The Place of the Intellectual: the Future and Its Enemies

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.

So on this path to nowhere, what is the place of the intellectual in America? What are the representations of the intellectual, to use the phrasing of my own intellectual father, Edward Said?

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.

Hope Springs Eternal Amidst Decline: The Bard College Model

Witness today: the pathetic — and uncannyWashington 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 than 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 productioneducation 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?

Ken Robinson, for instance, in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, demonstrates how uncreative our education has been:

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 led 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 — so what’s the difference? It has a beautiful campus. It has all the accouterments 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 than staying on the ideological tracks to despair?

Media, Sports (NBA) and the Order of Things

It’s truly uncanny how popular, mainstream media willingly refuses to investigate what is really behind the accepted story, usually promoted by the likes of The New York Times, chronicler of the official story.

Here I’m talking about the NBA Lockout, which began last night.  A student of mine that took my Media, Sports and Identity class (students are now always on the lookout for what’s behind the accepted version of stories), sent me an exclusive from Deadspin: How (And Why) An NBA Team Makes $7 Million Profit Look Like a $28 Million Loss. Deadspin has obtained the financial records of the New Jersey Nets.  These records show how major corporations work:

The hustle: The first thing to do is toss out that $25 million loss, says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan. That’s not a real loss. That’s house money. The Nets didn’t have to write any checks for $25 million. What that $25 million represents is the amount by which Nets owners reduced their tax obligation under something called a roster depreciation allowance, or RDA.

As my students learn in our course, mediated sports nurture today’s culture of spectacle; it is a culture more comfortable with illusion then reality.  In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry tells us that “People whose governing habit is the relinquishing of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders.” Thus, says Berry, “They are ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is ‘attractively packaged.'”

Media is the tool that attractively packages  the boredom, paranoia, powerlessness and sexual failure, as every commercial during any sporting event suggests, from Viagra to fast cars and blonds with beers tell us.  It’s also, following Berry, how and why media — and mediated sports — engage in the attractive packaging that ensures we have blind faith in illusions.

The grand illusion is that NBA franchises are loosing money.  This parallels the grand illusion orchestrated in Congress, namely that if tax breaks for “fat cats” are closed, this somehow won’t alleviate the debt and make us all, particularly those of us that are middle class and can read and write and fully understanding are dwindling presence in society feel a bit better.

Mitch McConnel (R-KY), for instance, who will not go along with the President and is opposed to any revamping of the health care system, has, of his 5 top contributors to his campaign, 2 health care companies, 2 energy companies (also opposed to alternative energy sources and ways to reduce dependencies on fossil fuels), a bank, of course, Citibank that cleaned money of Mexican drug cartels, and a marketing firm.  The top 5 corporate supporters for McConnell are securities and investments, lawyers, health professionals, retirees and real estate.  Who is he protecting?

These deceits are best mirrored in our professional sports where players are routinely viewed as chattel or cattle, machines that can be depreciated and are expendable, as we are.  How many men do any of you know, between 50 and 60 that are today either unemployed or under employed?  “The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power,” Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (a text I will continue to cite over and over), “means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”

Of course we fear being “instantly disappeared.”  So it’s a lot better to go along with the coverage of the NBA lockout that suggests that somehow the poor owners are at a loss, the players greedy bastards making way too much money for shooting a ball.  Some of this is true: there are far too many players making millions and warming the bench.  There aren’t marque players on every team; every team is not in New York, L.A., or Miami and Houston.  Fans understand that.  But as we study the lockout and begin to see a long history where the player is merely a cog, a body, we begin to wonder, as David Shields does in his wonderful book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, “Who owns this body, this body of work?”

We no longer own the United States; we no longer own or direct the narrative — it is a singular narrative — we see on TV and in the press, the pop media; we no longer own our schools, our government, businesses; we no longer own the direction of the country; we don’t even own the direction of our lives.  What’s left but illusion?

It’s best to let Hedges end this post:

Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate.

We are indeed apostates; we have been well thought out; we are simply witnesses to our apathy, to our allegiance to deceit. But in doing so, we are also holding hands with the destructors and deceivers. We are accomplices. We may never recover.

At Play Behind the Ivy — or the Late Confessions of a Weary Prof

It’s the beginning of another academic year — my 25th.  I’ve often said to students who ask how and why I do what I do that the day I start looking over my shoulder and second guess myself and wonder about purpose, it may be the beginning of the end.

I’m feeling that I’ve been totally unsuccessful and that I’ve done nothing, nothing at all to  leave this place we all live in a bit better.  Certainly within the institutions where I have worked, I’ve been totally unsuccessful at inspiring any meaningful change focused on what Edward O. Wilson calls consilience.  This is very difficult for me to say. It’s very difficult to admit that I’ve been totally ineffective at teaching college students; that I may have done more harm then good.  Added to the emptiness.

