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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
June 25, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I. Newark and the New World Order
Newark is a microcosm of what’s happening across the United States. The city is being isolated, by privatization efforts, from the rest of America and people are struggling and suffering. Politicians — Governor Christie and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, his foil — are merely mouthpieces for this effort, though they speak the language of inclusion. But Newark is being disseminated, nevertheless. In this Orwellian nightmare, the children — as they are in war — are the most vulnerable and suffering the most.
The unraveling of civil liberties and social justice is evident in the latest confusion — and fight — about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools. This is an example of a long history of dissemination in Newark. It’s the same old story, one that Newark — and other cities like Newark — have experienced before. On one side of the equation, we have Booker telling Oprah that he’ll include Newark’s parents in the decision making process; on the other we have parents feeling alienated and concerned with Booker’s appointment of Chris Cerf as the a new acting state commissioner of Education, the top post. Cerf heads a commission to double the Zuckerberg donation (they’ve already raised $43 million). Cerf is also a founding partner of a consulting firm for school districts. This is what we use to call carpetbagging, a derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation from outsiders. The feeling in Newark is that Cerf’s approach appears to be a for-profit enterprise, particularly if we take a look at Cerf’s peers that include a venture capitalist and hedge fund managers. This follows a general trend, incorporated by Governor Christie, to put private firms in charge of under-performing schools in Camden, NJ.
What is happening in Newark around education — again a powerful example of inverted totalitarianism — is the result of a history of neglect. This is a history replete with structural changes, some racist, some not, that have, nevertheless, resulted in the disenfranchisement and isolation of an entire city and its citizens. These structural forces run together with cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality. The latest confusion and battle about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools is yet another example of how the structural and cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality are exploited for — and by — an elite few. Now, though, tragically so, this too involves black politicians that use race for personal gain. This is not new, but it has now taken on an extraordinarily powerful force — it is subtle and dastardly, it is, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva suggests in his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, a “strange enigma.”
II. From Newark’s Riots to the New World Order
People emigrated to Newark to find the Promised Land – Puerto Ricans, Italians, Albanians, Irish, Spaniards, Jamaicans, Haitians, Mexicans, West Africans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Trinidadians and Portuguese all came with hope looking for new horizons.
Newark is New Jersey’s largest and second-most diverse city, after neighboring Jersey City. Just eight miles west of Manhattan and two miles north of Staten Island, Newark was founded in 1666 by Connecticut Puritans; it was a model American city until the end of World War II.
In 1922, the “Four Corners” – meaning the intersection of Market and Broad – was the busiest intersection in the United States. It served as a regional center of retail commerce, anchored by four flourishing department stores: Hahne & Company, L. Bamberger and Company, L.S. Plaut and Company, and Kresge’s. New skyscrapers were built every year, the two tallest being the 40-story Art Deco National Newark Building and the Lefcourt-Newark Building. But then tax laws began rewarding the building of new factories in outlying areas rather than rehabilitating the city’s old factories – the allure of short term profit versus the benefits of long term thinking, a familiar American story. Newark lost its sources of revenue, and it has not been the same since.
Several forces in America began reshaping the concentration of populations, adversely affecting African Americans by denying the opportunity to move from segregated inner-city neighborhoods, William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociologist, tells us in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City:
As separate political jurisdiction, suburbs [also] exercised a great deal of autonomy through covenants and deed restrictions. In the face of mounting pressure for integration in the 1960′s, ‘suburbs chose to diversify by race rather than by class. They retained zoning and other restrictions that allowed only affluent blacks (and in some instances Jews) to enter, thereby intensifying the concentration of the urban poor.’
As the population of blacks grew in the North, as did housing demands, there was more of an emphasis on keeping blacks out of communities. These were structural conditions setting up urban poverty. Adding to the housing problem economic forces were also at work. “In other words,” says Wilson, “the relationship between technology and international competition [has] eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system…These global economic transformations have adversely affected the competitive position of many US Rust Belt cities. For example, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh perform poorly on employment growth, an important traditional measure of economic performance.”
