begin to scale — and dominate — makes sense; it is, after all, the China model. “The fight we’re in here,” said Paul Ryan following Rand, “is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Any questions? Only individualism doesn’t trump collectivism; in American Philosophy, they co-exist and can actually thrive.
The other ideology Ryan embraces is Catholicism, though no one is speaking about it, not critically. In Catholicism, the institution, the Church, speaks for God; it is Christ, it is God, it is everything. The see of Rome. Disciples talk about the Church as if it’s alive, body and soul. Ideological fabulism? Ryan very easily conflates Rand and Catholicism. Rand is the secular Catholic (though embracing abortion because it’s a woman’s right) that is not thinking about universality, rather she’s thinking about allegiance. Catholicism, for instance, would not exist if it wasn’t for poverty — and the allegiance to its doctrine by the poor — and the uneducated suffering; it has an interest in maintaining this imbalance so that it can prey – pray on and for them, simultaneously. This is the slippery slope we’re on — a hall of mirrors. On this Ryan trip, we might see Mel Gibson appointed Ambassador to Israel, just to teach them a thing or two because they’re too reliant on us. Opus Dei might enter the White House’s inner sanctum.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in faith. I have faith — in my journey towards self-actualization, in the sense that I can be better, and in the notion that in these pursuits consistent with self-reliance, I want to be judged by you, another human being pursuing his / her self-actualization. I have a responsibility to myself, my family, my community. I can be better at all of these — without Paul Ryan – Rand. And I also know that a partner in this journey should also be a government that does not obstruct, rather it nurtures, it listens, it enters into a dialog with my needs and my community’s needs. This is the idea of America, words Ryan frequently uses; however, if we want to talk about this idea we have to begin with faith in each other. We have to acknowledge the idea’s Romanticism chiseled from the Enlightenment.
Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.
This is conservatism in its most enlightened form. So I wonder: instead of the ideological fabulism of Ayn Rand, made doubly more perverse by Ryan’s Catholic closing of the American mind, why aren’t we talking about Hamilton and the Federalist Papers? That’s our earliest notion of America. Isn’t Hamilton more relevant than Rand’s self-righteous — and nasty — inflexibility? “Were there not even these inducements to moderation,” says Hamilton, “nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
Welcome to America, where candidates swing into battlegrounds to do war. America, as we see everywhere, is not in tune with Hamilton, with moderation. “On the other hand,” says Hamilton, “it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty;…that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.” Real Housewives, reality tv, the Kardashians, the glory and violence of the most popular sport in America, football — all these things trend towards a collective mind set that abides by a stricter, black and white, easily definable morality, even if some have to suffer. This is a gruesome sign that we’re a lost nation as we ping pong back and forth over an ideological net bent on moving us towards the complete control of our human right to determine who we are, each of us.
August 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Is anybody scared?
I am. I’m very scared. Very.
Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a throwing down of the gauntlet: America is going to abide by a stringent hierarchy that will impose a highly structured system that won’t bend – for you or anyone; each class will be identifiable — and verifiable. We will have different Americas. Some Americans will be on the inside, others will forever remain on the outside. It’s all we can afford, so pick yourself up by your bootstraps — and if you can’t, oh well.
This is the election: do we continue to struggle on the demanding, bumpy road towards freedom(s) for each and everyone of us, working really hard, in difficult times, to re-adjust social mobility and tolerance, or do we give that up for a sure place on a ladder’s rung without being able to control (a) which rung we land on and (b) without being able to move the ladder this way and that, this angle and that, re-adjusting it in concordance with great suffering — and there will be plenty of suffering.
Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a window into who the Republic Presidential candidate actually is and how he works. Romney’s selection is a window into his soul, a dark, foreboding place. It’s obvious now.
Romney is the second coming of “W.” Romney, like W, is willing to be used. With W came Cheney, a very powerful, intelligent and articulate conservative, with hands in some of the most powerful pockets in the world — oil, defense, Wall Street, fundamentalist capitalists. He changed the course of history — and W went along. Cheney’s and W’s tack caused deaths, depravation and a furthering of the American decline: the 2008 economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Bin Laden running around like a lunatic planning his next destruction, education nearly collapsing, the greatest economic separation among Americans in history. The evidence is indisputable. This was the world handed to Obama and Biden.
Those same forces that gave us W and Cheney are now stronger; they’ve learned from their loss to Obama. Now they’ve forced Ryan onto Romney. Ryan’s economic plan will float money upwards, much like Cheney loved to have power and influence float upward only to him, then he could push the punk, W, around. Romney’s been pushed, for sure; Ryan has the upper hand. Ayn Rand is winning, an early influence on Ryan, he admits. (I read Rand as teenager, too, but had the instinct to turn away.)
If I’m not telling the truth, saying it like it is, watch the 60 Minutes Interview that aired last night, Sunday, August 12th.
Romney is cautiously in love. And Ryan can hardly sit still, so enthralled is he to describe his vision. He’s so excited with his new stage that he had to hold back from jumping in with data and projections, deferring to Romney’s jingoistic responses to rather soft questions. When Ryan speaks, Romney looks like a puppy that’s having his belly scratched, grinning from ear to ear. But his eyes, they tell a different story: watch it, this guy is really ambitious — and he can talk better then I can.
What’s he saying? For starters, we’re learning that Romney will have less control. We’re also learning that Ryan’s plan controls from the top.
The Romney-Ryan plan wants less social welfare drag, more struggle in the under classes, more riches at the top of the income ladder. It’s not a solution to our problems, it’s merely a re-distribution of a dwindling pie. Re-distribution, according to Ryan, can only happen by guaranteeing denial of benefits to Americans that are in trouble and struggling, hurting, maybe even confused and vulnerable. Ryan’s plan never looks at the reasons for our state being the way it is. The market place will then run free and produce growth; however, what kind of growth this is, we don’t know. What we do know is that growth depends on how rules and regulations are erased — particularly when these rules pertain to the environment and the extraction of natural resources by international corporations.
The gamble is that Ryan’s plan will provoke the upper-middle class and the socially unconscious. It goes something like this: People are always willing pay for the good life. Let’s take it. Make it. Sell it. Let’s take it now. Screw it. Climate change. Dwindling resources. Hell, there may not be a tomorrow. Let’s take it before it’s too late. Down the road, after much wealth is acquired and it all works out, maybe we’ll have the technologies in place that will allow us to tack back a bit. But for now, let’s take it. What do we have to lose?
Ryan’s plan is medieval. We’ve seen it before — the lord, his serfs and the anonymous living in abject poverty reliant on hand-outs from the serfs. Free market enterprise is the moat — free meaning that to profit one must be socially mobile to access open, competitive enterprise where there are rules that guarantee a kind of success, provided that monopolizing capital is something you’re willing to go along with. It’s a wonderful life.
But no one has a crystal ball. Obama and Biden could win. Romney and Ryan could win and end up paralyzed by a congress that opposes them, having to redefine their harsh perspective on the American future. In the meantime, as each party lobs insults to the other — and at the American people — we can feel safe in knowing that there are dark, harsh forces out there — we can see them and identify them; it’s not a conspiracy at all — throwing tons of money into the Romney – Ryan coffers, perhaps because they see the ticket as being Ryan – Romney.
I’m scared. Very scared of that!
August 7, 2012 § 25 Comments
This is may be one of the most significant Olympic Games in history but the story — why is it so important? — has yet to be told. Let’s tell it.
Gabby Douglas – winner of the individual all around gold medal in gymnastics, the team gold (as I write, she failed to medal in the balance beam, a ghastly apparatus, opening the field for Ali Raisman who went on to win a gold in the women’s floor exercise) and the first African American to reach this pinnacle of success — is the perfect way into this Olympic story about the (permanent?) dissolution of boundaries.
Douglas’ story has moved us. It has caused some confusion as well. At the heart of the confusion is the story that’s yet to be told about these Olympic Games. It’s a story of possibilities, of a better, brighter tomorrow. It’s what we’ve been waiting for — the humanity we long for: people of disparate backgrounds coming together to bring out the best that a person can physical do, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion.
The story about these Olympic Games is not about broken records and who won the most medals; it’s about the coming apart of rigid boundaries — nationalism, socioeconomic divisions, race and ethnicity; it’s about how these man-made constraints are dissolving, being replaced by cooperation and collaboration.
Social media has gone wild with Ms. Douglas. Congratulations and self-adulation, as Americans, abound. But there is something deeper happening on social media: on one end of the scale comments are paralyzed by the trivial, wondering about Douglas’ hair, for instance, as if this is important; on the other extreme there are questions about the media’s insistence that Gabby has two mothers, and one is white. Much of the social commentary is perplexed by the media privileging the whiteness of one mother, and in the same sentence suggesting that Gabby couldn’t have done it without this white Iowa mother. These comments remind me of something Cornel West once said (I’m paraphrasing): beware of the white liberal that believes that the African American needs the white savior.
Social media chatter, as it’s always destined, falls short. There is no analysis so we can’t go to the next level of the story, beyond the manufactured constraints that compel us to repeat what separates us, over and over, as if we can’t think beyond what’s served up as Reason.
Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mother, says that, “It’s true what they say, it takes a village to raise a child.” Ms. Hawkins opens her story by announcing her trust in love as a universal unifier, a way towards trust and collaboration. Yes. Love. That subject — and word — we never talk about (Kristof, in endless depictions of our soulless world, never raises the obvious subject). Yet, given what we face as a civilization, I feel we’re compelled to do so because it’s the only way to break down the man-made barriers that keep us down — and apart. Trusting love is Ms . Hawkins’ message — and the story of these Olympics.
Gabby was a very active child, to say the least, according to Ms. Hawkins. Gabby’s older sister suggested, to her mother, that she place Gabby in gymnastic classes. Ms. Hawkins agreed — and the rest is now history, two gold medals. It’s obvious that in this household, everyone has their shoulders to the wheel; that is to say, love and what accompanies it — cooperation, collaboration, empathy and honest dialog — are at the heart of the Hawkins family. The result is trust. Nothing supernatural here. I love you, that’s all, I need you. That’s it. The most frightening things to say to someone because it comes with vulnerability — and it has to be returned equally. Ms. Hawkins’ family, at a vulnerable time, relied on one another for answers, for direction. And Love and Trust opened their worlds to what was, at one point in their lives, hardly imaginable. It can be like this for all of us.
As she evolved and matured, Gabby’s ambitions could not be denied. Ms. Hawkins trusted that what she saw in her young child, which at the time was not a gold medal winner, (a long shot, given the odds of something like this ever happening), was true. Let me put it another way: a young mother who knew absolutely nothing about gymnastics, trusts what she sees, trusts her young daughter, the spirit in her talent. This is only possible when one firmly believes that love is a guiding principal: vulnerability, which is an obvious strength, compels us to turn to love because in love there has to be trust.
What happened next is significant because it’s an important — and dramatic — theme of the Olympic Games: Natalie Hawkins and Gabby sought out Liang Chow, from Beijing China, living in West Des Moines, Iowa, where, with his wife, Lewin Zhuang, opened Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in 1998. Chow is a former gymnast and personally coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic Gold in 2008.
Shawn Johnson, and now Ms. Hawkins and Gabby, placed their trust in Mr. Chow. They saw beyond ethnicity, beyond gender. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First, Ms. Hawkins had to see beyond her own sense of race, and trust whiteness, a white family living in a blue state, Iowa, that from Virginia Beach, Virginia, must have seemed like an ocean away.
Media and politicians, both, have constructed a Harry Potter-like narrative that keeps playing over and over; it’s simple: it’s always about good vs evil. But this is not true at all. Our existence is forever relegated to the gray areas of life, the not easily understood, where each one of us has to make moral decisions that require we examine our hearts and our minds. This is how we try to navigate our realities. For Ms. Hawkins, she had to read her heart, her daughter’s, and the Parton’s, too, to understand how to trust beyond the disabling mediated rhetoric so content on delivering the simplest denominator, good vs evil. Reality for Ms. Hawkins — and Ms. Parton and her family — is somewhere beyond black and white, good and evil. It’s more fluid, more consistent and virtuous. Hawkins and Parton, tell us in their story, that we live together, suffer together and that we can love someone that is completely different from who we are; we can even love enough to help the Other reach unimaginable dreams. Gabby Douglas is case in point. This is the true story — not the gold, though Gabby’s success is amazing, and it’s not Gabby’s hair, since it has nothing to do with anything, other then to suggest that many on social media insisting on the subject have somehow been relegated to the margins of society where reality tv, the Kardashians, and Dancing With Anyone are it.
In Des Moines, Iowa, loved by her mother, Natalie, Gabby Douglas lived with the love of the Partons, a different kind of love, and worked with and trusted a Chinese coach that she originally saw on television. This is the solution to our problems; this is what the Olympic Games are telling us: boundaries have been broken; and there are people willing to help us break down more barriers .
The great runner, Alberto Salazar , coached the gold medal winner and the silver medal winner in the ten thousand meters. Salazar was born in Cuba in 1958. He moved with his family to the US, migrating to Massachusetts. He’s best remembered, perhaps, for his New York Marathons in the early ’80s. Mo Farah, running for Great Britain, electrified the crowd winning the gold. Close behind, the American, Galen Rupp, won the silver, marking the first time, since Billy Mills won in Tokyo in 1964, that an American medalled. During the race, the NBC commentator wondered whether Farah and Rupp would run as a team, though from competing countries, to counterbalance the strong Ethiopians and Kenyans. They did and kept to the same Salazar strategy: the race is won in the last 100 yards. So we have a Cuban-American training a Somalian and an American — and the Somalian, having arrived in Great Britain at the age of 8, matured to be one of the country’s favorite athletes.
It’s not about what country I’m from, nor is it about the perceived constraints I think have been placed on me; it’s about dreaming, first, then finding a path, a journey that must begin with love and followed by empathy and cooperation. Then, and only then, will we find cooperation, such that each and every soul will be able to dream, plan and execute with the help of others; they, in turn, will achieve the same, in their own time, with their own prescriptions.
We’ve seen these blurring of boundaries throughout the Olympics: athletes from different countries, training in each other’s countries and sharing foreign coaches. Nationalism holds nothing in. The Olympics have become like much of what we buy: Made in fill in the blank. In essence, the Olympics are finally living up to their goal of bringing all of us together. The desire to win, to push towards — and in some cases beyond — our perceived capacities, have lead us to reach beyond man made boundaries. And if we look a little harder, we learn that these boundaries have, to date, been disabling. We win when boundaries dissolve.
The Gabby Douglas story is about breaking boundaries that, for years, have been disabling us. Salazar, Farah and Rupp show us the same. In literally every sport, in these games, the same can be found : it’s the new truth.
And this coming Thursday, the US Women’s Olympic Team, coached by Sweden’s legendary player, Pia Sundhage, will meet Japan. The US team got to the finals after beating Canada in what was a most dramatic game. Ten of the eleven Canadians, announced the NBC color commentator, play in the US. Who won that game? US Soccer? Soccer or fútbol as a universal equalizer? Can we continue to talk about winners and losers as if these happen in a vacuum held tightly by nationalism? Do we need to begin to speak about humanity’s role in fostering the love, trust, and patience we each know we require to forge ahead — and win medals?
The US Olympic (Dream) Basketball Team hasn’t had it so easy. Why? Because everywhere they turn, they bump up against other (foreign) NBA players. Nothing is the same anymore.
The Olympic Games are no longer about who wins the most medals. These games are about why some countries win more then others given the level of communication and dynamic interactions the most powerful nations enjoy with each other. The Olympic Games are offering a model for success that does not pit one against the other behind plastic barriers, rather, the games demonstrate that the cross-pollination — training, philosophies, education — truly enables each and every individual to work to her or his capacity. In this way, it truly is one person against another — not one country against another — in healthy competition, even in team sports. This is the Olympic hope. It has finally brought forth the importance of love, vulnerability and trust to the forefront. This level of collaboration and cooperation is the only antidote for our apparent decline; it’s a road, with visible success, that we can all travel. But we must all be willing to push boundaries back, be these geographic, institutional and national. Let’s call it, Gabby’s Model.
July 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Like many things in life, it depends on what you want to hear.
Whether you’re a religious person and don’t believe there’s a chance in hell for the Higgs Boson to exist, a devoutly religious person that denies priests are fondling children — and concealing it — or a Scientologist that believes, after donating thousands upon thousands of dollars, your soul or “thetan” is a reincarnation that has lived on other planets before living on Earth, such as Tom Cruise, recent (apparent) scientific discoveries in Geneva, Switzerland suggest that, though we may not want to hear some things, we should question everything, but in particular, the largest, most powerful science fiction story of all — or scam, take your pick — the creation of organized religion that is the bane of our existence.
Let’s begin, then, almost at the beginning.
“There comes a time,”Aldous Huxley wrote, “when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?”
The oldest religion, dating back to the early Harappan period (5500-2600 BCE), is Hinduism. Neither the pursuit nor the attainment of the world’s visible rewards brings true happiness, suggests Hinduism. Might not, then, becoming a part of a larger, more significant whole relieve life of its triviality, after all, we all want meaning?
