The Place of Alienation in the American Political Consciousness

I seem to be looking for meaning everywhere I turn. But meaning I cannot find today.

Looking for meaning ought to point to something, a thing that corresponds to it. It’s a temptation to try to find some object that we might call “the meaning.” But there is no such object. This temptation — to find the meaning — needs to be cured.

Baffled, I look and wonder about our state of affairs — why we are the way we are, today’s American — and find not a single hint of an answer anywhere. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is obvious. Perhaps, as mathematicians might suggest, the deterministic nature of our system — capitalism flag waving as democracy — does not allow for predictability.

The world is perpetually in flux, yet Americans operate as if it’s static. We speak boldly about Morality and Utility, but these extract demands from our propensity for pleasure — oral, visual, sexual (not so much sensual, which would then move us towards aesthetics and a re-engagement with philosophies concerning Beauty, which would be too much to think about, too complex).

We are very much alone and plugged in — iPads, iPhones, computers, social networks. We are solitary — the self in perpetual solitude. Our experiences, like no other time in history, are profoundly solitary. In solitude we have intense experiences and can, for a short time, transcend the very real flux, the natural course of Being, existence.

Americans are then always in contradictions — solitary experiences that momentarily transcend the flux that is always present. Ironic — we are in a constant state of Irony. The prodigal child of irony is Alienation, a ongoing theme, for instance, in our American Literature that begins with Emerson to Hawthorne and Melville to Henry James and William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens to Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. Alienation gives us a form of rooted rootlessness, security in insecurity, an sense of alienation that has been historically a confirmation of community.

Alienation, rather then any ideology, is the construct of politics in America today. Alienation presupposes the always ongoing struggle to find the meaning that alludes us. There is no meaning — it’s the temptation we follow.

The rhetoric of politicians, keenly orchestrated to appeal to media, exploits the temptation to find the object that will give us the meaning. No one is telling the truth, though. The only truth is that our masquerading democracy seeks exploitation to survive, using Divine Providence — the false notion that we are the Chosen — to embellish our tendency for denial of what we see — or don’t see.

We signed up and followed Obama’s Change Rhetoric, only to find out that change meant more of the same: a rounding up of the Bush-era foreign and domestic policies and greater intimacy with Wall Street, passed down to us by Reagan. We’ve been lead, with our acceptance, down the wrong path. And the alternative, the crazy, Ahab-like Newt of destruction and the indifferent and the callous and blindly ambitious Romney, who made his fortune on destruction, promise a profound exploitation of resources.

In The Ship chapter of Moby-Dick, Melville tells us that, “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” What we chase is profoundly irrelevant, says Melville.Moby-Dick

We long for men that promise the meaning; we chase after their ambition, as poor Ishmael did when he stepped onto the Pequod and said, “this ship is for us.” But the Pequod is not a democracy; in its appeal to be considered the meaning, what we find, as a microcosm of American culture, in 1851 and 2011, is a totalitarian regime disguised as a democracy fully grounded in self-reliance. And nothing could be further form the truth, which is where we find ourselves today in America — far from any sense of truth.

In the end, now, as did Ishmael, we are orphaned, floating in a sea, only the sharks do not have “padlocks on their mouths.”

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The Location of Newark in the New World Order: Privatization and its Discontents

I. Newark and the New World Order

Newark is a microcosm of what’s happening across the United States. The city is being isolated by privatization efforts from the rest of America and people are struggling and suffering.  Politicians — Governor Christie and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, his foil — are merely mouthpieces for this effort, though they speak the language of inclusion. But Newark is being disseminated, nevertheless. In this Orwellian nightmare, the children — as they are in war — are the most vulnerable and suffering the most.