Jobs left Newark for suburban tax breaks. Historically — structurally speaking — racist housing practices, globalization (science and technology and the gravitation towards cheap labor) and the move out of the inner city of qualified workers gutted the infrastructure of Newark. Newark lost its tax base; its revenue flew to the suburbs where blacks were not allowed. This reality is most evident in the abandoned buildings and empty lots of Newark; it’s evident in the lack of infrastructure support — hospitals, competitive schools, playgrounds, the lack of police protection and the dismantling of city (and state) workers and their unions. This is ongoing, case in point is the Facebook conflict. Wilson is also instructive here:
Two of the most visible indicators of neighborhood decline are abandoned buildings and vacant lots. According to one recent report, there are 60,000 abandoned and vacant properties in Philadelphia, 40,000 in Detroit, and 26,000 in Baltimore. These inner-city properties have lost residents in the wake of the out-migration of more economically mobile families, and the relocation of many manufacturing industries.
In the seminal study, The New Geography, by Joel Kotkin, we learn that, “The more technology frees us from the tyranny of place and past affiliation, the greater the need for individual places to make themselves more attractive.” But this is an impossibility when there is no revenue. There is no reason to believe that cities, as we know them, will survive these changes — they may not (see also here).
By 1966, then, Newark had a black majority and was experiencing the fastest turnover than most other northern cities.
Evaluating the riots of 1967, Newark educator Nathan Wright, Jr., Episcopalian minister, scholar and poet, the author of 18 books, and a leading advocate of the black power movement said, “No typical American city has as yet experienced such a precipitous change from a white to a black majority.”
At the height of the civil rights movement, Nathan Wright, Jr., was working in the Department of Urban Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. In his Introduction to Ready to Riot, a sociological analysis of the conditions in black ghettos that led to the 1967 rebellions, Wright described the fear of his wife Barbara, a daycare worker, and their 17-year-old daughter, as they drove into central Newark on the second night of what he called “civic rebellion.”
“There was an air of expectancy but not of anger,” Reverend Wright tells us. “Barbara and Bunky (his wife and daughter) locked themselves in the car and I stepped onto the sidewalk …Almost immediately there was chaos. The liquor store was ransacked. Men ran by with bottles of liquor in their hands and under their arms…With a sound of thunder the large plate-glass window of the bank, just a few feet from our car, was broken. Mrs. Wright and Bunky were in near terror.”
It was July of 1967 and the disturbances spread quickly to other black urban areas. The National Conference on Black Power was about to convene in Newark, with Dr. Wright as the organizer and chairperson. One of the first major undertakings of the black power movement, the conference brought 1,100 delegates to Newark from 42 cities and 197 black organizations. It called for blacks to build an economic power base with a “Buy Black” campaign, for the establishment of black national holidays and black universities, and broached the topic of black separatism. The conference marked a change in the civil rights movement from demanding individual rights to group solidarity. Dr. Wright was at the pinnacle of his political influence. (It’s also important to note that prior to 1967, Malcolm X, in the mid to late 50′s, as described in the new biography by Manning Marable, A Life of Reinvention, was already following a separatist agenda, advocating for black run businesses, schools, institutions).
The 1967 Newark riots – between July 12 and July 17, 1967 – were six days of rioting, looting and destruction. Many African-Americans, especially younger community leaders, felt they had remained largely disenfranchised in Newark despite the fact that Newark became one of the first majority black cities in America alongside Washington, D.C.. “Seen as a society boxed into frustration,” Reverend Wright says in Ready to Riot, “the city as a whole may be said to have an ill-tempered tendency toward repression on the one hand and aggression on the other.” Local African-American residents felt powerless and disenfranchised and felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality; unemployment, poverty, and concerns about low-quality housing contributed to the tinderbox.