This question alone gives birth to religion — and slowly and energetically moves from an existential question to the “opium of the people.” Without falling into the ridiculous arguments generated by ill-prepared politicians and journalist hacks, let’s just say, avoiding the term, Marxist, that Karl was right on this one. Marx actually said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” If we take this “Marxist” notion and apply today, we can see that if fits, it works.
Name a poor community in America where you don’t hear, “It’s God’s will” uttered by people that are homeless and suffering from some institutionalized mandate, whether it’s zoning and the lack of health care and environmental degradation, and climate change and just plain old inhumanity, such as the lack of social mobility, particularly through education.
Name a time that has been more heartless then our own whereby in the name of God and Allah we are separating, maming, killiing and destroying people simply because they view the world differently — or better, we need their resources and we need their strategic location from which to launch our control over needed resources.
In the name of God — who we say we trust — we rob the poor, in our own country and elsewhere (the evidence is overwhelming), then give them guns, and to keep our attention busy, we fly drones over the helpless, in the USA and elsewhere. And we, the citizens of this country that says, “In God We Trust,” turn from our inhumanity to all, and we’re suppose to be the most Christian, Sunday church going, Bible pounding nation in the world. What gives? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, not in the name of God, anyway.
Let’s go back to the problem.
The question of Hindiusm — and all subsequent religions — What do people really want ? – becomes fundamental in creating orthodox structures that solicit obedience through dogma meant to respond to the question. Within these tightly structured boxes — or organizations — where allegiance is mandated above even faith, there is little room for debate, let alone creative disruption.
Hinduism tells us that the first thing we want is Being. We want to be rather than not be; normally, no one wants to die (Scientology has co-opted this narrative strain quite heavily).
Second, we want to know. We are instinctually curious, whether you’re a scientist probing the universe or at home with the family watching the news — we want to know. In fact, we’ll turn to gossip — or reality tv — just to get the sense that we know something, anything.
The third thing people seek is joy, a feeling tone that is opposite frustration, futility, and boredom. Hinduism — and all other religions — prescribe a road to this sense of joy, provided one follow a strict path. Allegiance comes first, followed by the embrace of a promise to live happily ever after in joy.
If we couple these three needs to the unique human capacity to think of something that has no limits, the infinite, we can see how Christianity, which began as a Jewish sect in the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-1st century, follows. And how, with Islam, both follow the notion that there is an uncorrupted monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets, all of whom, first, try to answer the question, What do people want?, and, secondly, are the vanguards of strict organizations that get formed around the prophets’ ideas, long afer these prophets are dead and buried, and try to conflate material reality with a science fiction pertaining to the afterlife, edenic spaces to experience life ever after, and even reincarnation suggesting that we’ve existed before, time traveling, century after century, year in and year, living and dying and being reborn again — perhaps into Tom Cruise — while all sorts of immoral actions are being leveled against the “flocks” of these organizations — and by the most staunch believers.
The latest insanity around Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes suggests that we’ve reached a pathetic end to these cloaked belief systems. Imagine the level of intelligence of people, celebreties or otherwise, that pursue a religion that was incorporated in 1953, by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer. Hubbard created a rather false universe; it followed his treatise on self-help, Dianetics, describing a metaphysical relationship between the mind and the body.
But it makes some sort of sense, doesn’t it?
If we are in fact seeing the deterioration of monotheistic religions everywhere — and we are, simply based on the evidence of massive killings and the inhumanity being shown to the poor and the helpless in the name of God — and all these religions are, in fact, tales, stories, narratives that respond to the first question — What do people want? — it stands to reason that, after centuries we have been taught to find — and embrace — the ONE, the one man usually, that will respond to the question with a complex, albeit understandable, belief system that makes our desire to be, our desire to know and be curious palpable and manageable. (This notion, too, enters our political system big time, but the relation of religion and politics is yet another and larger story.)
Enter the Higgs Boson apparently discovered in Geneva the other day: picture a room full of people. We’ll call this the Higgs Field. Suddenly, in comes a person, a noted person. He steps into the room and begins to mingle, shake hands and so on; people gather around him or her. The more people gather around this person, the harder it is for this person to move. Then this mass of people begins to act — or move — as one. As one, it’s slow, large, difficult to move. Then a less popular person enters the room. Some break from the mass and move to the new person in the room — or field. This person’s mass is smaller, therefore it’s easier for this person to move about with his or her group. There you have the Higgs Boson. Without it, matter would not exist — we would not exist, and I wouldn’t be writing this. The Higgs is the foundation for matter, to put it plainly.
This is, apparently, the basis of the structure of the universe — and it is NOT the poorly named “God particle,” an unfortunate statement made by Professor and Nobel Prize Winner Leon Lederman that titled his book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? , providing a brief history of particle physics. No other physicist or scientist has used the term as such, according to Matt Strassler, theoretical physicist at Rutgers University.
If the Higss is not the “God particle,” then what it is?
It is a scientific discovery, first and foremost, data that explains our being; our desire to be has a scientific explanation. Secondly, the apparent discovery comes from our curiosity, our search for answers to the most fundamental of questions, but in a scientific way, rather than a science fiction approach that has its own place in our culture (another story). Finally, the discovery begins to turn the corner for human nature’s need to know where we come from, how we’re made and why. It may even provide a road to where we’re going.
This is the next story, the story to come, and it’s built on science, not on science fiction; it’s built on reason and intelligence, carefully constructed around mathematics and physics — the Standard Model — that, in turn, enable us to create fields of information that are varifiable.
Stories and myths are essential for the human condition; however, these have to be used appropriately, which is not to control, mandate, influence — and then punish — as a way to find happiness and peace later, after one’s death.
We can find joy and learn about each other, with science and poetics, myths and faith working in tandem, not as antagonists. The Higgs Boson calls attention to our diversity, which we are now challenged to accept and embrace.
June 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers
There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is. What are the elements of teaching?
There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers — students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. We seem to be unaware of this vital fact.
The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture’s health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It’s limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential — and place — of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down in a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe, now, that a single test can determine excellence — for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it’s focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system — administrators, teachers and students. This is an economic standard that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see — only in some circles — that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture. Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It’s synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.
This is to say, then, that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching. Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. It is not. It’s only an art. The science — the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc — only exists in the disciplines — Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student’s imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher’s practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted — observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.
So let’s just talk about three elements of teaching (in the weeks to come, I’ll describe others). I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.
The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture. Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love, therefore, leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure — the health of students — leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdepence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student’s heart; without the heart, there is no learning that’s possible. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn’t love her discipline or she doesn’t love the conditions for learning or she doesn’t love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.
Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don’t make sense, dictates that come from “on high,” usually boards of education — the Federal Government included — that have no idea who the students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought — inquiry — about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply — and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like — but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required, by a citizen, to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work — writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.
Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see — and imagine — are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same, one. It allows us to apply what we learn — and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere — to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we’re not.
For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we’ve convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways– to the troubles we’re facing. Might it not be time to take what we’ve learned and turn this ship around?
May 25, 2012 § 5 Comments
Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”
I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …
I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.
I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.
Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold – a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.
For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?
I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).
In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.
The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.
Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.
It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.
So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4′s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.
In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”
The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.
DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).
In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.
DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:
It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)
There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).
DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).
When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.
Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”
No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.
So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”
In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”
The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.
I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”
Just about every single student raised her/his hand.
“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”
Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)
“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”
“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. “
“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”
Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.
There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.
We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.
I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.
A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.
In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”
But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.
Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.
I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.
I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”
I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”
I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.
We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.
So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”
May 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)
Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.
“I don’t believe it,” said some students.
“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.
“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.
The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.
For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)
Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.
College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.
We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.
Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.
The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.
But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this. By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.
“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?
Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.
Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?
Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?
Hyper-Interface Culture and the New Age of Education: A Critical Look Under the Hood of the Harvard – MIT Partnership
May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
Since Harvard and MIT announced a partnership that will invest $60 million into a new platform to deliver free online courses, the academic world has been a flutter. But criticisms and critiques have it all wrong. The joint venture points to a narrower, more stringent future for higher education in America, the furthering of a class system that furtively divides and signals a crisis in education that we’re not debating, namely that our current (analog) models are unsustainable.
Comments and opinions about the Harvard – MIT venture range from those in the business of online education, best exemplified by George Siemens, of Athabasca University’s Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, that sees the Harvard-MIT partnership as merely the elites re-capturing an online presence in a growing and lucrative market, to David Brooks, of The New York Times, who, comparing this move to how newspapers and magazines retooled themselves around the web, worries about students that do not have “the intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptops hour after hour” but suggests that, likewise, “Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world,” though he is not won over by the partnership, wondering, as did Sven Birkerts 18 years ago in The Gutenberg Elegies, “Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?”
This is all wrong. We’re not seeing the obvious, the massive shift that’s already present in higher education.
The critiques of the Harvard-MIT venture assume that the world of technology exists — and grows — outside of ourselves, outside of who we are and, thus, as Martin Heidegger suggests in The Question of Technology (1954), we fail to understand technology as “human activity” This is something. I said, in 2008, at the MIT sponsored conference on Federating Resources Through Open Operability, the early stages of this move, on MIT’s part.
The Harvard-MIT venture is a sign that functions as a map of our current state in education, our American education crisis and as a distinct model for future power and control over delivery systems that, in turn, will certify one’s value in a world that’s constantly shifting beneath our feet, requiring that we re-tool on a continuous basis. Current education models cannot sustain the re-tooling of workers, at any level.
The Harvard-MIT partnership is an agreement to exert massive control over how education will be experienced in the near future — and who will gain. There are several reasons why this is viable — and why this has been brought on by the conditions in our culture.
In 1997, Steven Johnson, in Interface Culture, describing our relationship with technology, said that “we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp.” This has created an ongoing drama as we try to (re)imagine — and understand — ourselves in this shifting cultural landscape propelled forward technologically and economically.
The great drama of the next few decades will unfold under the crossed stars of the analog and the digital. Like the chorus of Greek tragedy, information filters will guide us through this transition, translating the zeros and ones of digital language into the more familiar, analog images of every day life. These metaforms, these bitmappings will come to occupy nearly every facet of modern society: work, play, romance, family, high art, pop culture, politics. But the form itself will be the same, despite its many guises, laboring away in that strange new zone between medium and message. That zone is what we call the interface.
Interface, for Johnson, is where the old, analog world is transformed into the message; it comes with culture–altering methods and processes, as we now see as we integrate Facebook and Twitter into our lives. There’s the iPad, the iPhone, the Android and the Kindle. The interface alters perceptions, yet as Johnson rightly asserts, “the form itself will be the same”; that is, the reasoning behind the nature of the interface is still analog, the same. It’s control.
The $60 million investment must be paid back; it must be profitable. Why, then, such a magnanimous offering from 2 of our most distinguished academic institutions?
Answer: it’s about the interface.
Harvard and MIT are offering a free online service, not because they’re investing in the romantic ideals of higher education, but rather because they will learn a tremendous amount about our interactions with their online interface, providing volumes of data about our likes and dislikes, our methods of engagement, the relationships between social networks and, now, academic ones. It’s a harsh economic strategy, winner take all.
Harvard and MIT will have a robust system, behind the scenes where we can’t see it, much as Amazon does when it suggests books to you, that will gather information about our behavior. In turn, this will help Harvard and MIT retool their tool because “clients” will not be able to keep away from the significance of this venture. In other words, given the label, Harvard-MIT, it’s expected that millions will access this portal; these millions will give Harvard and MIT the data they need to fashion a learning portal to fit our behavior.
Education has turned a corner; it’s a synthesis of old analog learning with market realities.
“The ability to rapidly form and reform intelligent communities will become the decisive weapon of regional skill centers competing within a globalized economic space,” says Pierre Lévy in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997). “The emergence and constant redefinition of distributed identities,” says Lévy, “will not only take place within the institutional framework of business, but through cooperative interactions in an international cyberspace.”
Lévy said this 15 years ago. Some of us paid attention. Colleges and Universities did not — until now.
One of the greatest costs of running a university is technology. This is because higher education has had a distinct analog model they’ve been following, the kind of blindness Heidegger warned us about 63 years ago when he first lectured on The Question of Technology, in a series of 4 lectures, in the Club at Bremen. Heidegger talked about the “instrumental and anthropological definition of technology”; that is, the “means” and the “human activity.” In higher education we’ve always allowed both the means and the human activity to be determined by forces outside the academy — think Apple and Microsoft, for instance, both in terms of hardware and software. Then came the emergence of blogs and course management systems, for profit online universities — and education still following, never taking the bull by the horns, defining the uses of technology on its own terms. We’ve always tried to fit into whatever technologies were given to us at the highest cost, in the meantime enabling a change in higher education determined by software companies. The engineers that create the code have been our cultural and pedagogical gurus for the past twenty years. Until now, until Harvard and MIT have drawn attention to their aggressive attack on pedagogy and interface — or, perhaps better said, their definition of pedagogy gathered from data we provide for their interface that, in turn, will alter the face of higher education, propelling us into an unknown future.
But the high cost of technology is only part of the story, the other chapter is about the high cost of labor in higher education. Next to technology, labor is the biggest drain on colleges and universities. Talent, the professor, is handsomely paid; in public institutions, the professor earns less then at prestigious universities. Academia works on a star model — luminaries with crossover books get paid the best, appear on TED and on the PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose, and so on. Media tends to follow the most prized in an unforgiving system that talks a great deal about the need for excellent teaching but rewards the stars that bring notoriety to the campus, the company label. This system, as Harvard and MIT are aware, is not sustainable.
How much will families be willing to pay for a high – grade education? 60K? 100K? This is where we’re heading with our current analog model. It can’t happen — unless we change things around a bit. Most of the Ivies have changed their financial aid, accordingly; however, labor is still a number one concern: it’s too high. So what if we changed the model?
TED, for instance, is extraordinarily popular. The 15 minute lectures are almost de rigueur these days, having spawned TEDx across campuses. I find myself giving student TED lectures and things I find on YouTube, from lectures to appearances to animation and film clips to highlight ideas. I find myself giving students up – to – the – minute news from around the world, adding to the analog aspects of my syllabus. I correct all student work online. I use MOODLE and WordPress as course management tools. I have students create digital stories, when appropriate.
If a professor is working in these ways, already breaking the analog stranglehold, why not push a bit further and change the role of the professor to be more of a coach: if ready-made lectures, by luminaries, are delivered online and questions, essay prompts, designed work is likewise delivered, then the teacher can simply be one who urges, prods, encourages, and gives students more resources, online, to round off a given subject, which is pretty much what we’re doing these days anyway. Then the professor/teacher doesn’t need a PhD, of which there are too many anyhow. The system then doesn’t need things such as tenure. And the luminary professor doesn’t have to be paid $200K, but rather much less, the rest of his worth determined by “hits” and advertisements to a course, public appearances, digital books sold, etc. Then we really have a star system that mirrors all others in our economic system.
Most big universities, such as Harvard and MIT, have 100 + students attending lectures for approximately 2 years. We know from the analog model that we can deliver education one – to – many. Why not take this online? We can leave the last two years for residency, if we want, reducing energy costs and labor costs since, we also know, graduate students can critique work. We’re heading this way.
But of course this will make our education crisis worse because, already, way too many kids are being left behind in the analog model. These kids don’t have access to good teachers, technology and relevant books. For example, in one of my current courses we’re working with high school students in Washington Heights, New York City. These kids don’t have access to adequate technology, and what they do have access to is highly filtered. Teachers are not instructed on how to capitalize on the technology we have. In a survey I sent to these students, one of the kids said, “I really thank you for having me learn how to use Google.” Can you imagine? Expertise with Google is a sign of an education gap! Though many will have access to the Harvard – MIT online venture, ultimately, these institutions will reap all the rewards and bring along those that already gain from attending them. Nothing much will change unless we address the inadequacies of online learning K-16 and we, in education, start to take greater responsibility and control for what we’re charged to do.
May 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
1. Finding the Artes Liberales
What is the place of a Liberal Arts education in American culture? This is coming up quite a lot these days, and usually accompanied by at least two other critical questions symptomatic of the state of affairs:
- How do we measure the results of a Liberal Arts education — because we’re data driven and results oriented, thus the investment, in all its metaphorical splendor, must come to something?
- How do these results measure up to the cost of a Liberal Arts education (in most places above 50K yearly) — because we are, after all, still puritanical and pragmatic?
Originally, the liberal arts referred to subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. The artes liberales have always been considered necessary for an informed citizenry — Democracy writ large. The liberal arts nurture the proper citizen, the reasoning goes, because the work of the artes liberales is critical thinking, dialog, cooperation and collaboration, and clear, insightful writing — communication on a grand but subtle scale.
In classical antiquity, this meant the study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; in medieval times, these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy, including astrology. The curriculum was called the Quadrivium that, along with the Trivium, constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum.
Modernism — industrialization and globalization — changed all this and extended it to include literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and sciences. What the liberal arts do not relate to is the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. Also confusing or blurring this negation of the professional and technical, are courses (and majors) in the liberal arts college on computer science; we have pre-law, pre-engineering and, of course, pre-med further blurring the lines. One of the most popular majors in many of these schools is Economics, for instance, students keeping a keen eye on Wall Street. (Business Administration is the most popular major across American higher education.)
