The Black Atlantic (1500-1800) – Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Explores

The Black Atlantic explores the earliest Africans, both slave and free, who arrived in the New World. Through stories of individuals caught in the transatlantic slave trade, we trace the emergence of plantation slavery in the American South. The episode also looks at what that Era of Revolutions — American, French and Haitian — would mean for African Americans and for slavery in America.

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Overpopulation and the Anthropocene

Overpopulation is Not The Problem, by associate professor of geography and environmental systems, at the University of Maryland, Erle C. Ellis, is definitely an important piece to read – and not just because of the argument – “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistoric, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.”

In the argument, we thus must also ask about how we’re educating ourselves – and those to come – so as to follow data, science, principles and ethics and humanisms wide reach, thus ensuring that we’re moving towards a more pronounced technological future with empathy and care.   The challenge, according to Ellis, is here:

The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

Since we are “niche” creators, the danger, of course, is in creating a “niche of terror and devastation,” a niche, for instance, the excludes others, that, as Chris Hedges argues, creates “sacrifice zones.”

Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

We can learn quite a lot about ourselves by examining a single word: work. Our sense of this very simple word has undergone a tectonic shift – and we’ve changed right along with it.

In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good.” Thus we have work’s dialectical structure: art and investigation – a study, the creation of a thing, a building or a bridle, a poem, music, and so on – and the moral action that binds these in relation to a justification. This is a covenant between the pre-knowledge or desire that motivates one to an art or an investigation, the art/investigation itself and the result, some good, which is a moral bind. Skills are good; nurturing the “faculties,” as Aristotle calls medical science, military science, arts and sciences – our academic disciplines today – is good.

For Aristotle, the responsibility in maintaining a healthy, meaningful covenant resides in the individual. S/he must never neglect her/his work; doing so will hinder one’s journey toward self-fulfillment and a more complete self. Neglect would also hurt the community because, says Aristotle, “For even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.”

Sublime: elevated or lofty in thought, languageetc.; impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.. That’s the supreme goal, the ultimate good.

But we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a covenant with work to the detriment of our communities and ourselves. We’re not in control of our destiny, which is key to Aristotle – and later to Aquinas.

The major shift in our appreciation of work is this: we have moved far from work as sublime, something finer for the greater good of the community that, in turn, would elevate each and everyone one of us towards a higher, more enlightened sense of self, to the sense that work is practical, for survival, for riches and comforts – something we have to do, earn a living. Work is subjugated by earning.

Work has moved away from its more philosophical, moral origins and presently complies with the needs of individuals, first. Understood this way, work cannibalizes rather then nurtures; it pits one against the other in fierce competition; and it undermines, ironically, the actual legitimacy of the individual because the worker must comply, not with dreams, aspirations and creativity, but with ruling ideologies. Ideologies have redefined work by colonizing consciousness. “The result,” says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, “…is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of public good.”

Work is exhausting, drudgery, uninspiring. College students choose courses that will pay off, not spiritually, not even intellectually, but rather financially, complying with some imagined future full of material possessions. Despair reigns among those seeking employment: far too many young people are either not employed or under employed. “I’ll take just about anything right now,” we hear. Current unemployment is at 7.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Take a tour of vacation advertisements, too. Three days here, there; 5 cities in 7 days; bungee jumping, scaling mountains in a day; Hawaii today, Alaska tomorrow – see nature’s wonders, run past a bear feeding on salmon. A quick picture with a cell phone. Onto Facebook. These vacations, meant to release stress, create it and openly promote the conveyor belt psychology that privileges “growing adoration of self-interest.” It’s solely about me.

If we think clearly, we shouldn’t need – or want – a vacation from work that’s sublime, should we? We wouldn’t want to leave it, rather we’d want to take it with us wherever we go because we’re nurtured by it, we grow with it.

Our understanding of work, in part, has lead to the existential crisis we’re experiencing as Americans – who are we? where are we going? why?

What is happiness today?

And where should work fit into a sublime journey of self-discovery, which is, after all, what life is – a journey in which each stage moves us deeper into an understanding of our relationships with the world around us – and prepares us for a dignified death, our final life experience? It’s suppose to lead us to greater empathy, rather then away from it. Work like this is spiritual in nature. But there are many obstacles.