“In the mind of the distraught black community there was a growing sense of frustration, brutality, and repression,” said Wright. Are we at this point, again?
The riots are often cited as a major factor in the decline of Newark and its neighboring communities; however, the actual factors include decades of racial, economic, and political forces that generated inner city poverty, which helped spark race riots across America in the 1960s. By the 1960s and ’70s, as industry fled Newark, so did the white middle class, leaving behind a poor population. During this same time, the population of many suburban communities in northern New Jersey expanded rapidly.
The remnants of legalized discrimination that brought about the riots have left their mark on Newark, the poor and the very poor, and the young people among them without a community to sustain them. For sustainability to be successful, nourishment and the necessities of life are the ground floor – the peace President Obama spoke about in Oslo. “It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security,” said President Obama. “It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, December 11, 2009. But in Newark the self-destruction that accompanies the psychologically oppressive weight of poverty and hopelessness – unemployment twice as high as in white communities, higher crimes, mortgage defaults that tract higher, and the malaise and pessimism that only benefits liquor stores and drug dealers – holds people from below and drags them down. This is not the path to freedom. It remains, as it did in 1967, a path to destruction.
“The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies,” wrote Kenneth Clark back in 1965 in his seminal work, Dark Ghetto. “Their inhabitants are subject peoples,” he wrote, “victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.” Has anything changed?
III. Newark and the New World Order — Tomorrow’s Promises
The confusing dilemma around the Zuckerberg Facebook 100 million dollars to improve Newark schools is the result of this structural-cultural history. One of the most dastardly cultural results is that Governor Christie and Mayor Booker believe that the citizens of Newark — and the citizens of poor communities in New Jersey — cannot be trusted to re-build their communities. They are completely left out of the equation. If there is going to be rebuilding, it’s going to be outsourced. We see the reality of this already. This perspective and attitude figures largely in a myth about poverty and the inner-city.We must again turn to Wilson for a cogent explanation:
…there is a widespread notion in America that the problems plaguing people in the inner city have little to do with racial discrimination or the effects of living in segregated poverty. For many Americans, the individual and the family bear the main responsibility for their low social and economic achievement in society. If unchallenged, this view may suggest that cultural traits are the root of problems experienced by the ghetto poor.
We have to challenge this perspective. It’s held quite obviously by Christie and Booker — this is why we see the problem with the Facebook money; this is also why we see the complete dismantling of all services in Newark and New Jersey proper, if we look at the poorer communities. Don’t let color fool you, Booker is first a politician — and politicians are always about changing color.
The recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each others, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.
That we are disoriented, is obvious. That we are also divided, this too is quite evident, particularly when black politicians further the alienation we sense. And the fact that the private and the public are one and the same, something that Cornel West has also argued long ago, further confuses our sense of place, our histories.
Who are we? Who and what do we want to be? Who decides?
We have us to blame in all this, the malaise we’re in, though we’re quick to blame political figures. We have us to blame because we don’t examine ourselves, locating ourselves in this history of oppression that is quite readily available to us for our critique. As I’ve said before, just the other day in a post, I’m merely one voice — among many, I believe — who see these things like, nevertheless, I relegated to the shadows, the boundaries of culture, to use Bhabha, again, marginalized and disenfranchised l, and thus speaking only into silences.
June 23, 2011 § 14 Comments
Whether Obama retains the White House in 2012 or a Republican wins, nothing much will change. The evidence is overwhelming.
It no longer matters who sits in the Presidential seat or in Congress — unless, of course, the Republican is Newt Gingrich, the extremely nasty former Speaker of the House who wrote a doctoral dissertation excusing the brutal colonization of the Congo, or the absolute dizzy opportunist, Michele Bachmann , who is convinced that CO2 is a natural byproduct of nature.