So I’m just going to put this out there, a comment I made to my education class the other day when discussing these questions and the confusion about how we feel about the liberal arts:
The Liberal Arts in American culture is synonymous with elitism; the Liberal Arts equals privilege — it’s how we see it; and the Liberal Arts is code language for expensive, small colleges, mostly in New England, that are fed by equally as expensive — and elite — prep schools. Attending these has the potential of leading a student to ‘the good life’, which is synonymous with wealth.
And in this calculus of elitism, there exist policies concerning diversity and affirmative action that ensure that students that do not come from socioeconomically privileged geographies attend these schools, have a way in, a keyhole to squeeze through, a door held slightly ajar for those that can demonstrate that they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and can assimilate into the dominant culture.
Yes, that’s exactly it, said my students, unanimously, at least a third of which do not come from geographies of privilege. It’s true, they said. This is how we “read” the Liberal Arts, they said. Thus is the baggage held by Liberal Arts institutions in the popular consciousness.
2. Finding the Work Inside the Liberal Arts
This raises other questions, of course:
- What goes on in a Liberal Arts education?
- What, in fact, is the relationship between the Liberal Arts school and the elite in American culture? Is it a conduit that guarantees a place at the table of power?
- And, given the above two questions, is the place of the Liberal Arts to enable the evolution of critically thinking citizens or is it simply a high-end conveyor belt with some guarantees for wealth?
These questions are some of the ammunition used to attack the artes liberales. There may be good reason.
Martha C. Nussbaum is on the forefront of this national conversation. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (2000), Nussbaum asserts that, “…the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces vigor in the nation and freedom in the mind.” This is the kind of citizen we want — and need; the future of Democracy depends on this intellect. But, says Nussbaum, “We live, as did Socrates, in a violent society that sometimes turns its rage against intellectuals.”
Anti-intellectualism, then, is an assault on the liberal arts, an irony for Nussbaum — and others, like me, for instance — because it’s exactly what we need to have, “freedom of the mind.” But how free is the mind in these schools?
Nussbaum says that, “No curricular formula will take the place of provocative and perceptive teaching that arouses the mind.” Is this what’s going on?
My students report the following: mind-numbing, endless PowerPoints where teachers routinely read from screens; the book or two a week pace that compels students to skim and rely on Sparknotes; rigid writing assignments that ask students to repeat class notes that follow the professor’s ideas rather then asking students for their own insights, feelings and ideas; writing assignments that are always given at the end of a sequence, which students see as assignments trying to prove whether or not the student is paying attention, or busy work writing assignments, nightly or two per week reactions and summaries of the reading to see if the student is reading and following along; research papers and projects, routinely 12 – 20 pages, and assigned at the end of the semester when all classes are asking for the same thing, yet adding final exams as well, leaving no room for dialog, debate and revision. No creativity.
“Provocative and perceptive teaching,” in order to arouse the mind, cannot follow PowerPoints, nor can it ask students to engage in tasks to prove they’re listening; rather, mind arousal takes time and patience. A student — and the teacher — have to sit with ideas, let these ferment, come to the surface, so that learners can come to grips with the complexity that abounds in the human experience. This is how critical thinking is built, how inquiry is conducted. There is little evidence that this is what’s happening, according to students.
But in the pace of a semester, which ranges, depending on the school, from 12 weeks to 15, in a class that, say, meets for 2 seventy-five minute periods, I wonder how much time is afforded to Socratic activity that, says Nussbaum, again, “can enliven the thinking”? If we’re rushing through PowerPoints, and students are frantically trying to copy what’s on the screen (because faculty are frightened of simply giving the PowerPoints to students, this while MIT has put ALL their courses online!), and we’re pushing one text after another, where is the contemplation that the Socratic methods demands? Where are the writing assignments that ask students to grapple with complexity, slowly and carefully? And, since we are Americans and, for the most part, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our philosophical father, where is the time and space to revise, to think differently?
A good instructor must know a great deal about a subject; s/he must be able to draw out students to make complex connections so that the learner can begin to understand his and her capacity to reason. This takes time. If a 20 page research paper is a requirement to be delivered to the instructor at the end of the term, say during the last week or during the exam period, how is the capacity to reason determined and shown to the student? The research paper or the research project is a vital reflection on a subject; it requires time, creativity, insight. How does this happen with the pressure of the end of the term? Students say that what they do is to work through short cuts that simply enable them to produce a 20 page piece, they hand it in, and then forget about it. The goal is to be done.
The way schooling takes place, in many liberal arts institutions, what we’re in fact doing, is working against the promises of the artes liberales and, instead, we’re creating a production system that privileges the end product rather then the process; that privileges being done, rather then an examination of the insights that have gone into creating a piece in the first place. We’re product oriented. The process, where the actual teaching and learning takes place, where insights can happen and where space has to be given for ambiguity is repressed in the name of speed and efficiency. Getting through a packed syllabus and reaching the end of the term are the major course management principles; the number of pages a student writes, by the end of the term, is more important than the quality of insight, the creativity used to approach complexity. A student’s reading on an author, subject or idea is less important then her ability to mimic the teacher’s thoughts, reproduce the teacher’s lecture. Ironically, a passionate, insightful reading of a writer’s passage is more engaging, more useful in producing enlivened thinking.
In the modern curriculum, as we taut the relationship between the artes liberales and the informed citizen, we remove the most vital aspect, which is the time and the space — the safe space — essential for provoking and challenging pre-conceived perceptions about the order of things. We exist in systems based on time and efficiency models, rather then on how we learn. We’ve decided to go along with what we deem to be finished products, rather then trying to understand, in one another, how we come to be creative, how we imagine. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve taken away the capacity to imagine on a grand scale.
3. Finding Empathy — or can we create a Citizen of the World?
In another, more recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum says that the abilities associated with the humanities and the arts, which are critical for our survival as a Democracy are : “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”
The number one complaint of students I know is that they don’t have time to think; that everything is rushed; that course material is “rammed,” they say, and that how much one reads and does is more important than how deeply one thinks.
“As long as you give the prof what he wants, and you know what that is, then you’re fine,” said a student, echoing what many students say.
“We don’t have time to think about what we’re told we’re learning,” said another.
“We can’t even talk over a meal because we’re always rushing to the next class,” yet another.
What are we doing? Do we even know?
We indoctrinate students into a kind of institutional loyalty that rejects — and punishes — critiques of “local loyalties”. Adding to the problem — and the challenges facing the Liberal Arts — the economic system privileges hyperindividualism, leaving no room for empathy, the ability “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” In this system, it’s hard to actually think sympathetically about another since that Other is a sign of competition, someone or something we need to overcome and outdo. Getting ahead is the primary concern.
The humanities — the artes liberales – should inspire searching; instead, we’ve conditioned ourselves to push students to quickly seek majors, line up behind stringent requirements, though we expect them to take a course here and a course there about Other places in the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America; we inspire them to take foreign languages and to visit other countries, an approach that’s more like looking for the right restaurant, the right vacation spot without really thinking about our impact on others. We have forgotten what Paul Bowles told us in The Sheltering Sky: there is a difference between the tourist and the visitor.
We thus move about without imagining sympathetically the predicament of another person, as Nussbaum suggests. And so the challenge of the Liberal Arts is to (a) justify this conveyor belt approach that could, perhaps, enable some to enter into higher socioeconomic classes and (b) to justify, in doing so, the expense, which is rising. But there is a third consideration: how has this system added to our problems, not least of which is the systematic creation of a society divided along class lines that, in turn, emerge from our stringent parameters that determine access to (elite) higher education.
Chris Hedges, in Empire of Illusion, says that we can lay all of the worlds problems on the doorsteps of the best colleges and universities. I agree. We’re creating assembly line workers, parading as thinkers, eager to keep things as they are, fixing a nut here and a bolt there, but lacking in an imaginative perspective that can embrace, with empathy, the problems and challenges of the world. Privilege has been effectively eroticized. How expensive is that?
In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (2007), former Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis tells us that, “Unquestionably, the rewards of being part of top-tier university have caused competition for both student and faculty slots that has made both groups better in certain important ways. Yet while the competition has drawn better faculty and students to top universities, it has driven the two groups apart.”
There is a disconnect in the liberal arts academy, not least of which is the notion that we’re not really sure who are students are.
April 14, 2012 § 3 Comments
for Ronni, Sarah, the teachers at Media & Communications High School in the Heights, their students, and for the students in EDST0225(I love to say that, sounds so academic), and for the teachers who are yet to be and who will work to self-actualize
The other day I did what I always do at some point in the morning, black coffee in hand, the house quiet, I checked email. My day changed. There were two emails, one from a student I’ve known for over six years and is now in graduate school in California, the other from a colleague and friend that I’ve known for about 20 years.
From two ends of the teaching spectrum, both emails asked that I think about what I do and who I am. Both asked that I take responsibility for the place I hold in academia. And both emails tugged at my heart and my soul, asking that I voice what I know.
My former student’s subject line was this: “check out my women’s issue blog “. The first line of her email read: “Here is your shout out!” And I proceeded to read a copy of a document titled, SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY LIFELINE. She talks about her journey as a writer, early success, change in schooling, the humiliation of suddenly being seen as a poor writer, and the ensuing depression that came with these critiques of her work.
Then she met me. “Professor Vila loved my writing,” she writes. “He and I developed a special mentor relationship that still exists today, 6 years later. He was the first person in years who said that I could and should be a writer. With his belief in me, I pursued my dreams.” She moved to California, became a writer and is now pursuing a graduate degree in psychology
In the other email, my friend and colleague, during her Spring break, went out to Montauk, on Long Island, NY, and felt rejuvenated. I couldn’t help myself, so I asked: why do we need to leave our work to be rejuvenated?
The work of a teacher should rejuvenate her — it should rejuvenate all of us that are teachers. Teaching requires that one’s entire being be present. Roland Barthes, for instance, in his “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers,” tells us that “…language is always a matter of force, to speak is to exercise a will for power; in the realm of speech there is no innocence, no safety.” The teacher, upon walking into the classroom, is well aware of this — no safety, no innocence. It is definitely a will for power.
How do we interpret power in the classroom? What is the location of power in this quite sensual, moving and intensely frightening sphere called the classroom?
To answer these questions, we have to deal with a subject no one in education likes to talk about, the emotional life of a teacher. It is the unspeakable in education — that which should not be named. Yet, if anything, to be a teacher means that you will work with your senses, as well as your mind. Teaching is a science, and an art. And here lies the problem.
It is a problem of power, its representation in the classroom, and how it affects the teacher’s emotional proximity to her students. In the case of my student, above, we “dove in” together, working hard, sometimes with tears, which came back to me when I read her note; and in the case of my friend and colleague, I, too, have jumped into the hard matters of the heart with her because I know for sure that the emotional life of teachers has no support, no avenues for the careful nurturing this needs.
So let’s look at power in the classroom — what it is and how we work with it, but more importantly, how it affects the emotional life of a teacher.
Institutional power, the power of the institution known as the Education System is always present, always a given; it speaks through the teacher and the teacher is it, always. A part of the teacher negotiates, psychologically, the demands of the institution, be it a public school setting, K-12, a public University or a private school. The teacher expends tremendous amounts of energy interpreting, diagnosing, and, ultimately, coming to terms with her role in the place she holds in the academy, a sphere that tries to direct and inspire, but also a sphere that asks for allegiance, subservience.
The teacher is constantly analyzing this role; it occupies a lot of her time. For this — and many other reasons — says Barthes, “every teacher occupies the position of a person in analysis.” That is to say, a teacher, in the act of performing (teaching is a performance — more later on this), falls into the position of the person on the couch before the psychiatrist — she is being analyzed and she must confess. Teaching is showing; it is to show. This requires that the teacher must expose herself in order to show. This is daunting.
Barthes also tells us that “…for the teacher, the student audience is still the exemplary Other in that it has an air of not speaking — and thus, from the bosom of its apparent flatness, speaks in you so much the louder: its implicit speech, which is mine, touches me all the more in that I am not encumbered by its discourse… Whether the teacher speaks or whether the listener urges the right to speak, in both cases we go straight to the analytic couch: the teaching relationship is nothing more than the transference it institutes; ‘science’, ‘method’, ‘knowledge’, ‘idea’ come indirectly, are given in addition — they are left-overs.”
Which means that what is left – over, what is assumed to be the implicit subject of a course or a lesson, is not, in fact, what is primarily going on in a classroom. What then is the primary act in the classroom? What’s going on?
If the teacher is the person on the couch being analyzed, the student is the analysant. Thus, the primary act of any classroom is to create an emotional space that is safe and sound because teachers and students must negotiate their interdependence at an emotional level. Teachers and students must sense that their emotional lives are growing, maturing, coming out, slowly. This is never obvious in tests, assessments, questions about a given equation or theme of a book, but rather, this emotive learning comes out in slight gestures — how a question is asked by a student, the silences and the reluctance to speak, how she raises her hand, where the student sits in proximity to the teacher and others, and so on.
But for the teacher, in her role as the speaker, there is a decision to be made: how close do I want to get to the student? As the teacher analyzes her position in the academy, she is likewise forced to analyze her relationship to her students. This, too, is an ongoing analysis, an emotional inquiry into the self that asks the teacher to consider who she is and how she wants to represent the left-overs Barthes talks about — the science, the methods, knowledge and ideas. So the first challenge of the teacher is how to perform herself, who she is and what she stands for.
In popular culture, we have two distinct models for teachers, accurately represented in Dead Poets Society and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
This is the teacher that has a deep social concern for the souls of students; this is the teacher that understands that self-actualization is why s/he is in teaching; and this is the teacher that understands that s/he must stand against the institution that exists to ensure that the conveyor belt to labor, and that the socioeconomic stratification of society, remains constant.
This romantic figure, a Quixote waving at the windmills of conformity, is reified but discarded; s/he is honored in song and story, but pushed aside and repressed, seen as dangerous to society’s appetite for the status quo.
In 1976, another romantic figure-teacher, Mina Shaughnessy, wrote the classic essay, “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” In this essay, Shaughnessy says that when we speak about teaching, we already assume that the only person that has to do some moving in the classroom is the student; we assume that the teacher is stationary and doesn’t have to move anywhere, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This assumption is dangerous and contradicts what Barthes suggests is the place of the teacher.
This teacher, according to Shaughnessy’s developmental scale for teachers — there are 4 stages — is stuck in what she calls GUARDING THE TOWER: the teacher is concentrating on protecting the tower, including himself / herself, from “outsiders, those who do not seem to belong in the community of learners.” Many teachers are stuck here, particularly those intent on following their Power Point presentations obsessively, even reading from them, making no contact with students:
In the second stage, CONVERTING THE NARRATIVE, the teacher, says Shaughnessy, wants to get closer to her students. But, unfortunately, the learner is seen as an “empty vessel.” Here, “Learning is thought of not so much as a constant and often troubling reformulation of the world so as to encompass new knowledge but as a steady flow of truth into a void.” Of course, this is extraordinarily damaging to the teacher-student relationship and there’s a greater void that’s maintained: the self, the teacher’s and the student’s, does not delve deeper into the profound human questions of our time — What? How? Where? When? Why?
But a sensitive teacher, upon realizing that students are not responding, baffled, says Shaughnessy, arrives at the third stage: SOUNDING THE DEPTHS. Here, the teacher not only turns to her students, but to himself as well, seeking a deeper understanding of his behavior. This a harrowing turn. It is deeply emotional because the teacher questions her motives, her intent, her reason for doing what she’s doing, from method to her purpose in the Education System.
After much frustration, existing in stages 1 and 2, Glenn Ford, working through stage 3, reaches his students in the classic Blackboard Jungle – and moves closer to Robin Williams’ representation of the teacher (stay with the clip, the pay-off is at the end):
Finally, stage 4, DIVING IN. This is the most taxing and the most dangerous because, as Shaughnessy suggests, the teacher must make a decision that “demands professional courage — the decision to remediate himself, to become a student of new disciplines and of his students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence.” We see this at the end of the Blackboard Jungle as colleagues question Ford’s methods — but one volunteers to go down this road with him. The message is clear: DIVING IN can affect others in the community, as well.
But lurking close behind this image is still Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams is dismissed; in the interim, a boy commits suicide because he cannot do what he feels he needs to do. He is punished for having passion, for loving the arts, so he feels trapped, in a cell, which then doubles for the cell of the teacher and the claustrophobia students feel when they’re unable to pursue their imaginations. This is the message of Blackboard Jungle: stimulate the mind and the imagination will do the rest. Active use of the imagination can change a society because it changes people, one at a time. It’s infectious.
This is exhausting for the teacher. In other professions — medicine, the law, psychiatry — there are support groups for professionals. In the Education System, the teacher must seek solace on her own — in Montauk, perhaps, or an email to a colleague. There is no support, just more challenges, more obstacles, more demands — and we deny the emotional life of the teacher, supplanting it with regimentation, standardization, homogeneity. We, in fact, reject the notion that teachers have emotional lives, which means we reject the idea that students do too. We are comforted by looking at the student from the head up, not the whole person. We think we can teach by numbers. We forget that a teacher’s move from stage 1 to stage 4 is an emotional one. The repression of the teacher’s emotional needs suggests that education is not interested in educating the entire being, rather it is keen on stunting growth, evolution.