We can date this change, and begin to see the obstacles, by looking at three seminal texts that mark a societal transformation towards hyper-individualism, away from the greater good and towards a more intense – and systemic – narcissism: Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899, published in seriel fashion in the 1000th issue of Blackwood’s Magazine; in 1902, included in the book Youth: A Narrative, and Two Stories), Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the text that opens the floodgates, Sigmund Freud‘s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) .

These three crucial texts, at the doorstep of World War I, announce the individual’s retrieval from a sense of the public good – even from the public sphere – and towards a perverse solipsism that pushes aside any notion that work is somehow linked to sublimity.

Truth is hard to come by as we transition into industrialization, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Conrad, James and Freud chronicle a veering in our understanding of work and point to an increasing need for reclusive spaces to rest, think and create. Even in Freud we see that the artist, for instance, retreats, leaves society, the community, to create. And we see the need to work through objects in order to get a better sense of the world, some grounding – be it Marlow in Conrad or multiple storytellers speaking simultaneously in James so as to highlight the artificiality of the world.

It’s important to understand that as these texts are acclaimed and debated publicly we are marching towards the first mechanized war, a terrifying thought that was held only in the imagination then. But we now know better. From World War I to the present, we transition from tanks and mustard gas to drones and satellites, post-modern prophylactics for killing, a more nuanced, perhaps, repression of the moral conditions of our times. Besides cultural, political and financial unrest throughout Europe signaling the encroaching storm of war, also bringing this period to the forefront is the Paris Exposition – Exposition Universelle – of 1900, which celebrated the achievements of the past century and ushered in the new – escalators, the Eiffel Tower, diesel engines, film and telegraphones.

The individual finds himself in nebulous times at the turn of the century; insecurity is made even more pronounced by experimentation in art and music, as well. Think Stravinksy‘s Rise of Spring, which premiers in Paris in 1913; Baudelaire is tried for obscenity for certain poems in Le Fleurs du mal (1857); the transition from the Impressionists and van Gogh to Picasso, who says that, “through art we express our conception of what nature is not.” This a very confusing challenge to one’s sense of self – another turn of the screw, we might say. The artificial becomes the norm, even a religion. Composer Hans Pfitzner describes “the international a-tonal movement” as the “artistic parallel of the Bolshevism which is menacing political Europe.” The avantegarde assault on the senses is confusing because art is based on structures, order, not disorder – yet the individual, aesthetically, politically, and spiritually is being dislodged, asked to re-think “the Order of Things.”

“In our dreams,” writes Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance.”

It is this sense of reality as illusion that parallels our own age; it taints one’s journey towards an understanding of the self; and it skews the philosophical, moral and spiritual classical understanding of work, since the purpose of work, in 1900 and now, is for something outside the self. The individual is expendable.

Heart of Darkness can be accepted as a journey into the bleakest of recesses of the human condition – but only on the surface; it is the illusion of historical documentation. Anti-colonialism, the idea of individual freedom and a fidelity to the work ethic as salvation are traditional readings of Heart of Darkness. But if we approach the text as Marlow, our narrator, does, we find that blindness “is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” In Heart of Darkness, Conrad speculates that in a mechanical universe what is flesh or body, no less soul? All seems already lost. Hard things, resistant things – metal, mechanization – have superseded softness, flexibility, humanity itself. The individual, in Conrad, is tempted to become unfeeling, tough and durable in order to survive. Work, tough work, keeping a distance from any emotional connection to one’s work, is a part of it all – and a violent turn from Aristotle. In Conrad’s story, therefore, human waste is pervasive, the ivory being the central symbol here. The ivory – men work and die for it – is solely for the rich, a luxury, like art. The world of work and who benefits from the means of production have been successfully established.

In Heart of Darkness we transition into the dark side of Modernism and point to our post-modern narcissism. Where else can we go after such terrifying emotional conditions? But before we get to us, we must pass through Hitler and his most radical and unacceptable way of getting rid of Modernism – vehemence, hatred, and violence – mindless persecution. The world, post World War II, then, is forever tainted, having experienced the “daemonization,” as Harold Bloom calls it, of all academic conditioning and the pervasive evil leveled against anyone who supported Modernism. The world after World War II struggles to become more homogenized, more hierarchical and conservative.