Take a look — corruption, graft, violence, intolerance, a lack of dialog, little to no communication in a world completely “hooked” in and “linked” and the ongoing competition to get ahead by any means necessary define the malaise we’re all feeling.  This is profound evidence that education has failed humanity.  It’s evidence that the books and ideas and essays and conversations I’ve been involved in over 25 years have made no impression on the students I’ve had.

For the most part, the work has been solitary.  Feelings, ideas, the search for meaning is done with no one.  When we do gather in this ivy world where nothing ever seems to be at stake, we gather to hear ourselves talk, to pontificate on how wonderful we are at attracting students, when in reality it’s a sellers market everywhere in higher ed — the blind leading the blind. Parents looking for status for their children — better lives or at least lives equal to theirs.

But the world has changed — it has been changing.  And no one is really safe anymore and there are absolutely no guarantees, especially when we think about tomorrow.  We are still grasping at old models, the models that have gotten us to this lost point.

It’s not surprising that colleges and universities, today, begin their 2009-2010 academic year in debt, having lost millions from the economic downturn, primarily because for the past 10 to 15 years, we have competed with each other at the surface level — gyms, restaurants, new buildings, extensive IT; the look and feel of schools prevailed over purpose.  The importance of the US News and World Report list, which we deny, but rush to immediately upon publication.  Now we begin the year wondering about the “future of education” and the “future of the humanities” and “the future of the liberal arts.”

But the real question is this: Why are we asking this question now when this conversation began as early as 1996 when Bill Readings published University in Ruins?  Where have we been?  Is it a bit late?

“It is no longer clear what the place of the University is in society nor what the exact nature of that society is, and the changing institutional form of the University is something intellectuals cannot afford to ignore,” wrote Readings 13 years ago. We ignored his call.  We built buildings, invested in wild economic vehicles and now we’re wondering where we are.  The academic year begins in ruins and we’re charging more for it.

I look at my syllabi and wonder what the purpose is to what I’m doing.  We wonder what students are doing too. I heard a talented student give advise to students the other day. She said that there are at least 3 readers in every course with every book.  The student who skims for facts and ideas; the teacher who lectures and highlights and points to facts and ideas and themes; classmates who lend their reading, perhaps helping you adjust — maybe you missed something.  This method is survival,  not learning; it is a denial of the most fundamental aspect of a meaningful education, which is contemplation, necessary for ensuring that students — and the teacher — spend time realizing how what one reads and learns “enters” or is synthesized with one’s life.

I worry that I’ve been part of an assembly line.  I feel responsible for the world I’ve helped create.  I can’t help but think that, like global warming (we have to reduce CO2 emissions), education has likewise contributed to the privileging of larger, fatter, richer lives founded on more voracious competition that inspires callousness.  Should we, in education, not be asking what we’ve done?

In the next few postings, I hope to re-examine how I got here, using this space as a mirror that might help define how I got to this uncanny place.

Amsterdam Revisited

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.

Oud West Apartment --looking toward Farmers Market

Oud West Apartment --looking toward Farmers Market

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.

Oud West Apartment looking toward canal

Oud West Apartment looking toward canal

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.

Biking in the north

Biking in the north

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.

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam

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.

Middle Eastern Women in the Oud West, after shopping

Middle Eastern Women in the Oud West, after shopping

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.

Bikes, Canals, and their Bridges--the web

Bikes, Canals, and their Bridges--the web

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.

Women and the New World Order

CATHERINE RAMPELL reports in The New York Times that, “With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history.”

In “As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force,” Rampell says that, “The reason has less to do with gender equality than with where the ax is falling.”  The ax is falling on jobs that have been dominated by men.  “Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.”

This, I believe, is a major shift in our cultural construction of how power is controlled, even determined.  In fact, this bit of news can be seen as  a last breath of the old hegemony that has nearly driven us to the point of complete destruction.

The jobs typically held by women–education and health care–are the fabric of society; everything else –finance, construction, high-tech, etc–is crumbling.  The old guard is indeed falling apart, but the fabric of society, patched together by women, is holding.  And with the Obama stimulus package, even increasing its strength.

According to Peter Sloterdijk, the renowned German philosopher and a professor of philosophy and media theory at the Karlsruhe School of Design, there have been 3 phases of globalization: (1) the metaphysical globalization of Greek cosmology; (2) the nautical globalization of the 15th Century that creates global provincialism; and, finally, (3), the overcoming of distance.

It is this last phase–our age–that is extremely interesting from the perspective of a new world order and the emergence of women in powerful positions.  For the past 10 to 15 years, women from traditionally male-dominant cultures have found their way to Western colleges and universities.  It’s an amazing ratio.  Women from the East, especially China and Korea, accompany women from South Asia–India and Afghanistan , for instance–and mingle with women from Africa and the Middle East and Latin America.