But even if the intellectually challenged Sarah Palin were to win, all candidates will succumb to the law of the land: 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. The Kock Brothers’ exertion is a perfect example. Thus, all candidates — in the White House and Congress — must adhere to the demands of this imbalance of power that invents and disseminates “a culture that taught consumers to welcome change and private pleasure while accepting political passivity,” argues Wolin.
We live in less democratic times; we wallow in a “collective identity” that is imperial rather than republican. The consequence is that we interiorize an artificial vision of civilization created by the political coming- of – age of corporate power and its concomitant myth making apparatus.
Inverted totalitarianism … while exploiting the authority and resources of the state, gains its dynamic by combining with other forms of power, such as evangelical religions, and most notably by encouraging a symbiotic relationship between traditional government and the system of “private” governance represented by the modern business corporation.
Let’s take a look under the hood at the engine that runs the inversion of power in our current ideological state apparatus.
The top 5 contributors to the 2010 campaign committee of Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the US House of Representatives, are:
- Comcast Corp, who actively lobbied “net neutrality” legislation, FCC programming issues, and general telecommunications issues. In 2010, Comcast focused its lobbying efforts on a getting a merger between Comcast and NBC Universal approved by the federal government. People and political action committees associated with Comcast Corp. together generally favor Democrats when it comes to political campaign contributions. The monopolization of expression.
- McGuire, Woods, et al –recently represented BVT Institutional Investments in the sale of 10 shopping centers located in Florida, Texas and Georgia. The $130 million transaction was one of the country’s largest retail real estate transactions of 2011 and marks the conclusion of McGuireWoods’ representation of BVT in connection with its U.S. Retail Income Fund VIII portfolio & in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the whistle blower provisions in Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) do not protect employee leaks to the media. Rather, the statute’s plain language protects only disclosures made to federal regulatory and law enforcement agencies, Congress and employee supervisors. McGuireWoods, defending Boeing, moved for summary judgment on the grounds, among others, that SOX does not protect complaints and disclosures to the media. The District Court agreed and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
- Dominion Resources — Electrical Utilities, Gas and Electric
- Goldman Sachs — we know who they are, all the way to their involvement in the Obama administration and their creation of financial instruments that lead to the recession, the demise of the American economy
- Blue Cross and Blue Shield, through its 45 local chapters, the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Association provides health care coverage to more than 80 million people. Blue Cross/Blue Shield also has a contract with the federal government to review and process Medicare claims. The association proved to be particularly active lobbying Congress during the health care reform debates of 2009 and 2010. It has also lobbied Congress to make it harder for the government to penalize companies if their employees defraud the Medicare program and process false claims. Local Blue Cross chapters have paid about $340 million to the federal government to settle Medicare fraud charges since 1993.
The next 15 contributors to the Cantor camp follow the same pattern — KKR & Co, which sees itself as the leading global alternative asset manager, Guardian Life Insurance Company, New York Life Insurance, McKesson Corporation, pharmaceuticals and health products, and so on. We get the picture: insurance companies, lawyers, financial firms — banks too big to fail — tobacco (Altria Group, the world’s largest), pharmaceuticals. Representative Eric Cantor has reported a total of 2,849 contributions ($200 or more) totaling $3,057,540 in the current cycle.
Who is Cantor listening to? Cantor is an example of the “tendencies of our system of power that are opposed to the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy. Those tendencies are, I believe, totalizing in the sense that they are obsessed with control, expansion, superiority, and supremacy,” says Wolin.
Let’s look at another leading figure, John Boehner, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, elected to represent the Eight Congressional District of Ohio for an 11th term in November 2010, raised $9,796,947. His five leading contributors are AT&T, Murray Energy, First Energy Corp, American Financial Group and the Boehner for Speaker Committe. The top industries contributing to the Boehner effort are: Retired, Securities & Investment, Insurance, Electrical and Health Professionals.