For this to succeed, the individual has to be effectively removed from the self. Nowhere is this more evident then in James’s The Turn of the Screw, which begins with a confusing narrative, voice over voice trying to pierce the artificiality of the tale. The story is, ironically, an “apparition,” doubling as a mirror of reality, the Nietzschean sense of “the sensation of mere appearance.” Only this “mere appearance” has repercussions; a “ghost of a dreadful kind” alters the sense of what’s real and what’s not. All known systems of knowledge – reason especially – have broken down.

In Modern and Modernism, my mentor (NYU), Frederick Karl, sees this as a history that exists in the seams of the text, “a secondary apparatus”: ” a way of suggesting how uncertain and discontinuous evidence is; which is another way of saying irony undercuts not only our views of characters but the every day world.”

God is dead. Science is to be questioned – a suspect. Social structures are breaking down. And institutions, though formidable, cannot be trusted. But more importantly for us, the Aristotelian meaning of work is completely lost. We’re looking for the spiritual in artificiality – reality tv, the Kardashians, mediated sports, etc..

Enter Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams. Where else could we be but in a place whereby, as Freud says, “every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life”?

Peter Gay, in Freud: A Life for Our Time, suggests that The Interpretation of Dreams is, “in short,” he writes, “undefinable.” In keeping with the times, Freud’s Dreams is an autobiography, a survey of psychoanalytic fundamentals, “sharply etched vignettes of the Viennese medical world, rife with rivalries and the hunt for status, and of an Austrian society, infected with anti-Semitism and at the end of its liberal decades.”

But key to our discussion on work is what Freud says about “resistance”: “Whatever disturbs the progress of the work is a resistance.” In some ways, Freud returns, through psychoanalysis, to Aristotle’s dialectic [on work]; here, it is both the work of psychoanalysis – patient and analyst working together – and the resistance evident in the patient when attempting to work at defining – or approximating – the repression proper, the first instance that began the reason for the need for analysis.

What is also critical in Freud is the picture we get of psychoanalysis: an affluent client on a leather couch, reclining in a room amidst classic pictures and sculptures (Freud kept these objects on his desk), seeking to find herself or himself; Freud sitting just off the shoulder, unseen by the patient, pipe and pen and pad in hand, scribbling his notes. This is spiritual work removed from the church, by now dead. Here, we also see Conrad’s hard, mechanized world, as well as James’s layered structure of the world – elusive, and an illusion. This is not work in the traditional sense, though I’m aware that I’ve said that Freud returns us to a sort of neo-Aristotlean sense of work.  This is heady stuff, the work of the soul in an increasingly secular world.

For Freud, being that Dreams is his most significant work – not just in psychoanalytic terms, but also in terms of style, literature – it is important to understand that professionally – the world of work – he is trying to “normalize” psychoanalysis. In other words, he is trying to mainstream the work of psychoanalysis. Our collective acceptance of “therapy” as legitimate work begins here.

Peter Gay: “One irresistible discovery, which forms a central theme in The Interpretation of Dreams and of psychoanalysis in general, was that the most persistent human wishes are infantile in origin, impermissible in society, and for the most part so adroitly concealed that they remain virtually inaccessible to conscious scrutiny.”

Thus work is mired somewhere between “persistent human wishes” that “are infintile in origin,” (we need only think about Anthony Weiner here, and Eliot Spitzer), mechanization/technological speed, progress and alienation (we need only think about a couple having dinner while looking into their cell phones), and the chasm between the sublime nature of work and its current, materialistic driven nature (and, here, we need only look at our current political climate to note the disconnect between service for the good of the community vs service to me and my own).

Here we have the nature of work today – nothing we educate people about; we just put our heads down, nose to the grindstone, and persist to the detriment of ourselves and others – and the future. In this example, the story is 115 years old, approximately.

Where will it go, I wonder? Do you know? Can you guess?

Love’s Labor: The Long View in Education

for Katie, who brought me this essay

My relationship with students has changed dramatically over time and is determined less by my knowledge of disciplines and more by how sensitive I am to their emotional and psychological needs.

Students have changed over time, as our culture has changed, requiring that I rely more on my intuition, my sense of things, keeping faith that my ongoing study can be conjured instantly and give me the knowledge of content I need at a moment’s notice. This requires constant preparation on my part. I taught before the Internet, and now with it; I taught when it was only paper and pencil, and I teach now when technology is ubiquitous, sometimes even distracting. And, let’s not forget that in these last 28 years, we’ve experienced huge socioeconomic, global shifts that have affected students and teachers, as well higher education itself.