A teacher, as she enters the classroom to give it voice, needs students; this is an emotional journey towards mutual self-actualization that needs various forms of support — psychological and emotional, as well as professional, the art and the science of teaching. Institutionally, K-16, we reject the art, the sensual life of the teacher, which is why we’re in the state we’re in. In rejecting this side of the teacher’s life, we reject her students, too. Thus we educate by rejection, oppression and punishment. Where are we going?
To teach, as I’ve said above, is to show; to show is not to indoctrinate, rather it’s to give information while also teaching methods by which to understand, analyze and question information. The aim of the teacher is to teach to think, to doubt, to ask questions. Don’t judge students by their answers, answers are not the truth. Students — and teachers — seek a truth that is relative. For this sensual classroom to blossom, the obstacles that currently exist that keep teachers from meaningful self-actualization have to be removed.
Impede the teacher, silence the students — and we have our world.
Is this really what we want?
April 8, 2012 § 13 Comments
I have lived with 18 to 22 year olds for 27 years. I have listened to their dreams, their fears, their concerns and navigated, with them, their ambiguities and their confusion. I have watched them confront immense challenges — physical and emotional, spiritual and intellectual. And I have watched kids face the always changing, daunting world we live in, and always courageously, though sometimes the courage is reflexive, rising much later and after panic subsides. I have watched kids fall. I have watched them rise. I have watched them learn — more often then not, the hard way. I have watched them shut down, and I’ve seen them come alive, respond, move energetically towards a dream. And I have watched dreams dissolve, come crashing down.
I am a teacher. I’ve taught in nameless places, urban and suburban. I’ve taught in glamorous, distinguished places wrapped in hallowed ivy. I have taught students that humbled me with their brilliance. And I have taught students that have literally kept me up at night because they are so ill prepared to meet the challenges of an intense, fast-paced curriculum that has no mercy for those that arrive at its feet from socio-economically — and educationally — challenged environments.
I am a teacher and I’ve metamorphosed from someone who is suppose to open doors to knowledge, to someone whose last concern is knowledge and first concern is the emotional life of students. As bell hooks says in Teaching to Transgress, “There are times when I walk into a classroom overflowing with students who feel terribly wounded in their psyches (many of them see therapists), yet I do not think they want therapy from me.” What do they want? The change has been gradual but profound.
In 1985 when I first walked into a classroom, I did so without a blueprint. I had a roster in-hand, my graduate school professors as models and nothing more. Not the best way to enter. Nevertheless, in my ignorance I noticed that whether I taught the intricacies of a clear sentence or the complex subtleties of Henry James, kids sat up, went along, turned assignments in on time; in other words, they jumped as high as I wanted them to. Desire was already present in the classroom; it was the unnamed on the roster, in the room, in the transaction that went on between them and me. They wanted the knowledge I brought, thinking that it was perhaps relevant to their lives. They were seeking self-actualization, I imagined.
When I walk into a class in 2012, I have to inspire attention. I have to bring them to desire because it’s not there. I have to “shock and awe” because they’ve not brought desire along. Some have, of course, and I’m making a general statement, but suffice to say that, today, the student is placid, somewhat unmotivated to learn about herself and himself — self-actualization is not a priority — rather they are motivated by numbers and data: how much will I earn at the end of this? will I make a good living? what will be the outcome of this investment? how much energy should I invest in this effort, now, since it’s a matter of time and its relation to cost and then I have to jump through to the next hoop? what is each hoop worth? And, how will each hoop be interpreted by those that will eventually place a value on my effort and pay me?
This teaching and learning environment is thus fraught with resistance. The idea that learning can be exciting is very difficult to reach when students and teachers realize that the new, existing contract between us is to ensure that students get through it all so that the paper received at the end of four years has a certain value that can be exchanged in the marketplace.
Paulo Freire has called this “the banking system of education.” That’s much too kind. We might as well call this a “plantation model,” historically associated with slavery: raw materials are “grown” or “raised” on the plantation, made into goods, and then traded back to the plantation economy.
A degree is bought with lots of money; in turn, the value of the degree — which college or university one attends — is exchanged according to one’s wealth. The student works by adhering to the mandates of elegantly dressed individuals — known as intellectuals, paid according to where they reside, what school in the hierarchy of value — that oversee their production, grade it, and move students along. Students, in turn, jump high to reach the prescribed goals, step over archaic obstacles, only to do it again, year – after – year, until graduation, at which time they parade diplomas to the highest bidder. The value of one piece of paper is put against the value of another.
Students commence careers, heads down, much as they’ve done the previous four years, working 14 hour days, or more, cramped four and five abreast in apartments in our favorite cities, New York, of course, Chicago, Atlanta, LA, and so on, commiserating their lot at happy hour, which begins Friday and lasts until Sunday when they gather around a TV to watch sports. Life outside the safety of the academic bubble is pretty much the same as it was inside — one method of movement on the conveyor belt has been traded for another. None of it has anything to do with what has been learned in school. I had a student that obtained a very high paying job on Wall Street, not because he knew anything about economics, mind you (he never took an econ class), but because he was a good team player, a good sport well suited for a company comprised of jocks, from every sport imaginable. What was it all for, then? The only solace seems to come during homecoming when everyone returns to their alma mater to make sure the illusion fits all.
The life of a teacher is exhausting. In 1985, when I began teaching, the professor was someone — s/he mattered. Now the prof — healer, social worker, best friend, mentor and advisor, coach and diet consultant, therapist — is a life-line, a life-preserver, another node that students negotiate on the way to that valuable document that can guarantee a means of exchange. The professor is now an automated teller.
Students know that they’re simply seen as dollar and cents; they know that they are walking up to the block to be gazed at by strangers and examined, questioned and tested, then presented with a value. This is frightening and exhausting, emotionally; it depletes the spirit. And guarantees that we are not nurturing individuals through a process of self-actualization. This is, of course, understandable.
Let’s listen to bell hooks, again:
Part of the luxury and privilege of the role of teacher / professor today is the absence of any requirement that we be self-actualized. Not surprisingly, professors who are not concerned with inner well-being are the most threatened by the demand on the part of students for liberatory education, for pedagogical processes that will aid them in their own struggle for self-actualization.
What we have, then, is a system of higher education where we don’t graduate, for the most part, change agents, creative thinkers that can assess a problem and ask questions that actually challenge the way we’ve done things, but rather, we graduate individuals that will enter into different positions — or nodes — on the production line and fix a lug nut, a spark plug here and there, a timing belt, never realizing that the entire engine is actually out of date. The most obvious example is our political system where no one, not even the President of the United States is in office to change anything — rather everyone is in office to keep the system going, though it’s running out of steam. We know that — and are scared.
Teachers / professors have been made into obedient, automated overseers. We’ve helped usher in a culture that, as we look around and sense that something is wrong but can’t put a finger on it, instead of analyzing the problem and asking the critical questions and seek diverse, imaginative solutions, gravitates to exercises of power and authority, rather then deep inquiry.
March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
In order to reform education — code for altering and restructuring public education in socio-economically strapped urban settings without considering the will of the people affected, even if it means privatization and exclusion — we have to look at the entire picture, the continuum, K-16. The problem lies here.
In The Learning Connection: New Partnerships Between Schools and Colleges, Gene I. Maeroff, Patrick M. Callan and Michael D. Usdan, tell us, citing Roland Barth of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, that, “dual citizenship remains evanescent.” And that the “two sectors [K-12 and higher education] — at a time when both need reform, renewal, rethinking, and restructuring — have few connecting mechanisms to enable them to work cooperatively on issues of mutual concern.”
The challenges we face require that we re-think our complacency with current systems and arrangements. “With up to one-third of the children under age 6 growing up in poverty or economically marginal circumstances,” Maeroff, Callan and Usdan continue, “the K-12 system is confronting serious social as well as educational challenges.” The situation is grave and costly and if we don’t re-address these connections we will march into a bifurcated society — if we’re not there already.
But reform will not be enacted — and be done creatively — if we neglect the relationships between K-12 and colleges and universities. University culture hangs over K-12 education; it’s cloak of anxiety and fear overwhelms the young and their families, leading both to cower before the hallow ivy. Higher education, at its best, marginalizes and divides. It’s disconcerting because higher education is suppose to be about self-actualization.
Higher education is mired in a perspective that is inconsistent with self-actualization. Higher education is enthralled by data driven excellence and the pursuit of efficiency; it sacrifices individual talent, and effort, and privileges materialism. This is an antiquated — and destructive — way of being, commonly known as a “silo approach,” but perhaps Paulo Freire’s characterization, a “banking system,” fits best since all signs suggest that education is the new corporation, the new kid on the block comprised of powerful multinationals.
No one is happy. Everyone is confused. No one has any answers, it seems. “Without major changes in the reward system in higher education — affecting appointment, tenure, and promotion,” argue Maeroff, Callan and Usdan, “there is little chance for meaningful and sustained change and involvement in K-12 issues. We refer here to universitywide policies because collaboration efforts ought not to be limited to the faculties of schools of education.”
David Helfand, for instance, a Columbia University professor for 35 years, who chaired the astronomy department, is on leave to serve as President of tiny Quest University Canada, a liberal arts college. In the Tamar Lewin New York Times article, “David Helfand’s New Quest,” Helfand says, about Quest, that, “We have to make sure people’s inherent conservatism isn’t allowed to come through. We have to institutionalize revolution, or we’ll end up with departments and semester-long courses.” In other words, the silo or the banking system shuts down self-actualization, departmentalizes it and renders it helpless. The residue of institutionalized departmentalization, its power to place blinders on the scope of our vision, is overwhelming K-12 education; it comes in the form of high stakes testing and educational divisions separating children’s learning experiences along soci-economic and racial lines.
We thus have a society divided. Segregation is brought about by the discontinuity in K-16 education. The educational system, then, accepting inequalities, is willing to work towards small gains within “the limits inequality allows,” says Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.
Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as ‘the special needs and learning styles’ of low-income urban children have been introduced. Relentless emphasis on raising test scores, rigid policies of non-promotion and non-graduation, a new empiricism and the imposition of unusually detailed lists of named and numbered ‘outcomes’ for each isolated parcel of instruction, an oftentimes fanatical insistence upon uniformity of teachers in their management time, an openly conceded emulation of the rigorous approaches of the military, and a frequent use of terminology that comes out of the world of industry and commerce — these are just a few of the familiar aspects of these new adaptive strategies.
And these adaptive strategies so well described by Kozol have their origin in the new University that, according to the late Bill Readings in The University in Ruins, “no longer participates in the historical project for humanity that was the legacy of the Enlightenment: the historical project of culture. Such a claim also raises some significant questions of its own: Is this a new age dawning for the University project, or does it mark the twilight of the University’s critical and social function? And if it is the twilight, then what does that mean?”
The University is, in fact, in a new dawn, on the one side struggling with its antecedent — its role in humanity’s historical project; the other being the lure of materialism, “the reconception of the University as corporation,” says Readings, “one of whose functions (products?) is the granting of degrees with a cultural cache, but whose overall nature is corporate rather than cultural.”
Students in Professor Helfand’s Columbia class, he tell us, when he was asking them why they weren’t as inquisitive as 4th graders, inform him that, “Fourth graders are curious and university freshman by and large aren’t…There’s too much to learn, and it’s all on Google anyway.” And, says another, “This is a seminar. Asking questions could be a sign of weakness. You can only ask questions in big lectures where you’re anonymous.” So, says another student, “You have to understand, I’m paying for a degree, not an education.”
There you have it. Students — and their paying families — want a degree, not an education. Only education — and especially higher education — is responsible for this extraordinarily shortsighted view, which is costly in more way then one since it’s given us the society we now have.
We’re therefore left with the corporation. The corporation is the culture — and vice versa. The elite cannot sidestep this bind either. “The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive,” says Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service — economic, political, and social — come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with highly specialized vocabulary …a sign of the ‘specialist’ and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding.”
What emerges are managers of the dominant system, not change agents, not enlightened individuals that can question, imagine something different and transgress the means of blind production. Education K-12 is part of this system, weeding out those that can become the elite managers of the system, separating them from those that will service the system elsewhere — manual labor, the service industries and, more emphatically, in the prison industrial complex, as guards and inmates.
Education means to control and manage, not enlighten and enable actualization; it creates specialists, the elites, and a slave class through its apartheid system. The system is inverted — inverted totalitarianism.
In higher education, tenure is, of course, part of the problem. It’s a system of discipline and punishment that insists on embracing the larger framework as ideal. “It’s not exactly a system designed to attract the most entrepreneurial, risk-taking types,” Helfand tells Tamar Lewin . “Furthermore, tenure has little to do with teaching. Just look at the language: we talk about teaching ‘loads’ and research ‘opportunities,’ and you can be sure it is exploiting the latter that gets you tenure,” he says. Tenure is synonymous with advancing in a corporation; the language is interchangeable.
We can hear echoes of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish here: “The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into their bodiless reality.” Indeed. Our education system, K-16, and our students, our teachers and professors, too, enter this “bodiless reality” where discipline and punishment are exercised. “Since its no longer the body,” says Foucault, “it must be the soul” that must be disciplined. Education serves this purpose in our society: it disciplines the soul into subservience and blind allegiance; it enables citizens to embrace the most dangerous thing of all, ideologies.
The result, says John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization, “will be the portrait of a society addicted to ideologies — a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism. The acceptance of corporatism causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy. The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”
Self-interest trumps self-actualization in Education. This can be turned around if we, in higher education, examine our purpose. And if our purpose is even remotely about self-actualization — ours and our students’– then we’re called to re-evaluate the conditions in the University that have lead us to the dire circumstances we’re in today. On this road we’ll realize a few things: we’re not sure who are students are and what they need and want; we’re not sure about our world because we reject the notion that we, in academia, had something to do with its creation; we are fearful of releasing ourselves from the binds of departmentalization and devising new and fresh approaches to learning that take into consideration how much we’ve come to know about learning and the brain; and we are definitely frightened of releasing our sense of ownership and control over our disciplines to give way to different and fresh, interdisciplinary approaches, though our life at hand is telling us that we must since nothing, nothing at all really ever exists confined as we make it out to be in our silos, our disciplines. K-16 education needs to be re-invented as a long journey towards self-actualization that pushes aside departmentalization, corporatism and racism, our current conditions.
February 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
For those of you who dare, this is the second chapter (the first is here, still).
One of the characters is reading El Clarín, which is a popular and central newspaper in Argentina. And, as TWA Flight 800 is real, Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Musavi is a real character, though highly fictionalized here so as to avoid condemnation. Others, Gardel, Evita Perón and Maradona — el Che — are of course real.
The rest — I’m responsible for putting you through this …
El Clarín, on the lower right hand side of its front page, in a small tight square unnoticed by most of its readers even as they licked the tips of thumb and index finger and turned to the paper’s next page, reported that an unidentified Middle Eastern man was found dead in a dingy alley near the Rocha Bend of the Riachuelo in La Boca.
Artists and laborers in red, yellow, blue-green chapa houses, built at the dawning of a nation by Italian immigrants working in nearby meatpacking plants and warehouses in Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood, aroused by first light, awakened to a coiled body in fetal position, throat cut from ear to ear, face down and eyes wide open submerged in coagulated gutter water and floating cigarette butts. Winter flies gathered the spittle.
Víctima de juego sucio, reported El Clarín.
“I hope he’s not here,” said Marcelo Abendroth in a whisper, his long, delicate hand outstretched over the story of the dead Middle Eastern man in El Clarín laying opened on a flimsy table in the dim Rincón Café in San Telmo. He looked down at the story and stared at it for some time. Then he carefully drew his café to the edge of his thin lips so as to avoid being stung by its heat.
He scoped the Rincón. A gilded portrait of a young Carlos Gardel, fedora at an angle over the tangista’s upturned brow, hung side-by-side with the Madonna sagrada, Evita Perón, over the murky bar. Abendroth grinned. A dozen small fat candles in constant vigil beneath the portraits flickered a quiet light onto a mahogany bar and scarred it with a melancholy wax. The bar was an altar , an homage to an imagined Argentina. Bottles of wine and whisky and gin and absinthe from France stood without order – whisky next to wine, cognac and warm cokes and vodka. At the end of the bar next to the television held high on a homemade wooden shelf was a signed poster of a youthful Diego Maradona in his blue and yellow of better days. The poster was tacked into the plaster wall.
Near Plaza Dorrego, the Rincón was the local café, the nexus for life’s transitions. On its wounded external brick wall was a spray painted caricature of a youthful Che Guevara, in his boina and scraggly beard, frozen for posterity. And beneath the image of the Argentine doctor from Rosario, in blood red: Until Victory Always!
Marcelo Abendroth wore a brown gabardine suit, a dark blue wool turtle neck and Italian loafers without socks. He had taken off his jacket and draped it behind his seat. Abendroth had skeletal shoulders and a spindly neck. He rolled his sleeves half way up his forearm exposing fine wrists. A Rolex dangled like a woman’s bracelet from his right wrist.
Abendroth looked down at the newspaper, again, and moved his hand to the side and glanced at the story. He read the headline out loud: “Víctima de juego sucio.” And raised his conditioned eyebrows to show indignation. “Very Argentinean, the knife,” he said sternly – as stern as he could be given his demeanor. “I hope that Abu Dokhan lives up to his name. And vanishes. I hope he didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi had eyes that were outsized portals as black as night. They fell on a thick weariness that told a story of an anguished life. Musavi’s face was round and wide. He ran his hand over his bald head – a sign of his frustration with Abendroth’s questions about the whereabouts of the smoke-bearer, Abu Dokhan.