Boehner’s portfolio is just about identical to Cantor’s. Major international companies have their hold on the two top leading Republican leaders. The tragedy we are currently living is that we seem unaware of the deeper consequences of these relationships. “We are experiencing the triumph of contemporaneity and of its accomplice, forgetting or collective amnesia,” Wolin tells us. “Stated somewhat differently, in early modern times change displaced traditions; today succeeds change. The effect of unending change is to undercut consolidation.” If we take a look out our front doors, take a walk down the block, in our cities and in our villages, we can taste “undercut consolidation.” It’s everywhere — city and state workers, public institutions, the NBA, the NFL; neighbors don’t know who their neighbors are; hope is on a tightrope, the future bleak.
The Democrats don’t fair much better. The top Democratic donors are ActBlue (composite of many, many small, grassroots donations), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Laborers Union, Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union, EMILY’s List (composite of many, many small grassroots donations), Plumbers/Pipefitters Union, National Assn of Letter Carriers, Ironworkers Union, United Auto Workers, United Transportation Union, American Postal Workers Union, UNITE HERE, AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America. This suggests that unions are the primary donors.
But a closer look tells a different story. Let’s take Harry Reid, the Majority Leader of The US Senate. In the 2005-2010 campaign cycle, his re-election committee raised $24,815,104. The top 5 contributors were MGM Resorts International, Weitz & Luxunberg, mesothelioma and asbestos lawyers, Girardi & Keese, trial lawyers, Simmons Cooper LLC, also specializing in mesothelioma and Harrah’s Entertainment, hotels, resorts and casinos.
The top 5 industries contributing to the Reid campaign are lawyers, Securities & Investment, Lobbyists ($1,052,801 total!), Real Estate and Health Professionals. Reid is a carbon copy of Cantor and Boehner — so what, in fact, is the difference, unions under attack because we need change?
In American’s Future After an Obama Victory, which I wrote in 2008 during the presidential campaign, before turning to Wolin, I was already suggesting that the Obama Administration was going to be challenged forcefully by the extremes in our culture. The last 3 years give us plenty of evidence. Obama has followed, even energized Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan (think drones), education and healthcare (think privatization and insurance lobbyists), energy and, sadly, race.
Obama’s victory in the general election was aided by his tremendous fund-raising success. Since the start of 2007, his campaign relied on bigger donors and smaller donors nearly equally, pulling in successive donations mostly over the Internet. After becoming his party’s nominee, Obama declined public financing and the spending limits that came with it, making him the first major-party candidate since the system was created to reject taxpayers’ money for the general election.
The top supporters of Barack Obama were the University of California ($1,591,395), Goldman Sachs ($994,795; note the connections to his staff: Summers [World Bank, President of Harvard that nearly bankrupted the endowment], Rubin [spent 26 years at Goldman], and Paulsen [former CEO of Goldman], all of whom influenced Geithner [worked for Kissinger, IMF Director of Policy Development and Review Dept, and President of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York]), Harvard University ($854,747), Microsoft Corp ($833,617), Google Inc ($803,436).
This list of contributors to Obama continues unabated — and all other contenders pale by comparison: Citigroup (who laundered Mexican cartel money), JP Morgan Chase, Time Warner (Patrick Leahy, another top Democrat, was Time Warner’s largest recipient, 2009-10, $61,400). Of the top 20 contributors to the Obama effort, 4 are universities, and the rest fall in step with the ongoing search, by the corporation, for opportunism (which is not to suggest that the new corporate university is not after the same). “Opportunism involved an unceasing search for what is exploitable, and soon (following a trajectory since WW II), that meant virtually anything, from religion, to politics, to human well-being,” says Wolin. “Very little, if anything, was taboo, as before long change became the object of premeditated strategies for maximizing profits.”