My relationship with students is determined less by the constraints of a 12 week semester (Middlebury has a 12 week term, with a January “J”term) and more by my sense of the long view; that is, my relationship with 18 – 22 year olds is defined by how well I foster the sense that what we’re developing together in the classroom and in my office is long term and made to last because we need to face the world together. It’s too harrowing to do otherwise. I see this as the essence of the liberal arts education, the most vital responsibility for today’s professor. Anything else is window dressing – the business of education, not teaching meaningfully.

We have crossed over to a different time, forced upon us by how students and their families are reacting to the confusing stresses of our times: globalization and the compression of time and space, and the narrowing of opportunity; the breakdown of institutions that we were accustomed to relying on, including education; the cracks and falsehoods of ideologies; the ongoing secularization of society; the dysfunction of governments – and fundamentalism running amuck; climate change and the challenges to our environment that, consequently, raise concerns about food and health care. These are all huge pressures that make everyone that is even remotely paying attention anxious; students, more so, since they are all experiencing incredibly complex forms of vulnerability.

Students are demanding a different academic experience, something that is more complete and holistic, and determined less by the recklessness of departmentalization and the privileging of idiosyncrasies that have lead to overspecialization and underemployment, our current problem. Students are demanding acknowledgement; they demand to be seen and heard – and to be understood. Students need to have their anxieties taken seriously – and for the curriculum to react and change accordingly. Thus, the word relevant has become a measure: is this course relevant? is this school? this technology? this pedagogy?

In other words, students are challenging what has been a rather passive approach to education, particularly among colleges and universities, not least of which are the elites with tuition approximating 60K a year. What is the relevance? You can hear students and families asking.

Students, families, teachers – all of us share a desire to learn, and to do so actively. It’s ironic, actually, that today’s conditions have forced us academics to move towards more active representations of knowledge, pushing us, even unwittingly, towards Paulo Freire, Maxine Greene and bell hooks, just to name a few who have advocated a deeper, richer meaning for the teaching and learning experience. These are the thinkers that have always believed that the process of learning is a mutual experience, a creative exchange between students, teachers, the institution and its place in society.

So I smiled the other day when a student with which I have a very long standing relationship with – as well as with her older sister and her family – sent me a passionate text about Vijay Govindarajan, the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth. She attended Tuck and she was beside herself after Govindarajan’s talk. “We have to bring him to Middlebury,” she texted. His central idea, found in Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere, is simply that “reverse innovation is any innovation that is adopted first in the developing world. Surprisingly often, these innovations defy gravity and flow uphill.” Thus the developing world benefits, as then does the world from which, traditionally, innovation occurs first because of wealth and technology. Creativity and innovation flow upward, from the poorest countries to the riches; this is new, says Govindarajan, because rich countries can afford to innovate – they demand it and people have grown to expect it. But what works for the rich doesn’t necessarily work for the developing. (What works for the classically trained, elite professor, doesn’t necessarily work for even the best of students in today’s world.) This is creating huge adjustments in the world of innovation, technology and business.

There are several reasons for my smile, my glee, when I got this text and launched into my reading of Reverse Innovation:

  1. A student reached out – she took the time – and taught me something; her view of learning is active, new, fresh, believing that we – she and I – can and must learn together;
  2. She’s trusting that I will move forward with this; in turn, this means that in the two years we’ve shared, and the time we have together at Middlebury, she can rely on me, trust me – I in her. This is monumental in the development of the long view, and she has it; she’s looking for deep, abiding meaning and significance; she’s looking to push aside anxieties about the future by creating a view for herself, a way through;
  3. Reverse innovation is unique to business, which she understands; however, it should not be new to her since she’s been deeply engaged in education issues, working with me on these Freirean ideas: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(italics mine);
  4. We always learn from each other and, today, the point is to acknowledge this reality – and for teachers to open up to student innovation, a kind of reverse innovation, which sounds counterintuitive but, as Govindarajan would argue, defies gravity. We know this to be true since this student’s experience with me has been exactly Govindarajan’s definition of reverse innovation. She, in fact, motivated this small essay, my first acknowledgement that, professionally and intimately, I hear her, I see her and I care for what she has to say. She is teaching me.