But Abendroth noted how Musavi brightened when he heard the name of the most wanted Lebanese. Musavi sat up and eased his hand down his burly face and rubbed his bulbous nose as if he suddenly had an itch. The table trembled from his weight. Hairs protruding from his nose were like ivy entangled in a moustache that covered his upper lip. Abendroth looked away in disgust.
“Hezbollah calls him The smoke-bearer, the Abu Dokhan. That’s what it means, smoke-bearer. He vanishes like smoke,” said Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi with pride. “All westerners think we Arabs are related or that we know each other intimately. Everyone knows who Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is – that’s his real name. Hajj Radwan. But I. We,” he said pointing to Abendroth and then himself. “We have nothing to do with him, my friend. And I have nothing to do with this dead man.”
“In this country all Arabs are implicated, I’m afraid – first the Israeli Embassy is bombed, then AMIA is leveled,” said Abendroth. “I’ve been told that the dead man had a bird stuffed in his mouth.”
“A bird? What kind of a bird? It’s not in the paper,” said Musavi. He spoke as if he was gargling with marbles. He leaned towards the much smaller Abendroth. Musavi seemed to be about to swallow him.
“They don’t want to alarm people. We Argentineans are a superstitious lot. A canary.”
“Ah. Someone has indeed sent a message.”
Musavi sipped his bitter black coffee, eyes on Marcelo Abendroth, Director of the Economic Education Trust, a subsidiary of Triad Management, a consulting firm concentrated on information and influence ; it mines special interests for investors in the United States that look to expand their holdings and have some bearing on power.
“I love the coffee in your country. It reminds me of home,” said Musavi, his thick lips expanding into a smile that made his face even wider.
“The destruction of the Israeli Embassy and AMIA are not subtle messages, Musavi. Not at all. What’s next? There’s always a next. Something. Always more, something else,” Abendroth said leaning forward over his espresso. But he immediately relaxed because he knew from Musavi’s blank gaze that there wasn’t going to be a response. Abendroth was not one to push. He smiled coquettishly, which was his way when he was nervous. He looked down at his hands, palms down, and rubbed the tops of his finger nails with his thumb as if he was removing dust. He admired their luster.
“Abendroth. In German it means evening or dusk, does it not? Argentineans are always on the lookout for Germans. It must make you self-conscious. Nervous perhaps. No? The indictment in people’s eyes when they know – and suspect. Similar to what we Arabs feel. So you must understand that Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is a coincidence – that’s all.”
“Coincidence. The Israeli Embassy and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association, the AMIA itself after the embassy. Coincidences, Musavi? Suddenly this dead man. What are you hiding? We’re always hiding something.”
“Money is truth, Mr. Abendroth,” said Musavi in his thick accent. “The only truth. Nothing else. Money. It creates democracies. And it can create autocracies and dictatorships and whatever we need it to do. Money can hold whoever we want in power, for as long as we want. Money paves roads. And sometimes, as you say, it can hide things.”
“It depends on the story, Musavi. It has to be the right story. Freedom has a price. It’s a balancing act. That’s the world we’re in. Our world. And you want to play in it so you must tow the line, Musavi. With care. Or you might not be let in. Entrance comes at a price.”
Marcelo drew his espresso and then waved to the sleepy waiter.
“Ajenjo. Para los dos, por favor,” he ordered.
“Ah bien. La fée verte. Muy bien. Perfecto.”
Marcelo Abendroth leaned towards Musavi as if he didn’t want to be heard. “At our first meeting in Iguazu, I remember the smoke-bearer. He was there. I remember. He was with you. In your entourage. I can see him there plainly. Like it was yesterday. I saw him. I remembered him when I read this story. This was before the embassy. Before any of it. This dirty business. What are you doing, exactly, Mr. Musavi? What can you say to me? If it’s learned that Hajj Radwan was with you – it’s obvious no? People would think. Put two and two together.”
“Anyone could have done this killing. Someone could have been angry at this guy because he said something foul against Boca and fútbol passions ran wild and they cut his throat after too much drink. Maybe he was a River fan. Look where we are, Marcelo. This is not uncommon in your country. It could have been a woman – because of a woman. The signs are there – the knife. The knife is always used when a woman is involved. It could have been the Iranians. Who’s to know? Or maybe it was that psycho al-Gaddafi – he has a bone to pick with your president. Menem’s an Arab, too, after all, and word is, he crossed Gaddafi. On the street I hear that your president reneged on a missile deal. You can’t take ten million dollars from Gaddafi, not give him anything in return and get away with it. Come on. Your people should know better. Perhaps Gaddafi is paying him back – a warning. Maybe that’s the message. A message from Gaddafi. Don’t cross me Menem or next time it will be closer to home.” Musavi paused and looked down at his black café, put his thick hands around the tiny cup and, as his large round shoulders came up around his head and he looked like a giant sea turtle, said, “And maybe it was the CIA. You know they’re everywhere and they like it down here. They like your country, all those Germans smuggled in – who could have imagined that American military power was built with Nazi know-how? And it came through here, your country, Marcelo. It’s very easy here. It’s chaotic and delightfully confusing. Anything is possible in your country. Everything can be done here. People are wonderfully distracted. That’s why we all like your country. Certain countries exist to facilitate the needs of others. The legacy of the Cold War, I’m afraid. We have to live with it. Adjust. Isn’t that how we’ve evolved? It’s the probable course of things. And who’s to know? Maybe the CIA is fronting for Gaddafi or the Iranians, maybe both. It’s all possible. It depends on which way the story will be turned. Isn’t’ that what you said? We’re all in this twist now – twisted together in a coil, stories intertwining, running into each other, infecting one another. We can’t escape it. History, the present, the future – they’re all intertwined and confused. No one knows the truth. No one knows where we’re going. We have to create new truths. New rules. I don’t recall Hajj Radwan there with us. I’m sorry, Marcelo, I don’t. Not at all. Maybe you’re mistaken. You westerners think we all look alike. It’s not just. Not just at all. We Arabs don’t know each other. We’re not all related. The eye is fickle, my friend.”
“And the heart is worse.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps you’re right. Maybe the Iranians, maybe Gaddafi. The CIA. We don’t know anything about this dead man. And, yes, the embassy and AMIA are messages, indeed. That’s all. Messages, Marcelo. The result of something much larger. Eventually we’ll set a good course, catch the right wind with the right force. Perhaps Hajj Radwan has been here – perhaps not. We will never know. Unsavory characters know how to blend with the rest of us. They blend and wait – and then strike. A friend today can kill you tomorrow. And never be found again. Maybe getting away with a thing like that is the ultimate freedom. An aphrodisiac – the most powerful of all. What’s a life worth, anyway?”
Abendroth lit a cigarette and inhaled with the deep satisfaction of someone who smoked because it eased him. Musavi leaned back in his chair and extended his arms, his hands holding the edge of the delicate table, and took in the contentment of watching Abendroth’s unease.
A bandoneon cried out Gardel. El día que me quieras.
The bandoneon player, all in black like the night echoing through the front window behind him, was lost in the woe oozing from his fingers moving instinctually up and down the white keys that shone like the moon. El día que me quieras.
Musavi studied Abendroth. A full silence fell between them.
“I’m not sure about all this Musavi,” Abendroth said in the semi darkness of the Rincón. He was hesitant.
“We’re merely trying to learn to live in the world that has been created by you westerners.”
Musavi took a red pack of Dunhills from his pocket and lit a cigarette, too. He held the cigarette between his thumb and index finger. Inhaled. And exhaled slowly and leaned forward and flicked the edge of his cigarette into a tin ashtray between them.
The bartender turned on the old black and white TV at the end of the bar and its radiance fell on the dim Rincón. The bartender reached for the rabbit ears and adjusted them and a coarse picture came into view as if traveling a great distance through fog.
… A las 20:45 horas, once minutos después de despegar del Aeropuerto Internacional Kennedy, el vuelo 800 de TWA, con destino a París, Francia, se estrelló en el Océano Atlántico frente a la costa de Long Island…
Marcelo Abendroth turned towards the TV, a disturbing blue-gray eye, an unannounced brightness that pushed aside the solemn comfort that can exist among strangers, and took a drag of his cigarette.
Suddenly the TV picture was gone and a scratchy graininess shoved Gardel’s sadness, jostled it, and brought forth another.
The bandoneon player kept on, his melancholy persistent, like mourning.
“Carajo. Puta. Qué mierda,” the bartender railed.
“Chin,” said Musavi, raising his absinthe. “Salud. It’s done. The future is ours. Let’s not cry over what’s past. We’ve done well together – and we’ll do more. We understand each other. And we have a place to start. A starting point. We’re in deep. And we’re going deeper. When there are no answers to a puzzle, my friend, the only solution is to go in deeper, dig further into the maze. It’s the only way. There’s no turning back. There’s only going deeper.”
Marcelo Abendroth turned away from the TV and raised his glass to Musavi’s. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “To forging ahead. Going deeper. Here’s to the labyrinth. Salud.”
“Al futuro,” said Musavi. “Nuestro futuro.”
They pulled their heads back and swallowed the warm ajenjo and slapped their short glasses on the table. The table shook and creaked. Musavi looked up at the black television screen.
February 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
These are the first pages of a story I’ve been working on for quite some time. The larger working title is THE DOUBLE HELIX. The first third is called BENDING. The second and third parts are titled TWISTING and COMPRESSION.
Please feel free to comment. Your comments will definitely help me. Where do you think it’s going? What’s happening here? Who are these people? This is fiction that grows from history. The major event, here, which happens on July 17, 1996, is true.
“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”
Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon
PART ONE: BENDING
July 17, 1996: New York City, Upper West Side
Life’s din diminished some in that small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness.
With his palms on the coarse sill, he ducked under the window’s frame and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.
He waited all day to tilt into the serenity that arrived with the humidity and pressed him to push away his day. He arched his back and stretched and took it in.
He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee cap, a danseur never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced.
The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something.
The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together as if responding to some great secret. The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.
The young Dr. Raúl Sicard was transfixed by the scene. What others might find inconsequential, something to pass by, intrigued him. There was meaning in the seemingly mundane. He was a geneticist and he liked nothing better then to lose himself in thought when he came face-to-face with an adaptation like this. He strayed off to see if he could imagine the adaptations that drove the dog walker and his canis lupus familiaris to this moment, this place, here and now.
The city dog is so different from the country dog that roams unconstrained across a larger earth and squats without fear, he thought, never lifting his leg. Almost nothing separates them – yet everything does.
He stretched further out his window and took a deep breath, even though the air was heavy. Streets lamps came on. The Palisades were lit and reflected off the Hudson River.
Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie.
Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.
This is how the world moved that day, July 17, 1996, before Raúl’s eyes adjusted to the sadness that arrived when the phone rang outside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture knocking at him, asking him to leave things behind for a bit.
He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.
He felt the weight in the room, a sadness that came out of nowhere – yet it seemed old and familiar, and lodged itself in the pit of his stomach.
Raúl leaned inside and faced the phone. He held the sill with his right hand, not yet giving it up all the way. Not yet.
The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.
The sadness multiplied. He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded. He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear. How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.
He traced his steps for signs. Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless. Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise. And pulled open his window.
At some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed. Maybe the sadness had been there all along – that was more logical.
The phone rang again.
He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved. But that was too much, too far to go.
Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present. He didn’t want to be sucked in. Know its spiral history. That’s what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully. Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever.
He felt bound. In the genetics lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify. There was nothing to measure here. Nothing at all – but an intuition.
The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.
There was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light. After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had a Brooklyn Summer Ale and dreamt of things that may never come to pass. On a cloudless bright day, they descended into the dank and murky subway station on 161st and took the number one, Broadway – Seventh Avenue local to 72nd Street and strolled to Lincoln Center where a Guatemalteco on the corner sold dolls with bouncing heads and a Jamaican next to him hawked antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages.
A invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waited for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forgot her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation. Soon, she would not be.
It’s all like this – the Guatamalteco, the Jamaican, the invisible end of an adaptation. It all had to be like this, a design, an order. Nothing spoke to him of the sadness he felt – but it had been there, he was sure of it. Had to be.
He tried ignoring the third ring and turned to the hum of the TV.
A voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness. That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week. An inexorable eye looking back at him.
Nothing mattered now. Except the fifth ring. Its sound hung in the air, hollow. The phone and the TV.
…At 8:45P.M., eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island. Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky. But nothing is certain. There are no causes known at this time. The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels. The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well. The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey. And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…
The phone rang again.
“Papá,” he whispered. Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith. “Papá,” he said again. It filled the room. “Papá.” It overwhelmed everything. The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.
He picked up the phone and staggered.
He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be. Where the problems of the heart live just beyond the design, beyond the touch of order. This sadness was new and full.
February 5, 2012 § 3 Comments
In this complex image, we find a very relaxed, smiling, from ear-to-ear, President Obama, beer in one hand (could it be a foreign beer, a Heineken?), a football in the other. He’s in a white Oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up to his forearms ( he’s yet to have to pull them all the way up and go to the hard work, perhaps — or maybe he just makes the hard work look easy?), sitting in a comfortable chair — a moment for the president to chill out and watch a GOP football game on a wide screen tv.
The players, in a full stadium (presumably the public watching; mediated sports, here, functioning as “a continuing tension — relationship, influence and antagonism — to the dominant culture,” as Aaron Baker tells us in “Sports and the Popular,” in Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity), are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
A bulldog-faced and bruised Newt is being tackled by a flying Mitt, his face serious and determined. Helmets have flown off, noting the violence of the game — football and politics as high-stakes contact sports; both players are marked up, bruised, as is the GOP. And the football is out of their hands — a fumble, or the ongoing fumbling so much the definition of the GOP during this vicious political cycle pre-November.
Blitt is asserting an essential characteristic of Obama’s popularity that we’ve failed to see or if we’ve seen it, we’ve failed to acknowledge: Style. I’m suggesting that it is this Style that repels many white citizens — and politicians — but which will undoubtedly be an asset in his re-election.
Blitt deconstructs our “shortsightedness,” as I’ve said before, by conflating African-American style, coming into prominence through music, and mediated sports, especially America’s favorite contemporary passion, football, a game consistent with crisis management (we’re always in a crisis, in war with this or that — the Taliban, drugs, poverty), the taking of territory with power and wit, much like armies do, and restricted by time and space, the perfect metaphor for a world that has to deal with limited resources.
Everywhere we turn in football — and politics — there are constraints, limitations and crisis. And we’re always running out of time; there’s never enough. It’s now or never; there’s no long term plan. Attack, attack, attack. Leave no one standing. It’s not surprising that topping the sports news these days are concussions, the short athletic lives of football players and the compromises in later life. This is the American way of life. We can see that now. Fight, fall, endure — not much of a future in this.
But Obama offers us style as an antidote — and those that see their former lives metamorphosing into some unknown are fighting back like mad, rather then seeing the errors in the ways that have gotten us to this point. Republicans never talk about one reality, for instance (and the popular media never pursues this line): we’re living through the wonderful world left us by Bush-Cheney. The GOP has amnesia.
But where does style and the animosity towards it come from?
In the now classic Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, William C. Rhoden, of the New York Times, in “Style: The Dilemma of Appropriation,” tells us that in the summer of 1963, he remembers watching Ron Santo, the Chicago Cubs‘ third basement, hit a deep fly ball in the gap between right and center.
Willie Mays drifted across the outfield like Charles Coles, the great tapdancer whose footwork was so sweet and smooth that they called him “Honi.” He arrived at his spot under the baseball with no apparent sweat, even though he’d had to run for what seemed like miles to get there (147).
Following the catch, “Santo kicked the ground in disgust.” But, Rhoden says, the “most memorable part of the play took place after Mays made the catch”(147). Mays “nonchalantly picked up the ball out of his glove, tossed it back to the infield, coolly walked back to center field, flicked his sunglasses back up, and waited for the next play. His body language suggested annoyance that the batter hadn’t presented a greater challenge”(147-48).
Our Mays is Obama sitting back with shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, beer in one hand, a football on the other — nonchalance, de rigueur for Obama. It’s how he strolls to the podium; how he must play basketball. It’s how he sings Al Green. And the plastic, always scripted Mitt Romney has no style at all. And Newt is a playground bully, unlikable, menacing.
Mays came along after Jackie Robinson, who had to watch every aspect of his life; he made room for Mays. After Mays we have Muhammad Ali, Charlie Parker earlier. Miles Davis introduced Americans to “cool” and “hipster” in the late 1950′s (Rhoden, 152).
“In virtually every decade since the 1950s, black athletes have been at the core of some stylistic or structural innovation in sports”(152).
These changes, as television — and the image — begin to dominate, run parallel to political figures — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, and Carol Mosely Braun.
Barack Obama is now the most famous African-American; in him we see the political rise of the African-American. But we also see the manifestation of style, its rise out of R&B and Rap, out of the style so endemic of the NBA — tats and all. The power of style is that “in some ways [it] underlines the [Black athlete's] inability to define themselves in more substantive ways and find acceptance” (156).