This is where we find ourselves today — in the name of change we are unchanging in the face of an uncompromising corporate will. The corporation owns the House and the Senate. These folks, our elected officials, are spokespersons for the corporate elite. If we wonder why CEO’s make so much money, this is why. If we want to know why education is being dismantled and privatized, benefitting the upper classes, this is why. The dissolution of collective action is here, too. The privatization of schools. And the increasing gap between the wealthy few, the middle class and the poor is here. Our forgotten communities, Newark’s South Ward, the South Bronx, Compton, others — it’s all right here in this negotiation between corporations and our officials.
And since we’re now on the verge of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, private security firms are smiling. Is this the world we want? It’s already just about out of our hands.
Though I’m speaking to deaf ears, knowing full well that I write to no one, as I speak, the NRC (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission), that boasts it’s “protecting people and the environment,” in an unprecedented move, voted 3 – 2 to advise the Obama Justice Department to intervene on behalf of Entergy Nuclear in the company’s lawsuit against the state of Vermont. Vermont wants to shut down Vermont Yankee, the aged nuclear power plant. A government agency that is solely responsible for the nuclear safety is extending its sphere of influence and advising the Federal Government to intervene in a state’s negotiations with a private entity. How is that not inverted totalitarianism? What about us, the people of Vermont?
The tragic story is that this inversion of power is happening while citizens go on with their lives not conscious of the consequences.
April 19, 2009 § Leave a Comment
I revisited Amsterdam this past week and spent Easter Weekend, along with countless Spaniards, Italians and Germans, in the early spring sun. Last time I was in Amsterdam was in June of 2008 and I went alone for a conference. This time I went with my wife and we lived in a delicious and charming apartment in the Oud West, on Douwess Dekkerstraat, owned by the artist Patty Schilder.
From our balcony, looking out over the Buurtcentrum De Havelaar, we gazed at the Baarsjesweg Canal, especially beautiful in the evening when the sun sets and the large barges slowly make their way up and down after a long day’s work. Two blocks away, in the early morning, the farmers market gathers steam. Here, the true ethnic diversity of the Oud West comes alive–Middle Eastern women in their hejabs argue prices with their favorite vendors, breads and cheeses abound, fish and meats, too. The color and smells and sounds are soothing, seductive. There is no excuse here for not eating right. The food is fresh, beautiful. The difficulty is in buying only what you need, something the Dutch are very good at doing, it seems.
The difference between this trip and my last one is the bicycle. The only real way to experience this culture is on the bike. Though a modern tool, the bike is the heart of Amsterdam. Many consider Amsterdam “the biking capital of Europe.” Amsterdam bikers have the right of way, not pedestrians. The flow and energy of this city is dependent upon how well the biking moves the energy along. The Dutch are great bikers, they weave in and out of crowds, move effortlessly through traffic, grinning or smiling and never (apparently) frustrated. This is Amsterdam. I’ve seen youngsters txting and biking, talking on cells, with passengers, children, sometimes two, one in the rear, the other up front. Much of Amsterdam’s life happens on the bike.
We rented our bikes from Bike City. The added bonus being that the only hint that this is a rental is written in small, elegant print on the black carry bag on the handlebars: Bike City. Otherwise, the bikes were like all others. Most rental bikes are loud reds or yellows and have huge insignias. Would you want to call attention to yourself like that? We didn’t. We found the best bikes to rent are the 3 speeds with hand brakes. They’re comfortable and sturdy. Our first trek took us through the city, to the ferry landing behind Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station, and up through the farmland of the north country all they way to Slot Ilpenstein. We biked through pasture land, in and out of canals. Sheep nearby. The famous Frisian horses, too. And we managed a glimpse of some drafts.