Govindarajan’s Reverse Innovation may be new to business; it’s not new to educators that have been working assiduously, to use bell hooks here, to teach to transgress. As engaged education thinkers say, education is, indeed, the practice of freedom. Govindarajan, in reverse innovation, sees, in business, a practice to freedom as well.

The tragic irony is that as globalization and new markets see this need – innovation floating uphill, rather then the more intuitive downhill – education is moving in the opposite direction, working to eliminate innovation, squash creativity, and squelch the very important relationship that must exist between a teacher and a student; this relationship defies standardization, rather it requires that more time be given close, innovative, encounters that can begin to define – and design – meaningful pathways through the complexities we find today. For me, these gateways happen in the classroom, during long hours in my office, and online. Academics must learn to use all the tools available to us so as to create the sense that education is wed to a long view held together by deep relationships where empathy, understanding and love are the guiding lights.

The Real PRISM Story: The Silencing of Dissent

DISSENT : To differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority; to disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; take an opposing view; difference of sentiment or opinion; disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government.

There are 2 challenges facing us post the PRISM story that define a history of efforts to curtail dissent, though dissent is essential for democracy:

  1. The U.S. government approved — and reconciled itself with — the PRISM program without much debate. The public didn’t even know about it. The public sphere has been carefully eliminated by partisanship and media’s propensity for the extreme. This, more then any other story is the critical story of the PRISM leak.
  2. The U.S. citizen is literally clueless about surveillance and the trail we leave behind, which begins the moment we’re born and we receive our social security numbers in our utter innocence. It begins here — then we’re cataloged, followed through school, tax forms (in my case: selective service during Vietnam, and service in the USN), drivers license, marriage certificate, diplomas, CV’s, etc.

DISSENTERS: U.S. history is synonymous with dissent; their voices and struggles created this country. Someone like Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s original theological philosophers, was a dissenter. Dissenters landed on Plymouth Rock, in 1620, 83 years before Edward’s birth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, and his prodigal son, Henry David Thoreau dissented. A long line of American writers — Hutchinson and Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Melville, Whitman and Dickenson — through to Faulkner, say, and Zora Neal Hurston, who died a relative unknown, in 1960, until Alice Walker found her unmarked grave, in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, are dissenting voices speaking against the status quo.

The point I’m making is that the evolution of the American character — our beliefs, our personality, our energy and our dedication to civil rights and social justice — is synonymous with dissent; however, as we’ve journeyed into our very tenebrous times, media, corporate sponsored government and our entertainment industries have all worked assiduously to homogenize the American character, thus the American experience. Homogenization, on a mass scale like this, is, first and foremost, how dissent is repressed; it’s also how propaganda parades as truth. And from this lens, how people — and language and actions — are criticized, which is to judge. It’s why John Boehner can call Edward J. Swoden, the individual that leaked PRISM, “a traitor”. This is the same John Boehner that would parade through the halls of congress with wads of tobacco cash asking his colleagues to take it; this is the same Speaker of the House whose leading five contributors are AT&T, Murray Energy, First Energy Corp, American Financial Group and the Boehner for Speaker Committee.

Who is a trader to whom?

Edward Said is dead, as is Howard Zinn. Noam Chomsky is 85 years old. How long can he keep fighting the good fight? Bernie Sanders is all alone, a lone voice. Naomi Kline is working hard, and only 43. If you think, unless you’ve tuned into Democracy Now!, with another dissenter, Amy Goodman, and WBAI, something like that, nowhere in our crowded networks does one hear a single voice of dissent, ever. Colbert, Stewart and Maher are our contemporary — and popular — dissenters, speaking to the choir, but their comedy goes along, it reminds us that all we can do is poke fun at the lies, deceit and idiocy because we have to live what we have. Hell, Rush Limbaugh, for god’s sake, sees himself as a dissenting voice.

Where are we?