Obama still can’t “define” himself in “substantive ways and find acceptance,” in general. With Obama’s current approval rating, the up-tick in employment figures and the ever present , though slow, upswing of the economy, the Republicans have little to address. Even Romney was bold enough to say that the current unemployment figures had nothing to do with Obama; however, Gingrich did say that, in the end, some credit would have to be given Obama. Which is which?
The GOP can’t coalesce around a singular message. This means that it’s going to get nastier; this means that direct attacks on Obama’s personality — his style, which for the African -American is synonymous with “soul” — will increase. The most violent and angry segments of the GOP are overtly racist, though their kids listen to Rap, wear caps with brims sideways and their boys sport baggy jeans half way down their buttocks (without knowing what this means).
The problem — and challenge — that the GOP image makers face is the “fact that black style was quickly commodified by white power, which became addicted to this other new form of black gold”(168). Style is something we require of our leaders because it shows how a candidate connects with the general public; it is powerful because it’s visceral, sensual and sexy. None of the GOP candidates are sexy. Women, minorities, the young all gravitate to “cool,” witness the rise of Apple, the wooden descriptions given Microsoft, lackluster and stiff, like its creator, Bill Gates.
America is a house divided by style. This is to argue that America is self-divided by a confusion concerning a change in the balance of power perpetuated by the rise of the black politician that, for the most part, comes with a history that’s quite different from the history experienced by the dominant (white) class of privilege. And one definitive — and powerful — characteristic of this style, as Rhoden argues, is that it’s a consequence of great suffering.
In an America that is suffering profoundly, only a leader that has suffered, personally and with his people, can lead. It’s a matter of grace, something Hemingway would argue, but which the GOP fails to see.
The GOP nominee will be Mitt Romney, but he’ll fail because he lacks the grace — and dignity — to address deeply felt suffering with style that says, I understand. We can overcome by making it look easy.
Vero Beach, Florida and the Manufacturing of Consciousness: How the GOP Will Give Obama a Victory in 2012
January 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
At the height of the GOP primary race in South Carolina, I was in Vero Beach, Florida, and suddnely what came over me was the uncanny feeling that I was in-between worlds, a kind of vertigo, a foreboding I was not expecting since I was happily running up A1A.
In South Carolina, the reformed Catholic, Newt Gingrich, surged ahead by deploying a recognizable racist attack — Obama, the European socilaist, as food stamp president — rejecting his lobbyist self — though we know Newt was (Congress wrote the rules to ensure this kind slippage for themselves, post-Tom Delay, increasing their wealth on our backs) — and admonishing the poor for being lazy, resolving that it’s best to give poor children brooms and mops to clean schools.
In Vero Beach, as I went for runs, I was ovewhelmed by the illusion of reality — MacMansions by the sea (guilty: I was in one!), gated communities, vegetation that is not indigenous (all of it has been imported, except for sea graves and the St. Augustine grass,) and a constant burning of fossil fuels to maintain lavish lawns — mowers, blowers, chain saws, large trucks, off-road vehicles and yachts; the late-model luxury automobiles that are required in a place where pedestrain traffic is, as in L.A., non-existent and strip malls and golf courses that have become the new valhala.
And not a single person of color within sight — unless cleaning houses, mowing lawns and on garbage runs standing behind large trucks.
It’s not surprising that Vero has it’s own Disney Resort. The master of illusion has made Florida its own. Does this illusion follow the America psyche or does it help construct it, as do our politics, I wonder?
I was shaken by the very plastic nature of this living — and perhaps the very plastic, constructed lives we lead that scream unsustainability.
Vero Beach is the American Paradox: the extraordinary cost of creating and maintain such lavishness and the economic drain of a lifestyle that is characterized by total mechanization, as the pudgy elderly try to stave off the inevitable by walking and biking, their lives well kept by Latinos and some, very few, African Americans usually found at Publix markets, gas stations and sanitation trucks. The divide is the evolution of manifest destiny that has assumed a contemporary look and feel.
The BMW’s and Cadillacs and late model SUV’s abound. It is prosperity writ large; it is also a final sign, at the last third of someone’s life, that I’ve arrived, I’ve achieved. It’s what Mitt Romney argued in the GOP debate in Florida: this wasn’t handed to me, it was earned. This is the American way now.
But our American way has become divisive, we know that now — we can feel it. The left and the right are so distant from what we the people perceive our American mission to be, that we’ve lost any real understanding of Representative Democracy. Who is representing what and whom?
If it was only that we’re in an economic quagmire, the way out would be simple; we would collaborate and cooperate, plan and execute. But our condition is beyond being simply a bind — it’s a new construction that sprinkles old, recognizable American rhetoric over a new order that is redefining Representative Democracy: we no longer vote for people who represent us, the people; rather, we vote for representatives of multinationals and narrow special interests; we vote for extreme special interests that only comply with a very fine line defined by those holding the purse strings — or worse, with interests that comply with ultrathin social ideology, such as the complexities of marriage, civil unions and a woman’s right choose.
In an enlightening interview on the PBS News Hour, Thomas Edsall, a longtime Washington Post reporter, now a New York Times columnist and professor of journalism at Columbia University, who has written a new book, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, said, “Well, what’s happened, I think, in the past — really since the collapse, economic collapse, is that the country now is — has become dominated by the issue of debt and deficits.” Edsall goes on to say that, “Somebody’s going to take a hit. It’s no longer a nice and friendly game. It’s who’s going to get hurt. That makes for — we already had a polarized politics. When you add this notion that politics now is one not just of what can I get out of it, but what do I do to the people to get what I want, that makes it a much nastier and much more hostile circumstance.”
Thus our confusion. We don’t understand this bifurcation characterized by a nastiness and indifference to the well being of most Americans.
At the heart of this problem are the psychologies of liberals and conservatives, respectively, says Edsdall:
Liberals are very concerned with compassion and fairness. Conservatives have what one person describes as a broader spectrum, but not as much focus on compassion and fairness, but also on issues of sanctity, of a different kind of fairness. Their opposition to affirmative action, for example, is a different kind of fairness.
Edsall clarifies, saying, that
…the idea that conservatives are willing to inflict harm is not necessarily a criticism. If you are in a fight, and you’re fighting to protect what you have, being loyal to your own people is not necessarily a bad thing. If you and your family had to protect what your child is getting what your husband and so forth — if they face serious threats of lost goods, in effect, you’re fighting for them, and, in fact, if that meant someone else had to get hurt, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
This is the crux of the matter because, as Edsall says, “There is a stronger natural instinct among conservatives to see contests in zero sum terms, (witness: GOP debates AND NEWT — which is why I’m reminded of Mussolini and Perón), that there are going to be losers and winners. Therefore, I want to get into this and be sure that I am the winner and that people that are around me are winners” (parenthetical inclusion mine).
This is short term thinking, not long term planning that is creative; it takes away and does not build. It is destructive in nature since it means, by design, to push certain people away.
In “The Obama Memos: How Washington Changed the President,” by Ryan Lizza (The New Yorker, January 30, 2012), we learn from Thomas Mann, “of the bipartisan Brookings Institute,” and Norman Ornstein, “of the conservative American Enterprise Institute,” in a “forthcoming book about Washington Dysfunction, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, that,
One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, and scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Ultimately, this kind of hostility ensures that none of us sees clearly, least of all politicians. It’s by design. While Obama came into office with a spirit of change, trying to direct the country in new, fertile directions, Lizza tells us that the President, “was the most polarizing first-year President in history — that is, the difference between Democratic approval of him and Republican disapproval was the highest ever recorded.” Obama, we learn from Lizza, had to change in order to survive. And we also learn that, “Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street.”
It’s because of Obama’s accomplishments, I would argue, that, alongside dwindling resources, the Republican willingness to inflict harm, divide and (try) to conquer, even by waging war on voting, has become the strategy that is overwhelming this run to the 2012 elections.
What’s left, then, is a populace running towards Vero Beach, running to escape this violation of our rights, close our eyes, and enjoy what small, square plot of earth we can call our own, even though much of the American people will be left out.
Welcome to the new, uncanny presidential election cycle where we might see how inflicting pain may become the winning solution for the GOP — or it may undo them to such an extent that, perhaps, Obama’s willingness to work for change, his 2008 promise, can become something closer to the truth during a second term.
What we do know, is that the system is broken and it’s unsustainable. This is certain.
January 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.
December 19, 2011 § 4 Comments
I seem to be looking for meaning everywhere I turn. But meaning I cannot find today.
Looking for meaning ought to point to something, a thing that corresponds to it. It’s a temptation to try to find some object that we might call “the meaning.” But there is no such object. This temptation — to find the meaning – needs to be cured.
Baffled, I look and wonder about our state of affairs — why we are the way we are, today’s American — and find not a single hint of an answer anywhere. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is obvious. Perhaps, as mathematicians might suggest, the deterministic nature of our system — capitalism flag waving as democracy — does not allow for predictability.
The world is perpetually in flux, yet Americans operate as if it’s static. We speak boldly about Morality and Utility, but these extract demands from our propensity for pleasure — oral, visual, sexual (not so much sensual, which would then move us towards aesthetics and a re-engagement with philosophies concerning Beauty, which would be too much to think about, too complex).
We are very much alone and plugged in — iPads, iPhones, computers, social networks. We are solitary — the self in perpetual solitude. Our experiences, like no other time in history, are profoundly solitary. In solitude we have intense experiences and can, for a short time, transcend the very real flux, the natural course of Being, existence.
Americans are then always in contradictions — solitary experiences that momentarily transcend the flux that is always present. Ironic — we are in a constant state of Irony. The prodigal child of irony is Alienation, a ongoing theme, for instance, in our American Literature that begins with Emerson to Hawthorne and Melville to Henry James and William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens to Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. Alienation gives us a form of rooted rootlessness, security in insecurity, an sense of alienation that has been historically a confirmation of community.
Alienation, rather then any ideology, is the construct of politics in America today. Alienation presupposes the always ongoing struggle to find the meaning that alludes us. There is no meaning — it’s the temptation we follow.
The rhetoric of politicians, keenly orchestrated to appeal to media, exploits the temptation to find the object that will give us the meaning. No one is telling the truth, though. The only truth is that our masquerading democracy seeks exploitation to survive, using Divine Providence — the false notion that we are the Chosen — to embellish our tendency for denial of what we see — or don’t see.
We signed up and followed Obama’s Change Rhetoric, only to find out that change meant more of the same: a rounding up of the Bush-era foreign and domestic policies and greater intimacy with Wall Street, passed down to us by Reagan. We’ve been lead, with our acceptance, down the wrong path. And the alternative, the crazy, Ahab-like Newt of destruction and the indifferent and the callous and blindly ambitious Romney, who made his fortune on destruction, promise a profound exploitation of resources.
In The Ship chapter of Moby-Dick, Melville tells us that, “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” What we chase is profoundly irrelevant, says Melville.
We long for men that promise the meaning; we chase after their ambition, as poor Ishmael did when he stepped onto the Pequod and said, “this ship is for us.” But the Pequod is not a democracy; in its appeal to be considered the meaning, what we find, as a microcosm of American culture, in 1851 and 2011, is a totalitarian regime disguised as a democracy fully grounded in self-reliance. And nothing could be further form the truth, which is where we find ourselves today in America — far from any sense of truth.
In the end, now, as did Ishmael, we are orphaned, floating in a sea, only the sharks do not have “padlocks on their mouths.”
November 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
September 20, 2011 § 4 Comments
Academic dawn is like no other beginning. No other daybreak like it exists. Alumni never forget it and forever pine away for that first light of college life – the anticipation of the first day of classes in early September. It’s filled with possibilities – new friendships, new stories, parties, homecoming, new loves, new dreams. It has a way of giving lift to the soul because the slate is wiped clean by the certainty of the semester to come – everything has to be forgotten, left behind and erased to begin anew, to carry on for the next fifteen weeks. A new September, every September, is an aphrodisiac. And everything that is to come in one’s life, whether it’s been dreamt, planned and scheduled, will give way to the glorious routine of strolling to class across a genteel campus, maples and pines waving in the breeze, students perpetually smiling – de rigueur – to show how hopeful they are, how eager they are for a professor’s lecture. There is a finality and a logic to this ongoing cycle, a neatness, a tidy composure and a comfort that permeates everything and is instantly obvious the minute one steps into a luxurious, modern classroom – cushioned seats that rock, adjustable arm rests, desks on wheels that can be moved to form circles or be put in lines, which no one does anymore in this new age of composed dialog. For seventy five minutes, listening and doodling and thinking and drifting and wondering while the professor strains through a lecture, there is escape, there is release. The lecture is a momentary stay against the confusing madness beyond the consecrated ivy; it’s predictable and welcomed, it pushes aside everything – suffering, anxiety, sadness, and even memory. All. It pushes aside life. Daily, with each class, faculty and students experience the almost infinite cycle of new dawns, daylights that come in waves with each course and that call attention to existence itself – and at a distance, from the comfort of well appointed abstractions and theories and criticisms. Oh how beautiful it is to keep the world and its filth at an intellectual distance. Academic dawn lightens the air and it excites. It makes everyone eager on a college campus in September. Academic dawn is a drug; with it the foreseeable, the inevitable, is forestalled – so we like to think.
What today we can’t sidestep is the place of the professor, however, particularly because s/he is being averted by our culture. The professor is experienced more as gatekeeper, rather then an expert on a subject. The professor creates requirements, hoops students must jump through in order to find their lives in a society dominated by a harsh, vertical economic system.
The professor is essentially an abstruse theorist that uses code words to explain the obvious, we’re told; s/he builds intellectual edifices for the elite and has absolutely no relationship with the “common man,” an acerbic criticism that likewise places into question university education because it is overpriced and overrated, say critics.
The criticisms of the professor and the elite University that houses him or her has helped usher in an age where the professor, most commonly referred to as an intellectual, is not a person to emulate and listen to. These are extraordinary anti-intellectual times in America. And why not? In Boston, for instance, where there are over 60 colleges and universities and one can pass a Nobel laureate on the street quite easily, there is still extensive and daunting poverty; there is racial divide and gender divide. Eight miles from Newark, rife with socio-economic and racial problems, is Columbia University. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and author of The End of Poverty, is there, yet the South Bronx, even closer then Newark, struggles with mere subsistence, as are other poor communities of color.
The divide between our problems and the intellectuals that study them is an abyss of massive proportions. This gap is implicit in every single problem we have — socio-economic, political, health and education. So it’s not surprising that America has become intensely anti-intellectual, preferring the misguided bravado of a wanna be cowboy like Rick Perry, instead of the softer reflective hand of a scholar such as President Obama. We would rather engage destructive ideologies instead of reasoned argument framed by facts. We have chosen a caustic path, a nihilistic path, rather then the path of deliberation based on compromise and negotiation. We have successfully shunned the professor, the intellectual — but at what cost? Where might we be heading?
There appears to be little respect for those individuals that quietly spend their time studying what we call life – the economy, social tensions and new developments, the media, culture(s), politics and the arts — and try to make sense of it all and speak it to us.
Power is best kept — and gained — if the citizenry has its eyes glued on The Kardashians while ideological sound bites and name calling are squeezed in-between episodes. Tea Party narrow minded conservatives. Democratic big spenders. Socialists.
To find the answers to these questions — and to locate myself, as well as others labeled intellectuals, I once again turned to Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures, published first in 1994, then again in 1996, by Vintage Books Edition. (The lecture can be heard here.)
In the Introduction to the print venture of the lectures, Said says that, “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication.” This initial statement may be one cause for the disenfranchisement of the intellectual; in this sense, the intellectual, both a public and a private figure, is subjected to the limitations posed on him for being the one who articulates “stereotypes” and “reductive categories.” This is critical since we are in an age where reductions of reality are how media and politicians function; or, said better, perhaps, the function of both media and politics is to reduce all pictures of reality into stereotypes — then separating these into ideologies.
In other words, says Said, “The problem for the intellectual is not so much … mass society as a whole, but rather the insiders, experts, coteries, professionals who in the modes defined earlier this century … mold public opinion, make it conformist, encourage a reliance on a superior little band of all-knowing men in power.” This, then, automatically puts the intellectual in a challenging position since the “insiders”, the “band of all-knowing men in power” dislike criticism; it threatens their way of being, their methods.
Yet another reason why the intellectual is marginalized is that s/he relies on clever and insightful uses of language; it is the only means of expression in a culture that privileges writing above all other forms. ”Hence,” said Said, “my characterization of the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.” The intellectual is easily exiled by the art and science of his or her methodology, the tools that must be used in order to describe and critique the reductive methods utilized by the mediating forces of a culture.
Thus, the intellectual lives in “a spirit of opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me (Said) because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighed against them.” Said himself is a perfect example, as is Malcolm X.
For me, in my own case, this alienates me from many — if not most — in the academic community since the overall interest is not to stand in romantic opposition against forces that advocate for and create the means by which the status quo is maintained. I am therefore narrativized into a secondary position — truly exiled from the academic world that has taken me years of toil to enter. In pursuing the position of dissenter, the forces of the status quo push back harder and in subtle forms. As Said says, the “inescapable reality” is that the intellectual “will neither make them friends in high places nor win them official honors. It is a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.”