From that day on, we rode everywhere, including another “out of the city” day trip to Haarlem, a municipality and a city in the Netherlands, and also the capital of the province of North Holland, the northern half of Holland. The bicycle lends for a particular order to things, a graciousness and decorum we like to call civilized or civilization. It’s interesting because if one examines the history of the Netherlands, we see that this living has come at great human cost. Many fell to the strength and power of the mighty Dutch will. The rise of the Dutch Empire is extensive and dramatic. Out of this, comes Amsterdam, an important port city and center of commerce. What we see in Amsterdam today is a result of this history so as we ride through the city and sit comfortably in cafes adjoining canals, we have to weigh the awesome power that began somewhere around the 1540s and that conquered so much. To the victor belongs the spoils is quite evident in Amsterdam. These spoils are Amsterdam’s gift to humanity. But these spoils also bare an awesome responsibility that Amsterdam’s inhabitants are trying to understand. The story is complex.
Perhaps this is why we can describe Amsterdam as an incredibly important human experiment that’s ongoing. And just maybe, this is why the moral structure of this great little city is experimenting with an unbound secularism founded on an unprecedented egalitarianism, which, in turn, depends upon freedoms of expression and a tolerance for difference. But this is the idealized version, the romantic view. It’s not surprising, then, that when the world is exhausted by the constant chimes of terror, from the Netherlands explodes the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. It’s also the place where Theo Van Gogh, the great-grandson of Theo van Gogh, the brother of painter Vincent van Gogh, was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim extremist, after van Gogh, with collaboration from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, released the Anti-Islam film Submission.
Amsterdam is not without controversy. It is an extraordinary diverse place; however, diversity brings contention, even among the most enlightened. When differences are thrust together, the potential for an explosion is always present. Before 1965, the Netherlands were totally a monoculture–all white Dutch and no threats. This changed with a very liberal immigration policy. Effectively, the society is now segregated. On the streets, we can see the diversity, but where it counts–schools, neighborhoods, business and so on, we don’t see it. There is resentment that what Dutch culture was is no longer–this is true. The monoculture safety net has been taken away. Now the struggle is different, particularly on religious grounds where the Christian and the Muslim, along with the Jew, have to live side-by-side in a society that is increasingly secular. What is Amsterdam turning into? What is it becoming?
I wonder whether Amsterdam today is the “new” Al Andaluz? It has the makings. Why not, why can it not be the “new” place where the three central religions, Christians, Muslims and Jews, live in relative peace and harmony? Only now we are called upon to protect the Muslim, not the other way around as it was when the Muslim protected the ahl al-dhimma (the people under protection). Maybe the tides have turned, though the challenges and the conflicts are as they were in the period between 711 and 1492. What we don’t want is the devastation and the destruction brought about by the Christian King in 1492–in the name of God and love! Al Andaluz was a beacon of learning, and the city of Córdoba became one of the leading cultural and economic centers in both the Mediterranean basin and the Islamic world. Why can this not be the fate of the Netherlands, Amsterdam leading the way?
The Amsterdam I see today is in transition, in flux, pained by both its past and its future. But it’s how it negotiates its day-to-day where the mystery and awe exist. The seeds of tolerance are there–a young Muslim woman on a bike or a Vespa waiting for a light to change and waiting next to her is a tall Dutch blond, also on her bike, and they look at one another and smile. This is the new Amsterdam.
So perhaps the Dutch are such great bikers because they have been learning to negotiate obstacles all along. Whether by conquering territories for their wealth during the time of the Burghers or changing from a monoculture to an ethnically diverse culture, they have been challenging boundaries–national, ethnic and tribal, as well as economic and educational. Amsterdam could be the first small city that will evolve–or not–according to how well it enables those who reside in the margins of life to exist without threat; where once there was a singular uninterrupted culture, as is evident in the architecture and the museums, now there are only threads that are struggling to keep humanity together. And holding these threads are exiles. Amsterdam is a perfect example of a city of exiles, of histories that come from colonization, and newer ones that come along because they have been following the great human migration for survival, for subsistence.
The Amsterdam of tomorrow will be built on the shoulders of mindfulness and tolerance. And if successful, Amsterdam, as Al Andaluz before it, will hold a noble place in the continuum of great histories that have given humanity, even if for a moment, a ray of hope that we can live together and relish in our differences.