In Chatter:  Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, Patrick Radden Keefe (2006) describes the Echelon project, the largest invisible eavesdropping architecture in the world:

The United States is the dominant member of a secret network, along with four other Anglophone powers — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that intercepts the chatter of people around the world. The pact between thee countries was initiated a half a century ago, in a document so secret that its existence has never been acknowledged by any of the governments involved: the UKUSA agreement. The network these countries have developed collects billions of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, and telexes every day and distributes them, through a series of automated channels, to interested parties in the five countries. In this manner, the United States spies on its NATO allies, and the United Kingdom spies on its EU allies; the network supercedes any other ties of loyalty… Signals intelligence, or Sigint, in the shorthand of politicos and spies, is the little-known name for listening in that it is used today by the eavesdroppers themselves. Eavesdropping has become an extraordinarily cutting-edge game, with listening stations inhaling conversations bounced via satellites and microwave towers; spy satellites miles above in space tuning in on radio frequencies on the ground; and silent and invisible Internet bugs clinging, parasitelike, to the nodes and junctures of the information superhighway…Though many Americans are not even aware that it exists, the National Security Agency, the American institution in charge of electronic eavesdropping, is larger than the CIA and the FBI combined…[And] Like any good conspiracy theory, this one contains important elements of truth. Like any good conspiracy, it is also nonfalsifiable: while it might be impossible to prove it’s all true, it’s also impossible to prove that it’s not, and the theory thrives on official denials and refusals to comment.

Has anyone read Chatter? Has anyone seen Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed, particularly since the PRISM story broke? Exactly.

In England’s North Yorkshire moors, Keefe reports, in cow country, “lies the most sophisticated eavesdropping station on the planet.” The five Anglophone powers — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — share it. British military police stand guard in front of a sign that reads: RAF Menwith Hill.

What we’re experiencing is a perfect storm right now: a long standing pact between certain powerful nations that created a world-wide — and very powerful — surveillance system; the unfettered dominance of the world’s largest electronic surveillance security agency, the NSA; corporate owned government that by design has to do nothing, because that’s what it’s asked by sponsors, and instead — also by design — harps on ideologies while privileging social issues over human rights and social justice, and dismantles public education; and the slow decay of dissent via entertainment and education, the only outlets for citizens, which is why mediated sports and pornography are the top sellers, followed closely by reality TV.

Very effectively, alternative voices — and alternative points of view — are marginalized through ridicule because they’re different, unable to adhere to jingoistic idealism, the bane of our existence.

The real story of the PRISM leak is here — in how dissent has been slowly silenced and how any alternative point of view, when voiced, is immediately rejected and ridiculed because it’s not following the ruling — and mediated — ideologies of our time, lending our age a certain degree of shiftiness, giving us a sense of transit where complexity — and complex figures — are introduced to produce, in us, an inside and an outside that figure to confuse our identity.

Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.

The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.

And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.

We live in 3 worlds:

  • The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
  • The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
  • The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.

We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.

Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.

Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.

This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.

The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”

As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.

We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.

We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.

Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:

Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.

Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”

There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.

What is our world?

As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.

I Told You So: Towards a Different Future Post the 2012 Election

I told you so.

It’s not a hospitable way to begin this piece and draw your attention, but I just had to say it . I told you so.

In “Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election,” written June 23, 2011, I said that, “the state and the corporation are the main sponsors and coordinators of an ‘unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalitarian tendencies, powers that not only challenge established boundaries — political, moral, intellectual, and economic — but whose nature it is to challenge those boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself,’ says Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Here we are again, debating tax reform, taxation of the rich and entitlements. Mitch McConnell is still obstructing by any means necessary. Paul Ryan is still showing his colors, suggesting that they lost the election because “too many Blacks voted.” Too many? And Mitt Romney, acutely blind to what happened, before, during and now after the election, insists, speaking to the LA Times, that Obama won the election because he gave Big Gifts to Latinos and Blacks.

The rest of us, meanwhile, exhausted, are looking optimistically for a compromise. Sound familiar? Have we been here before?

In Obama we’ve chosen a kind of struggle that will work only be degrees, slowly, gradually — yet not alter the state of affairs at all. Romney wanted to drastically change everything and place a perverse oligarchy at the helm. With Obama, we’ll fix a tire here, a spark plug there, a belt, a carburetor — but the fact that the system is fundamentally flawed is not going to be addressed. Remember: I told you so. And I’m telling you now.