I’ve been dismissed, routinely passed over. I live on the outer most edges of the academic community, literally and figuratively. But the experience of others pale by comparisons to my own. And in this exile, students, hundreds of students from all walks of live, for that matter, reach out; their parents, too, on occasion send me notes of thanks or seek me out to thank me for what I say to their students. This would seem that those outside the bastions of intellectual pursuit behind the hallow ivy know something that mediated constructions of power and reality forget or willfully leave out: the power of the intellectual as romantic dissenter that speaks truth to power is that s/he imbues others, mostly students, with different points of view that can help cast them into alternative versions of the accepted truths.
The central fact … is … that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être, is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”
Traditionally, the academy has been experienced as an institution on the left — this could not be further from the truth. An intellectual persisting with the notion that all human beings “are entitled to expect decent standards of behavior concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously” is routinely marginalized and exiled within the academy. Thus the intellectual is exiled from the society in which he lives — and the status quo wins and suffering and injustice persist.
August 18, 2011 § 12 Comments
In this time of socio-economic turmoil and political malaise, might we take a moment, breath, step back and perhaps try to understand how we got here, to this confusing place we’re living through these days, so that we then might find ways through and, eventaully, out? Because we are going to get out of this; the question, however, is what will we look like when we come through to the other side.
We’re living through a transition of mammoth proporstions. The anger — and anguish — we witness daily is caused by enourmous change in societies. Some of this change is planned; some is historical; other change is uncontrolled, unforseen. This is literally happening everywhere. No one is untouched. We are anxious because experience — reality as we once knew it — is ending. We’re certain. We feel we’re at the end of boundaries. But boundaries are also beginnings of things. What will be, though, is unclear. And what is — the present — is defined by tremenodous anxiety that shallow political figures and the media that follows them along fuels. We’re frustrated because, as we are pushed up against boundaries, politicians and popular media merely exacerbate rather than engage in a reasoned examination of what is and, most importantly why.
In his seminal work, The Location of Culture (1994), Homi Bhabha says that, “Our existence is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism…”
The notion that existence is dark, even foreboding, and that reality is always on the borderlines, suggests a rather indefinite place; it’s home to the disorder of things, the result of an utterly fabricated world – an experiment that needs us to re-visit our purpose in creating it.
Bhabha also suggests that, “Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project – at once a vision and a construction – that takes you ‘beyond’ yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present.”
Is this systemic? Have we been engineered to be dominated so violently? After all, society is manufactured so what we become is planned, organized, given schedules, laws, and moral codes. It is reasonable to wonder how we came to be so divided, so constricted in our social mobility.
Witness “the political conditions of the present,” as Bhabha urges “in a spirit of revision and reconstruction”: Our socio-economic downturn and the extreme separation between race(s) and class were seeded in the social upheaval of the 1960s. America was struggling to come of age racially and sexually; the country was torn apart by Vietnam, so much so that it still haunts the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For some, the chaos of the sixties was a sign of hope – society could change; for others this same period was a warning – powerful ideas were infiltrating our most heralded institutions, especially education – and challenging the free market. Capitalism was challenged on all fronts.
In 1971, Lewis F. Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum – The Powel Memo, also known as the Powel Manifesto – was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Powell Memo did not become available to the public until long after his confirmation to the Court. It was leaked to Jack Anderson, a liberal syndicated columnist, who stirred interest in the document when he cited it as reason to doubt Powell’s legal objectivity. Anderson cautioned that Powell “might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice…in behalf of business interests.”
Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence – another, from the Left, was The Crisis of Democracy, Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission – the Chamber of Commerce and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.
Most notable about these institutions was their focus on education, shifting values, and movement-building. Powell, for his part, embraced the expansion of corporate privilege and wrote the majority opinion in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, a 1978 decision that effectively invented a First Amendment “right” for corporations to influence ballot questions. On social issues, he was a moderate, whose votes often surprised his backers.
“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack,” writes Powell in his memo. “We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.”
The fear that forces had infiltrated institutions and were effectively changing the course of Capitalism was alarming to the centers of power – defense, banking, the oil industry.
“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism,” Powell warned, “come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”
No one was safe from Powell’s condemnation, particularly “minorities.” Circle the wagons – the creation of the present began with Powell and those that saw value and benefit in his message.
Adding to the problem, according to Powell, “The painfully sad truth is that business, including the boards of directors’ and the top executives of corporations great and small and business organizations at all levels, often have responded – if at all – by appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem. There are, of course, many exceptions to this sweeping generalization. But the net effect of such response as has been made is scarcely visible.” Business, while doing their jobs well, were never prepared for the kind of “guerilla warfare,” Powell calls it, that was certainly needed. “[But] they have shown little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics, and little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate.”
The remedy was to have the Chamber of Commerce be more instrumental because, “It enjoys a strategic position, with a fine reputation and a broad base of support.” The college campuses needed “balance” — and the Chamber could provide a means to an end, the reconstruction of a new order.
The social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system. They may range from a Herbert Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, and convinced socialists, to the ambivalent liberal critic who finds more to condemn than to commend. Such faculty members need not be in a majority. They are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence – far out of proportion to their numbers – on their colleagues and in the academic world.
Powell argued that organizing the Chamber to assist administrators and faculties in actively constructing change was feasible; the Chamber could also organize “a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system”; organize a “staff or speakers of the highest competency” that would include speakers for the Chamber that “would have to articulate the product of scholars.”
Reaching the campuses and secondary schools was vital.
But Powell recognized that reaching the public in the short term, as he says, “may be more important.” This would involve the monitoring of the national television networks. “This monitoring, to be effective,” notes Powell, “would require constant examination of the texts of adequate samples of programs. Complaints – to the media and to the Federal Communications Commission – should be made and strongly when programs are unfair or inaccurate.” A private police state. Radio, scholarly journals, books, paperback and pamphlets were all under attack and in need of a forceful revision. The courts, the political arena, paid advertisement – all of it had to be re-constructed accordingly.
The total commodification of the American Experience was underway, fully engaged and given free run by Reagan, resulting in the present: the privatization of schools, the segregation of communities, the ever widening gap between the rich and everyone else, but particularly between wealthy whites and people of color.
This is what Powell called the “Rehabilitation to Freedom.” Powell believed that the country had moved too far into “state socialism.” Says, Powell, “But most of the essential freedoms remain: private ownership, private profit, labor unions, collective bargaining, consumer choice, and a market economy in which competition largely determines price, quality and variety of the goods and services provided the consumer
In the present – in corporatized academia and the privatization of public education, in the political arena motivated more by ideology then negotiation, bargaining and compromise, the staples of democratic principles, and in a mostly conservative media that is keen on covering process instead of a “return to the political conditions of the present,” the actual moral place of media – we can literally see and hear Powell.
The political left does not fare any better in this story.
In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, the authors – all three distinguished professors from prestigious universities, Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki, wondering whether there is a general crisis in this democracy, lament that there are “various communist observers, who speak with growing confidence of ‘the general crisis of capitalism’ and who see in it the confirmation of their own theories.” The remedy is to re-invigorate the public – and systems of government – around the central purposes of democratic systems: “the combination of personal liberty with the enhancement of social progress.”
But as the Trilateral Commission’s authors suggest, there are challenges to democracies, “tendencies,” as they say, “which impede that [the functioning of democracy itself] functioning”:
1. The pursuit of the democratic virtues of equality and individualism has led to the delegitimation of authority generally and the loss of trust in leadership.
2. The democratic expansion of political participation and involvement has created an ‘overload’ on government and the imbalanced expansion of governmental activities, exacerbating inflationary tendencies in the economy.
3. The political competition essential to democracy has intensified, leading to a disaggregation of interests and the decline and fragmentation of political parties.
4. The responsiveness of democratic government to the electorate and to societal pressures encourages nationalistic parochialism in the way in which democratic societies conduct their foreign relations.
Thus, “leadership is in disrepute in democratic societies.” A more stringent, subtle and powerful form of government, not seen but highly influential, had to take hold.
In the United States, at the time, “the government is constrained more by the shortage of authority than by the shortage of resources.” In essence, then, government had to regain its foothold in society. In order to keep democracy alive, at least in principal, democracy had to be essentially curtailed, shut down. Something else had to take it’s place, while creating the illusion that democracy still mattered. Enter the corporation.
Witness today: The Powell Memo and The Crisis of Democracy helped usher in the massive commodification of American life, the ongoing dismantling of public education, the corporatizing of the university, the aggressive and demoralizing taking apart of labor unions, the polarization of politics brought about by an insistence on stringent ideologies, and the homogenizing of popular media – all this taking hold while the country was grappling with civil rights, feminism, sexual politics and a devastating war no one wanted. These were difficult times. We witnessed the assassination of John F. Kennedy; then his brother, Robert, fell to the insanity. Malcolm X was taken in the confusion as well. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream seemed to come to a bloody end on a balcony, in Memphis, Tennessee, on the 4th of April, 1968. And then there was Watergate, when we thought the chaos was winding down. These were the worst of times, though some, particularly today’s young, have a certain nostalgia for this frightening era.
And we came out of it – but when we re-emerged as a nation, all tattered and wounded, the Reagan years had effectively given us a different world: an American ideology – and politics – focused on corporate benefit.
The socio-economic divide has its road map, and segregation became entrenched; the gap between the haves and the have nots had been keenly engineered.
When capitalism was first presented as an intellectual framework, it operated unseen – Adam Smith’s “unseen hand.” But what we have now is an “unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalizing tendencies,” says Sheldon S. Wolin, in Democracy Inc.,“powers that not only challenge established boundaries – political, moral, intellectual, and economic – but whose very nature it is to challenge boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself.”
Witness our present then, where the “totalizing tendencies” of this unbridled power have placed us all on the boundaries, at limits, where things end and where things also begin, looking once again at Homi Bhabha.
But what ends and what begins?
In a society where power’s totalizing tendencies are exercised fully and completely, marginalization, departmentalization and disenfranchisement are characteristics of this existence.
The challenge for America is the understanding that this methodology, which began with The Powell Memo and The Crisis of Democracy is focused on the short term. This common practice in American; it’s also a natural sympton of a constructed transition. Administered violence, rabid xenophobia and racism, sexism, consumerism and spectacle are but the results.
Now, knowing what we know, what are we going to do, what are we willing to do with what we know? This is at the crux of America’s perfect storm. If we don’t recognize how we got here, we won’t recognize where we might go, turning this ship around, pointing it toward the promises of opportunity and equality that, as we come to our 10th anniversary of 9/11, let’s not forget the representation of the Statue of Liberty a couple of miles from this tragic center.
July 29, 2011 § 4 Comments
Witness today: the pathetic — and uncanny — Washington circus concerning the debt and the debt ceiling crisis; the economy is still moving at a snail’s pace, now reacting even more negatively to Washington’s ideologically based idiocies; evidence of climate change is everywhere around us; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan baffle the mind, forever responding to terror and poor Western management; U.S. public education is in the toilet, put there by more controversial political brinkmanship, and continuing to ensure we live in a bifurcated society; unemployment is stagnant, as a result, and more and more people out of work or working in jobs well below their capacity; production is at a standstill, and in some places, such as Ohio, industry has left town — Main Street is emptying out; children and women, some of the most vulnerable in our society, are without health care; the gap between the richest of the privileged white and Hispanics and blacks is wider then it’s ever been in history; some of our cities — Newark for instance — are being left in the dust kicked up by the materialism of the few.
These tragic items are but the results of our manmade decline. Let me say this again: if you look around — health care, education, finance, industry, the environment, our deteriorating infrastructure, the decline of certain cities, particularly those inhabited by people of color and immigrants — every single problem we have today exists because we’ve made it so. Our educated elite have taken us down.
How can the most powerful nation in history come to this? The answer, I dare, is simple: we’ve educated the elite — politicians, lawyers, doctors, CEO’s, and so on — into beings that have long ago left their humanity at the curb, supplanted by delusions of grandeur, the avarice that so carefully destroys everything it touches. Education has become school for profit and self-gain.
As I’ve said in these pages before, what we have here is a crisis in — and about — EDUCATION, writ large (see here, too). Education has forgotten — or repressed — it’s allegiance to Humanity, its very real purpose of creating empathetic, creative citizens.
We can learn something from the models we say we follow, in this case, the Greek Stoics. The Stoics had a radical point, as Martha S. Nussbaum tells us in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, “that we should give our first allegiance to no mere form of government, not temporal power, but to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings.” We’ve moved far from this goal, this reality; it’s no longer a compass point.
Of course, the failure of our EDUCATION — the educating for excellence, efficiency and production, education focused solely on the means of production and accounting, the creation of cogs on the wheel of mediocrity — is devoid of any moral posture. It is an immoral education.
When morality fails or is oppressed, ideologies spring to the rescue. In every tragic circumstance we face today, each can be said to be driven by ideologies — not rationality, not dialog, compromise and bargaining, the hallmarks of Democracy.
Ideologies give us a false sense of reality, an artificial view of the world — and ourselves. Ideologies, as we can see today in Washington, scorn knowledge; these are motivated or, better, are narrated by the corporation. Who will win, whether or not the debt ceiling is raised? Who will win if US ratings are reduced? That’s right: the banks, no matter what happens, win. They win the world. (This is, of course, the grand example, the ultimate example of inverted totalitarianism, where the corporations dictate and the witless masses, sleeping away in illusions of plentitude, are lead to slaughter.)
How did this world come about?
The rise of industrialism influenced not only the structure of mass education but also its organizational culture. Like factories, schools are special facilities with clear boundaries that separate them from the outside world. They have set hours of operation and prescribed rules of conduct. They are based on the principles of standardization and conformity.
Robinson could be describing the modern prison, instead — separate …from the outside world, prescribed rules of conduct, standardization and conformity.
What schools have done is effectively standardize and conform and therefore shut down the imagination, killed creativity, in the words of Ken Robinson. What then can grow from here? What we have, says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, is a “human … reduced to a measurable value, like a machine or a piece of property. We can choose to achieve a high value and live comfortably or be dumped unceremoniously onto the heap of marginality.”
Can we change this? Can we combat this?
Yes, we can. There are examples. One primary example is Bard College. This institution is not held to a separation from the outside world; it is in the world, creatively addressing our culture’s greatest challenges.
Leo Botstein, Bard College President since 1975, is perhaps the best and, likely, the most enlightened of college presidents. He has lead this college from prescribed — and accepted — rules of conduct and carefully defined new rules of conduct that follow a moral understanding of our human responsibilities to each other. This is, indeed, for my money, the only real example, today, of a classical liberal arts education.
Bard has embarked on several endeavors: Bard High School Early College seeks to provide an alternative to the traditional high school, a “rigorous course of study that emphasizes thinking through writing, discussion, and inquiry.” Imagine if other elite liberal arts colleges learned from Bard and took up alternatives to high schools like this? What can we do? Bard has announced its collaboration with the Newark Public School System as well.
The small college is involved in the Bard Prison Initiative, creating opportunities for incarcerated men and women to earn Bard degrees. In From Ball and Chain to Cap and Gown: Getting a Degree B. A. Behind Bars, a PBS special story about the Bard Prison Initiative, we can see the essence of the liberal arts education at work.
But Bard has not stopped there.
It has a Masters of Arts in Teaching Program, too, allowing students to be certified in New York and California. It is a program focused on “both rural and urban-high needs school districts.” No one is doing this. Absolutely no one. Bard is in the vanguard.
And if this is not enough, Bard has established an Honors College in collaboration with Al-Quds — the Al-Quds – Bard Partnership, in Jerusalem. Along with St. Petersburg State University, Bard has developed “The Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences … the first Department in Russia to be founded upon the principles of liberal education. It emerged from Smolny College (officially the Program in «Arts and Humanities»), which was created in 1994 by St. Petersburg State University in close collaboration with Bard College (USA). Bard College’s interest in curricular innovation and the reform of international education coincided with the interests of a group of creatively-minded scholars from St. Petersburg State University.” In other words, in the international arena, Bard is not going to the usual places, as all other schools do; rather, Bard has opted to go where there are obvious challenges — and opportunities.
How is it possible that a small school in Upstate New York can do so much? Endowments of other liberal arts institutions tower over Bard’s, approximately a mere $270 million. How is it possible to do so much with what in higher education is so little these days? It has 1800 students. A faculty of about 224 professors. The cost of attending Bard is comparable to other elite liberal arts colleges, $55, 480 — so what’s the difference? It has a beautiful campus. It has all the accoutrements we expect from these schools — the arts, wonderful grounds, athletic facilities, new technologies abound. So what gives?
Answer: imagination and will, a conviction that what we must do in education, if we’re going to contribute to the reversing of the tide of malaise, complacency, avarice and the blind pursuit of materialism is not compete, but rather, join hands and cooperate, collaborate, listen and learn by thinking critically, dialog and bargain. Like no other institution for its size Bard is doing more for humanity than most larger — and more distinguished — universities.
Might we jump on this wagon and see where creativity can take us, rather then staying on the ideological tracks to despair?
July 17, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher that gave us deconstruction, says that the true future is that which is to come unannounced — l’avenir; that is to say, the future we plan for with schedules, programs and calculations is only but a piece of the future. The programmed future is foreseeable. L’avenir, instead, comes to us unexpectedly. The Other arriving without us having foreseen it. The unpredictable is therefore true, the truth, the real future.