These young women, to use Homi Bhabha’s term, choose to be “unhomed” in order to advance.  This, for them, is where “presencing begins because it captures something of the estranging sense of relocation of the home and the world–the unhomliness–that is the condition of extra–territorial and cross-cultural initiations”, says Bhabha.  It is a form of exile apprehended so as to better themselves.  In this condition, women are shifting, apparently always in movement, and challening deeply held beliefs about what has been accepted–to a fault–as the location of women in culture.  Women are re-articulating boundaries. They are redefining material reality.

This re-articulation of boundaries increases the potential for the feminization of cultures.   The current generation of women in our colleges and universities and heading into the (traditional) world is searhing for interconnectedness, though they suffer a sense of estrangement in doing so.  These are the women of the Third Wave of Feminism: the overcoming of boundaries, I call it, which is consistent with the movement’s history. Following Bhabha,  women are inhabiting a space “narrower than the human horizon” that provides an “ethical entitlement to, and an enactment of, the sense of community.”  This is something new, different.  Michelle Obama’s planting of a White House garden, which follows Elenor Roosevelt’s garden historically speaking, is a case in point.  The First Lady’s garden implies the need for a healthier nation, one that grows foods locally and that eats healthier–challenges to health care, the food industry, and the psychology of dependency of American citizens.

Moreover, Michelle Obama is a new model.  Gracious, elegant, classy and beautiful, she is also in shape, as our obsession with her arms shows.  Mrs. Obama is the Third Wave of Feminism, as opposed to Hilary Clinton who represents the Second Wave.  The difference is fundamental: the professional women of Mrs. Obama’s generation did not give up men or family; they pursued careers, but also kept the hearth moving.  This Third Wave comes with an “ethical entitlement to, and an enactment of, the sense of community.”  Women are demanding very different things of the social structures and the institutions that support them.

Women are negotiating languages used in the past to (pre) define notions of reality–and truth.  Nationhood, we can see by how women are stretching themselves across boundaries, is a morally arbitrary notion, a necessity of the post-colonial state, for instance.  Rather, women are more concerned with an “insufficiency of self” and the needs of new urban communities of interest.  Women fully understand the precarious sense of survival we are living today since this has been women’s historical position.  They are best qualified to guide us through.  Women are therefore the agents of change we need.  Women working through their identities, as these come into conflict with ancient–and broken–models, discover their agency and, in turn, transform formally oppressive ways of thinking and being.  It is a slow process, historically, but we are on a path we cannot now change.

What in the past has been perceived as less valuable and thus exploitable, disposable and forgettable in the global political economy, now is no longer.  Opportunities are shifting.  We may be in fact witnessing the emergence of the Fourth Wave of Feminism–matriarchal societies.

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat ~ or What Alex Rodriguez, Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, R. Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff Have in Common

Illustrator Barry Blitt has done it again. He has created yet another great New Yorker cover that parallels the one he did of Obama back in July of 2008. Only now, in the February 23 issue, we find a muscular Alex Rodgriguez signing autographs for steroid pumped children.

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

The illustration captures the conflicting drama of sports in America today: while we’ve been taught that sports–and particularly baseball–are about community, fair play, honor and courage, the notion that a player works as hard as she and he can for the benefit of the team, we find instead another reality–selfishness and hubris, egotism, deceit, cheating and scandal. And all of it the design of a production system that suggests that winning at any cost is what matters most.

The fundamental American principles of self-reliance, experience and pragmatism are nowhere evident. It’s no wonder we’re all confused.

Baseball was about redemption. It is a forgiving sport for players and viewers; it is also a contemplative sport. The point of baseball is to “come home”–round the bases home. It’s a space game. There’s plenty of time in baseball. But none of this is true anymore. Baseball is as harsh a sport as any other. Home is where the gold is. Possibilities are gone, as is the imagination. Like football, our current national pastime, baseball is now a finite game, about end results. And the end result is not winning, but rather, profit and loss.

In 2008, the 33 year old Rodriguez had a .302 average (.306 lifetime) and earned $28 million dollars. Coming into the 2008 season, the Yankees were valued somewhere between $200 million, to $1.2 billion; their revenue was $302 million (with $28 million in losses); and player costs, the largest expense, was approximately $200 million a year.