On January 28, 2012, looking at this system keen on manufacturing illusion as its primary feature, I wrote “Vero Beach, Florida and the Manufacturing of Consciousness: How the GOP Will Give Obama a Victory in 2012“, and said :

Vero Beach is the American Paradox: the extraordinary cost of creating and maintaining such lavishness and the economic drain of a lifestyle that is characterized by total mechanization, as the pudgy elderly try to stave off the inevitable by walking and biking, their lives well kept by Latinos and some, very few, African Americans usually found behind counters at Publix markets, gas stations and sanitation trucks. The divide is the evolution of manifest destiny that has assumed a contemporary look and feel.

We can hear Karl Rove’s grandiosity; we can also see the denial of the changing face of the American electorate: younger, bolder, Latino, women, the LGBT community, and African Americans that are now looking for Obama, their president, to address their ills in more concrete ways then he did his first go ’round. Privilege is indeed blinding. The GOP never saw it coming.

But things have changed. And we have to help things change even further.

Robert Wolf, Obama’s top Wall Street ally, says that the rich can tolerate tax hikes. As reported by Andrew Rosenthal, in The New York Times, Bill Kristol, the stalwart conservative of the Weekly Standard, has endorsed raising taxes.

So immediately following the election — and the devastation from Sandy that brought so many together in a dramatic tableau of self-reliance — we have reason to, well, hope for change. But don’t get carried away. As Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion, our best and the brightest are educated, by our elite instutions, to be mechanics, not change agents — fix this or that, never changing the system; the status quo is accepted. It’s how we roll in America — and why we’re fat, too.

What do we have wrong? What do we have to change?

For me, this can only be done through education, a creative struggle with ideas, difficult ideas, challenging ideas that are, if they’re to be effective, questioning the status quo and offering alternatives. We need to work to transgress. We have to re-examine what we mean by “progress” and, likewise, we have to conflate our sense of it with what we “value”; in the journey, we have to look back and try to also define “virtue” and “virtuous action,” the keys to any foundation that is looking to move to new and better ways of living. These are the road to happiness.

Handmaking America

So let’s turn to our socioeconomic challenges, first, since these are on everyone’s mind. Please run to your local bookstore and, whether you’re on the right or the left or somewhere in-between, pick up a copy of Bill Ivey’s Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy. Read it. Then let’s have an educated discussion about who we want to be.

But if we’re going to do this, as Ivey says, we have to first accept that our values have been corrupted by consumption; this is why the constant affirmation of growth has lead us to a precipice — the so called fiscal cliff. (I can already hear the claims of “socialist”! from folks I know.) Here, listen:

Americans have been converted; we’ve internalized market values. We experience consuming as a liberating activity, strong enough to at times present the illusion of social rebellion. ‘Freedom’ is no longer a condition defined by the absence of debt and envy. Instead, modern-day advertising has transformed freedom into a central tenet of consumerist ideology.

This is called “Freedomism,” says Ivey: “the sentiment that allows buyers to somehow believe that the purchase of a new SUV is a ticket to the great outdoors, when the real effect is a hefty installment loan and the inevitable truth that to service the debt, one must work more hours, inside, at a desk.” Thus, “the transformation of every facet of human activity into marketable product in the end conflates money and meaning.”

We got to this place because we’ve been blind to the idiocy of growth, the notion that if we just expand, buy more, create more stuff, we’ll somehow buy our way out of our socioeconomic woes. In this world the Corporation is viewed as a positive “fixture of America’s democracy,” says Ivey. It happened gradually, but we accept the Corporate Ideological Apparatus and its insistence on the illusion of growth.

Grow where, though? How?

Look around: the earth’s resources are dwindling; we are being lead to believe that because we’ll be drilling our own fossil fuels, becoming less reliant on the Middle East for production, we’ll be better off. But here’s another I told you so: if you think that somehow this is going to change anything — price at the pump, price of heating oil, nurse the environment — you’re dreaming because, in the end, whether we drill, baby, here or there, this fossil resource is dwindling, too. It’s scarce any way we cut it. The costs, I tell you, will be higher. Watch.

The way to turn this around is in yet another source: Bill McKibben, my colleague and

Deep Economy

friend, in his Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future argues that More does not necessarily mean better. There are three fundamental challenges to the notion of growth, says Bill (it’s worth citing all):

One is political: growth, at least as we now create it, is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress. This is both the most common and the least fundamental objection to our present economy … By contrast, the second argument draws on physics and chemistry as much as on economics; it is the basic projection that we do not have the energy needed to keep the magic going, and can we deal with the pollution it creates? The third argument is both less obvious and even more basic: growth is no longer making us happy. These three objections mesh with each other in important ways; taken together, they suggest that we’ll no longer be able to act wisely, either in our individual lives or in public life, simply by asking which choice will produce More.