We — Nina and me — planned a week in Avignon, in Provence, France. We arrived from Amsterdam on the TGV as scheduled — a smooth 6hr high speed ride, a quiet ride. We made our way from the gare to the Centre Ville without a hitch. The taxi let us out at 35 rue Louis Pasteur, our pre-arranged studio — so we thought.
Hidden inside of every plan — perhaps at the center — of every schedule and calculation, as if waiting, perhaps even dormant though anticipatory, with one eye open, is the consternation, the sudden jolt, the fire that spews from a dragon’s mouth when the unknown, that which we did not plan and foresee, suddenly overwhelms all space. L’avenir. This is what happens when you realize that 35 rue Louis Pasteur is not the studio apartment you rented, rather it’s a family home. Where are we? What happened to our plans and calculations? Whose world did we enter?
When you find yourself in a place unknown, you come to realize that you’ve entered someone else’s reality, someone else’s sense of what’s to be.
On the other side of the looking glass, standing across from number 35, there we were, two people, suitcases and backpacks in a future we did not plan for. We were out of sorts; we didn’t have the calculus to compute its logic. It was too foreign, the signs not yet evident.
A condition of l‘avenir is the disruption of all logic. Illogic, when aggravated by the adrenaline that ignites when one is in-between what was and what will be, creates the most dastardly images.
We were ripped off. We’re homeless. What do we do now?
On long trips, mishaps are expected, particularly if one goes abroad and tries to engage a culture. There is anticipation, desire, want. In that moment where the anticipation is supreme, it’s easy to forget things. While still in the states, I forgot to set my cell phone to *228, ensuring cell service in the EU (that was resolved with Verizon’s online help and I got cell service a week and 1/2 into the trip). I had no cell service — I did have WiFi — in Avignon. Perhaps this was the American beginning of l’avenir for us — a small mistake, on the surface, that grew in magnitude, starting a chain of challenges, unknowns to come.
Stranded on 35 rue Louis Pasteur, communicating with our landlord — something previously done online — was key. I left Nina behind and went looking for a phone. Near the center of the center ville I found a phone in a place that sold time on computers and telephones. I called the landlord. No answer, only a voice. I left a message with our predicament. I waited and called again. Nothing. I walked back to Nina, a 5 minute walk at a clip, and reported. We could tell what each other was thinking: where would we stay the night? In July, you see, when the festival in Avignon is going on, rooms are booked solid. There are no rooms. Shit. We were sweating in the stifling Avignon heat.
Are we sure we’re in the right place? Double check the paper work, a folder I always carry as back up that contains reservations, addresses of important locations, names. It’s the right address. No, it’s not. It can’t be. No studio here.
On my third call, the landlord answered. He was standing on 30 rue Louis Pasteur, waiting. He had evidently given me the wrong address. Ah. Ah. Voila. But that was the beginning of the unknowns to come.
While some of us vacation and get away to actually get closer to ourselves, understand ourselves in more intimate ways to better understand where we have been and where we are going, in this case, meeting up with our landlord, in the confusion, we neatly slid into his conflicts, the problems with his world. This move completely disrupts any reflection one may be moving towards. We were thrust into the machinations of our landlord’s uncanny world.
Dragging our bags 100 or so meters to 30 rue Louis Pasteur — literally 100 meters because the street numbers converged at 1 at a plaza and began again — the landlord, Francis, explained to us that the studio apartment we pre-paid for had no water. It wasn’t ready. He then told us that he booked a room for us in a B&B 15 kilometers away in Cavaillon. Would that be okay with us?
In the hot, ugly orange and claustrophobic studio apartment on the street level in Avignon’s center ville — heat you could cut with a knife and dank — a B&B with a piscene was a welcomed solution. And since this was unforeseen, said Francis, he threw in his vehicle so that we could get around Provence until the apartment’s water was returned to order. A day, he said, and everything would be fine. Nina and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders: what choice is there?
We were being lead, not leading. Like life, a journey or reprieve away from the usual requires that you succumb. That’s the thing about l’avenir, I think — at some point succumbing to the presence of the Other is necessary. Which involves trust — trusting that you’re in some sort of whirling pool and there’s no way out. Instincts even become something one questions. You have to trust that the schedules and formulations you’ve previously done are pliable enough to adjust to the new world you find yourself in. Ironically, this doesn’t distance you from your introspective journey, rather it brings you closer to yourself and, most importantly, to the person you’re traveling with (here, traveling is of course metaphorical, as in traveling through life’s strange journey).
The B&B in Cavaillon was glorious. We were given the prize room — a suit with private bath and AC. It overlooked the courtyard on one side, the luscious back of the house and pool on the other. George, the owner, was a delight; he spoke English very well, too, and helped us with our French. He provided an itinerary of where we should go in the Lubéron valley region. And we breakfasted on homemade prune and orange jams, croissant, and fresh breads, fresh squeezed orange juice and strong coffee in large cups — almost the bowls one sees in French movies.
L’avenir can bring fortune. We adjusted quickly, and off we were to the villages in the Lubéron. George was our host for two nights. But as much as George is the consummate innkeeper — gracious, affable, kind and considerate, finding comfort and happiness watching his guests relish in his leisured country life in Provence, Francis is harried, non communicative, and overwhelmed with his role as an innkeeper and, he told us, landowner of apartments in Paris. George tries to live a life whereby planning, scheduling and calculating are privileged — thus when l’avenir inevitably overwhelms all other considerations (such as Francis putting out an S.O.S. to all innkeepers in the area asking for any room, any room at all to house these two travelers I’ve made homeless), he is ready — or at least better able to determine options amidst the consternation caused by the unknown, the uncanny quality of the unforeseeable. Francis lives in l’avenir, a life spent reacting to the unexpected; it is a life taxed by the unknown’s voracity, thus it’s not your life, but, rather, the conditions that rear when no plans are exacted. It’s a life of putting out fires since l’avenir is always smoldering — until ignited: plan after plan always in an ongoing deconstruction of the unnatural state of un-grace that defines Francis. Where George is grace, Francis is chaos.
In my experience, age now 57, humans are two: graceful or not. Nothing else. From this grace, or the ungrace, stem a whole host of realizations, understandings and complexes about life itself and how to lead it. The graceful do not succumb; they are pliable. The non-graceful, for them, life is always difficult; it comes with difficulties first, not beauty. For the non-graceful, exacting beauty and wonderment from life is almost impossible. It’s always dark. The graceful always find light somewhere, soft, rounded corners, not edges. The un-graceful is edgy. Simply moving in space is hard; being with people is hard. Listening is nearly impossible. It’s as if in the un-graceful, narcissism has been disrupted, where the graceful is assured of his narcissism. Again, as Jacques Derrida says, there’s no such thing as no narcissism, only degrees of narcissism.
On the third night we were scheduled to be in Francis’ B&B, which is in I’sle sur la Sorgue, the most delightful town, the antique capital of Provence, boast the locals. Through the center of the town streams the Sorgue, it’s source up the mountain a ways in the Lubéron. But as delightful as the town is — and we, Nina and me, will return here; it suits us well — that is how un delightful Francis’ B&B is.
We were greeted by 2 barking dogs — a Doberman, old and stiff, and another nondescript dog, a cross between an ant eater and a Siberian husky, a small one. This dog smelled like no other I’ve ever smelled before — urine, sweat, dirty, all in one odiferous mass of energy that rubbed up against your legs. Lick. Lick. Lick. His thick hair was wet and gave off an odor of sewage. In the pebbled courtyard, several dog poops signaled danger. And in the deep July heat of Provence, the courtyard was steaming with the animals’ remains of their day.
What kind of unforeseen worlds can come from conditions like this? In George’s world, we were let into something soft, something that said that attention to our wants was nurtured; in Francis’ world the signs suggested that we had entered into the place of the unforeseen, a place inhabited solely by the affinity to problems Francis and his wife, Cathy, seem to have. This world is selfish. Guests are, at best, secondary, and a kind of despair becomes the organizing principle. Gestures are heavy, labored. Small things, such as breakfast, is not celebrated as a time to get to know one another, as it was at George’s, rather it was haphazardly thrown together.
Sitting in Francis’ and Cathy’s living room and dinning area, both of which smelled of dirty dog and urine, the animals circling, discussing our future stay and constant movement without our luggage, which were in the non-working apartment in Avignon, Nina and I, separate and then together, came to parallel conclusions about how to live these days. We adjusted. We traveled the Lubéron. We dreamt about a house here, a house there, the children, embraced our unforseeable future and the time we have together, fleeting, and dug into our senses.
We had to — the apartment in Avignon never came together. We ended up wasting a day traveling the 40 minutes or so, in heavy traffic, between I’sle sur la Soruge and Avignon so to then wheel our bags, finally, out of the apartment and back to the stinky yet beautiful 18th Century inn. By that time Francis had flown the coop: mysteriously one morning he left before sunrise, leaving his wife and the housekeeper to fend for themselves. And did I mention that Cathy is in a cast up to her elbow? Yes. Croissants were left in paper bags, bread placed in a basket, coffee left in a carafe for us to tend — that was breakfast. But we gracefully made our way, had a glorious send off in I’sle sur la Sorgue — dinner at La Romantica restaurant, glorious, followed by Pastis and red wine as we listened to a very funny rock band that played American Muzac. The town was full, celebratory, as it should have been on July 14, France’s day of celebration for its incredibly powerful history.
The lesson of l’avenir is simply — and with difficulty — to try to find grace in the unforeseen, the uncanny, since this is what’s being asked of us — to find the grace that lays within in our grasp, that beauty that belies resistance and is always already there inviting our deconstruction, our way of prying ourselves from what is not natural so that we don’t have to feign a naturalness that is not existent anyway. This is the story of our unexpected stay in Avignon.
July 10, 2011 § Leave a Comment
She said, “You Americans, you live to work.” She let it sink in, her eyes wide, a grin across her face. “The Dutch, we work to live,” she said.
The simple, straightforward statement the landlady of our Oud Suid apartment, Marnie, uttered gave me pause. We work to live. What distance those who live to work must travel to reverse how we engage the world.
In Amsterdam, at a very young age, a baby in arms — no, let’s start this again, better yet: in vitro the child begins to enter the rhythms of the culture. It comes to her through the mother as she pedals gracefully, back straight and head upright. She negotiates the trams and the pedestrians, the traffic lights and, most dangerous of all, the tourists, always an unpredictable menace whether on foot or on a bicycle.
By the time the child is one, her hair curly and blond and her skin is butter fresh and can sit upright without help, she moves from a pouch held over the mother’s shoulder, where the child has been cradled in her trek across Amsterdam for some time, to a seat straddling the bike’s crossbar. Perched like a lookout on a ship’s tall mast, the child takes in her world — the intricate web of bicycles coming and going almost effortlessly, the unifying laws of humanity that enable this choreography to blossom as if it’s somehow a spirit laying just beneath the surface for the child that the mother compels forth with her always steady pedaling. The wheels turning and turning rhythmically, balanced and subtle. The child learns this grace before the child can even say a word, utter a complete sentence, learn about more institutionalized versions of grace. Before the child has a full idea she can grasp and articulate — an I want thought — she has already apprehended the gospel of Amsterdam’s intricate dance.
Before the child can reason, she is already Amsterdam; that is, before she can lay claim to her beautiful blue eyes, control the contour of her curls, she is Amsterdam first. She has become before she becomes; she is both who she imagines she is and who she’s been imagined to be. The history of Amsterdam is in this handing over of its elegance and nature, quietly but resolutely, parent to child on bicycles. Eventually the child straddles a smaller bicycle, head proud, back straight, the handle bars arched like a curvaceous”U”, the edges that loop towards her held in her hands. She has learned to solo. She is safe in the stream, a songline unifying all in Amsterdam — rich, poor, foreign, and different working in unison so as to not compromise the flow, the energy. If you’ve allowed Amsterdam’s vibe into your sense of being, then you know that from this point, on this bicycle, the child has learned grace, pride and manners; she’s learned to be honest and direct; she’s learned to speak with confidence. It’s then that the child can say, with conviction and without reservations, I am Amsterdam.
I am Amsterdam, the perfect logo seen all over the city is simple, clean and direct. And it’s no wonder since this logo has come to life in the culture that practically invented advertising and design in the mid 1600s. I am Amsterdam points in two directions: back to its history, the Golden Age that created wealth, stability, art and culture by devastating the weaker countries and colonizing the spaces on the map still uninhabited by men with gunpowder, building a world order through violence and oppression — the methods to come that would likewise build other great powers; and it points forward to the tolerance and affability that, out of necessity, has grown out of the bleakness of the Golden Age as a way to embrace others with humility, the different others that want to come to its northern port and see for themselves, experience possibilities, experience being left to one’s devices to survive without judgment. Experience the patience and tolerance that is a natural outcome of having to compensate for creating a magnificent culture from conquest and colonialization, slavery and oppression, great violence and violations of human rights. The Dutch feel the weight of the anvil on their backs; they are responsible for their history and their destiny.
July 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
We’ll never know what happened in Sofitel Suite 2086. What we do know, however, is that there is more than one victim. The hotel maid is a victim. DSK’s wife, Anne Sinclair, is a victim, too.
The ironically named the “Audacity of Hope,” that sneaked out under the cover of night from a Greek port with aid to Gaza, was stopped by the Greek Coast Guard. Forty US passengers were on board, inspired, I’m sure, by rays of hope for the people of Gaza. There are a lot of victims here, too. Palestinians. Israelis, too. Of course, freedom, self-reliance, independence and hope are victims as well. In the Israeli – Palestinian conflict we’re all victims. There are no winners here. It’s a dark course we’ve embarked on here.
Not a single latino baseball player (40 percent of major league baseball players are latino) will boycott this year’s All-Star Game in Arizona, who passed an anti-immigration law.
We march on, celebrating the American 4th of July — yet thousands upon thousands cannot celebrate with the same audacity. Of course, the top executives of the most powerful companies that now rule — that is, that run our government for their benefit can, indeed, celebrate unprecedented freedoms. But for the countless poor, those that reside in the inner most regions of our large cities, their lives are walled up.
It’s to them, the people and their kids that I’ve come to know in such places as the South Ward of Newark, that I write. It’s to them I send my wishes. And I send these wishes using the words of sociologist William Julius Wilson, who I have used plenty of times before in these pages.
I think it’s best to simply allow Wilson to speak without commentary, so I’ll cite some definitive conclusions pertaining to The Economic Plight of Inner-City Black Males chapter in Wilson’s book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, again a text I’ve used numerous times and that must be read and acted upon.
Listen carefully. Read these out loud, several times, and see what happens:
Indeed, the employment woes of poor black men represent part of ‘the new urban poverty,’ which I define as poor, segregated neighborhoods in which substantial proportions of the adult population are either officially unemployed or have dropped out of, or never entered, the labor force.
…neighborhoods with larger fractions of nonwhites tend to be associated with higher rates of unemployment…[The data shows] that education plays a key role in enabling black men to secure employment.
By 2007, blacks were about 15 percent less likely than other workers to have a job in manufacturing. The dwindling proportion of African American workers in manufacturing is important because manufacturing jobs, especially those in the auto industry, have been a significant source of better-paid employment for black Americans since World War II.
Because they tend to be educated in poorly performing public schools, low-skilled black males often enter the job market lacking some of the basic tools that would help them confront changes in their employment prospects. Such schools have rigid district bureaucracies, poor morale among teachers and school principals, low expectations for students, and negative ideologies that justify poor student performance. Inner-city schools fall well below more advantaged suburban schools in science and and math resources, and they lack teachers with appropriate preparation in these subjects. As a result, students from these schools tend to have poor reading and math skills, important tools for competing in the globalized labor market. Few thoughtful observers of public education would disagree with the view that the poor employment prospects of low-skilled black males are in no small measure related to their public-education experience.
Their lack of education, which contributes to joblessness, is certainly related to their risk of incarceration.
…national cultural shifts in values and attitudes contributed to a political context associated with a resurgent Republican Party that focused on punitive ‘solutions’ and worsened the plight of low-skilled black men.
In short, cultural shifts in attitudes towards crime and punishment created structural circumstances — a more punitive justice system — that have had a powerful impact on low-skilled black males.
…research by Devah Pager revealed that a white applicant with a felony conviction was more likely to receive a callback or job offer than was a black applicant with a clean record.
Thus, whereas the subculture of defeatism is a result of having too little pride to succeed in the labor market, the subculture of resistance reflects too much pride to accept menial employment.
So much for the audacity of hope! Have a wonderful 4th of July!
July 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Why Open View? We learn that, ”Growing food grounds us in the relationships between earth and nourishment; preparing food brings us into relationship with our culture and community; sharing meals brings us into close contact with those gathered at the table with us.” This is the essential quality of Open View, offering classes, a shop and recipes.
In Open View we find storytelling and community engagement, kitchen and garden writing, and inspirations — all around food; that is, about how community can evolve in a healthy and creative way when we completely engage food, a very large category.
I’m honored that Barbara begins the Open View Guest Series with my posting The Uncanny Parrilla: Cooking Outdoors the Argentinean Way.