“The Yankees—read Steinbrenner—also own more than a third of the YES network, which broadcasts Yankees games to 8.7 million subscribers. The network’s revenues top a quarter billion and its profit margin is 60 percent. Though a completely separate business from the Yankees, YES’s value is directly tied to how much interest people have in the team, making a $200 million payroll a very easy decision.”**

The system corrupts. The profits for many owners, staggering. And players like Rodriguez are used to ensure that a franchise’s tentacles are many and reaching far and wide. It’s not surprising, then, that “A top baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic who received a $1.4 million signing bonus from the Washington Nationals lied about his age and name in what team president Stan Kasten called ‘an elaborate scheme.'”*** The Nationals signed a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez. He was compared to U.S. Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. “But while the Nationals have been listing his date of birth as Sept. 21, 1989 — which would make him 19 now — Kasten said on Wednesday that a Major League Baseball investigation determined Gonzalez was actually Carlos David Alvarez Lugo, born in November 1985 — meaning he was really 23.” ****

Money corrupts and the prospects of a lot of money earned early and fast corrupts even more. That’s the game now. That’s been American life for quite some time. This is why we can’t see ourselves coming out of this black hole for quite some time.

We learn from the historian Richard O. Davies, in Sports in American Life, A History, that “to be a sporting man in the mid-nineteenth century was to be someone who flouted rules of social acceptability by gravitating toward activities deemed inappropriate for a proper gentleman.” By mid-century this changed and sportsmen had good social standing and created outlets such as boating, swimming, horse racing, baseball, and so on. And by the end of the century, spontaneity is gone from sports and we find “formalized structures, written rules and bureaucratic organizations,” Davies tells us. Professionalism in sports is in–and it comes in with industrialization. Money–read profits–becomes central to the American experience.

Now in 2009, we have incredibly lavish sports venues, extraordinary media contracts and more highly paid stars than ever before. The stakes are high. So so much so that sports venues are sometimes created at the expense of communities nearby–the old Yankee Stadium and the South Bronx is a case in point.

The athlete as role model, in this system, is supplanted by the owner as king. The owner as plantation owner in a vituperative economic model dating back to slavery (see: William C. Rhodan, sports columnist for The New York Times, in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete /a star like David Beckham, at the time of this writing, is about to be traded–not loaned–to AC Milan). Money is privileged above all else. The premium placed on performance is extensive because the faster, bigger, and more powerful athlete has to hold the viewer’s attention. Salaries and on and off the field mayhem (Phelps’s pot smoking theatrical) are all part of the mediated experience of sports in America. Without it we don’t know what to make of our sports. We need the disjointed narrative to make sense of our oppressive lives that, with every day, appear to hang by a thread.

Phelps + Bong

Phelps + Bong

Professional sports mirror American life and the reflection is bleak and dark. The American athlete is central to our collective experience. The professional athlete is a metaphor for our sense of self, our desires–but also our foibles, our darkest selves. It’s not surprising, then, that during these the darkest of times Mixed Marshall Arts, which used to be called caged fighting, extreme fighting, and no holds barred fighting, is one of the fastest growing spectator sports. Anything goes.

Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford believed this–anything and everything was for their taking. Not unlike Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo, Madoff and Stanford, who lived in an elite system, a bubble, sensed that they were somehow immune to the morals of our society and our socioeconomic systems. Rodriguez’s ready-made narrative is that he was young and naive, a stupid kid. Unknowingly he took steroids. In the case of “Smiley”-Lugo, MLB, agents and owners are all passing the buck, no one really taking responsibility, though there is a history of age irregularities in the league.

Why a 70 year old Madoff, so respected by Wall Street, would create a Ponzi Scheme, your guess is as good as mine. And why would Stanford involve himself in fraud is yet another mystery. But most distressing is the information we’re getting that some of the Madoff money comes from organized crime, while some of the money in the Stanford case comes from a Mexican drug cartel. Madoff and Stanford have allegedly been involved in money laundering. Anything goes, including the taking of people’s lives.

Madoff and Stanford, and Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo are one and the same, born in a time where hubris reigns supreme; where what children see and experience is irrelevant–some will suffer, others will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and survive, and yet others, like those kids in the Blitt New Yorker cartoon will imitate Madoff and Stanford, Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo. This is the most corrupting tragedy of all. Everyone is expendable. And when everyone is expendable, everyone is also a commodity.

Steroids, graft and corruption, these are the symptoms of a lost humanity.

In “Money for Idiots,” David Brooks tells us that, “Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible.”

This is the ideal, not the reality. We find ourselves in a moment of real moral oscillation. We don’t know which end is up. We can only look at ourselves, though, and determine who and what we value,what’s closest to the human heart, what’s important. It may mean that in order to balance ourselves out, we have to also balance out idiots–but not criminals–as Brooks contends in his editorial piece.

In the meantime, in the South Bronx, within view of Yankee Stadium, a little girl, Pineapple is her name, Jonathan Kozol tells us in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, looks out towards Manhattan and describes us as “other people.” She fully understands that we live differently than she does–and she’s only in elementary school. What she sees–the Rodriguez’s and the Madoff’s and the Stanford’s–are what she calls “other people,” and they live different lives, touted as successful, luxuriant, wonderful. Just to get to school, Pineapple and friends have to walk through all sorts of dangers. As she looks outward past Yankee Stadium, how will she learn how to choose? Who will she be given who we are?