I dare say that this is, in fact, true, particularly if we go back and look at what I said, above, and examine the relationships between “progress,””value,” and “virtuous action” and Happiness. In this exercise, it’s incumbent upon us, as civilized humans, to examine Happiness for all, not just for the few. How can we work to create environments of Happiness, which could, in turn, be very different for different people?

To answer this question, we have to turn to another source, Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. In Nixon’s words,

Slow Violence

…we can recognize that the structural violence embodied by a neoliberal order of austerity measures, structural adjustment, rampant deregulation, corporate megamergers, and a widening gulf between rich and poor is a form of covert violence in its own right that is often a catalyst for more recognizably overt violence…[an] insistence that the systematic burdens of national debt to the IMF and World Bank borne by many so-called developing nations constitute a major impediment to environmental sustainability…To talk about violence, then, is to engage directly with our contemporary politics of speed.

If we then conflate our “contemporary politics of speed” with the illusion of growth, we have our perfect storm, our current state of affairs that, following Ivey, McKibben, and now Nixon, create vast disparities between us, exciting an air of negative competition that seeks to outdo someone else — the Other — for my selfish benefit only.

But, finally, there is an answer — missed by the GOP during the election, noticed by the Obama campaign, but, yet, it’s still living in a kind of fog, just out there at our fingertips, waiting to be noticed and appreciated for its, yes, mathematical accuracy: DIVERSITY. Not growth, but diversity will give us the future.

We thus turn to Scott E. Page’s The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. (Here is Page speaking on leveraging diversity.) Page tells us that, “Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores.” This is a challenge for a society that “prizes individual talent and achievement”:

Diversity is a property of a collection of people — a basket with many kinds of fruit. Diversity and ability to complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple … We should encourage people to think differently. Markets create incentives to be different as well as to be able, but perhaps not to the appropriate level. We have to do more.

Page goes on to prove his thesis mathematically and logically; it’s undeniable — except to the GOP that lead Romney to defeat and continues to deny the very real diversity evident in our election results. Notice, too, that critical interdisciplinary work is an essential  component that will excite market-driven diversity, since we’ll need people who are not necessarily smarter then you and me, but rather, people who actually can address a problem by thinking differently. Mathematically, Page shows us that a group of diverse thinkers in a room can actually solve problems more efficiently, faster and more creatively.

What does this mean?

The challenge for politics, for instance, is that the same people are always in the room: corporate spokespersons parading as senators and congress people; we impose, on the poor, for instance, how they should live, rather then asking them, at the seminar table, what solutions they see; we impose on teachers standardization, across the board, without asking teachers to contribute to their profession; and, likewise, we impose, then, structural imperatives on students without asking students how they learn, how they go to school, what challenges they face in this community or that community.

In other words, the challenge today is far more complex — and subtle; it’s about understanding our diversity, acknowledging that what we may be doing in the name of growth isn’t better — and it hurts many, many people.

In this long piece (sorry), I am compelled to leave you with a shocking, 1991 confidential World Bank memo, written by the esteemed Lawrence Summers, and found in Nixon’s Slow Violence, that actually demonstrates all I’ve said; it’s the ultimate I told you so :

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country impeccable and we should face up to that … I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles … Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?

Don’t be shocked by this, not if you’ve read Empire of Illusion. Summers served as the 71st US Secretary of the Treasury, from 1999-2001, under Bill Clinton; he was Director of the White House US National Economic Council for President Barack Obama; he is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; and, he’s the recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal for his work in several fields of economics. Summers also served as the 27th President of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006 (he resigned after a vote of “no-confidence.”) And he received his S.B. from MIT in 1975 and his PhD, from Harvard, in 1982.

I mention all this, even though I link to it, because, if you’re reading this and got this this point, you have to ask yourself: What are we breeding in our institutions? And, how is it that thinking like Summers’ lands a man a job at the right had of the President of the USA, in this case, two Democratic Presidents?

See, I told you so. How do you want to live? How well are we doing in our pursuit of Happiness?