The unraveling of civil liberties and social justice is evident in the latest confusion — and fight — about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools. This is an example of a long history of dissemination in Newark. It’s the same old story, one that Newark — and other cities like Newark — have experienced before. On one side of the equation, we have Booker telling Oprah that he’ll include Newark’s parents in the decision making process; on the other we have parents feeling alienated and concerned with Booker’s appointment of Chris Cerf as the a new acting state commissioner of Education, the top post. Cerf heads a commission to double the Zuckerberg donation (they’ve already raised $43 million). Cerf is also a founding partner of a consulting firm for school districts. This is what we use to call carpetbagging, a derogatory term, suggesting opportunism and exploitation from outsiders. The feeling in Newark is that Cerf’s approach appears to be a for-profit enterprise, particularly if we take a look at Cerf’s peers that include a venture capitalist and hedge fund managers. This follows a general trend, incorporated by Governor Christie, to put private firms in charge of under-performing schools in Camden, NJ.

What is happening in Newark around education — again a powerful example of inverted totalitarianismis the result of a history of neglect. This is a history replete with structural changes, some racist, some not, that have, nevertheless, resulted in the disenfranchisement and isolation of an entire city and its citizens. These structural forces run together with cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality. The latest confusion and battle about the Facebook donation to Newark’s schools is yet another example of how the structural and cultural forces that contribute to racial inequality are exploited for — and by — an elite few. Now, though, tragically so, this too involves black politicians that use race for personal gain. This is not new, but it has now taken on an extraordinarily powerful force — it is subtle and dastardly, it is, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva suggests in his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, a “strange enigma.”

II. From Newark’s Riots to the New World Order

People emigrated to Newark to find the Promised Land – Puerto Ricans, Italians, Albanians, Irish, Spaniards, Jamaicans, Haitians, Mexicans, West Africans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Trinidadians and Portuguese all came with hope looking for new horizons.

Newark is New Jersey’s largest and second-most diverse city, after neighboring Jersey City.  Just eight miles west of Manhattan and two miles north of Staten Island, Newark was founded in 1666 by Connecticut Puritans; it was a model American city until the end of World War II.

In 1922, the “Four Corners” – meaning the intersection of Market and Broad – was the busiest intersection in the United States.  It served as a regional center of retail commerce, anchored by four flourishing department stores: Hahne & Company, L. Bamberger and Company, L.S. Plaut and Company, and Kresge’s.  New skyscrapers were built every year, the two tallest being the 40-story Art Deco National Newark Building and the Lefcourt-Newark Building.  But then tax laws began rewarding the building of new factories in outlying areas rather than rehabilitating the city’s old factories – the allure of short term profit versus the benefits of long term thinking, a familiar American story.  Newark lost its sources of revenue, and it has not been the same since.

Several forces in America began reshaping the concentration of populations, adversely affecting African Americans by denying the opportunity to move from segregated inner-city neighborhoods, William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociologist, tells us in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City:

As separate political jurisdiction, suburbs [also] exercised a great deal of autonomy through covenants and deed restrictions. In the face of mounting pressure for integration in the 1960’s, ‘suburbs chose to diversify by race rather than by class. They retained zoning and other restrictions that allowed only affluent blacks (and in some instances Jews) to enter, thereby intensifying the concentration of the urban poor.’

As the population of blacks grew in the North, as did housing demands, there was more of an emphasis on keeping blacks out of communities. These were structural conditions setting up urban poverty. Adding to the housing problem economic forces were also at work. “In other words,” says Wilson, “the relationship between technology and international competition [has] eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system…These global economic transformations have adversely affected the competitive position of many US Rust Belt cities. For example, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh perform poorly on employment growth, an important traditional measure of economic performance.”

Jobs left Newark for suburban tax breaks. Historically — structurally speaking — racist housing practices, globalization (science and technology and the gravitation towards cheap labor) and the move out of the inner city of qualified workers gutted the infrastructure of Newark. Newark lost its tax base; its revenue flew to the suburbs where blacks were not allowed. This reality is most evident in the abandoned buildings and empty lots of Newark; it’s evident in the lack of infrastructure support — hospitals, competitive schools, playgrounds, the lack of police protection and the dismantling of city (and state) workers and their unions. This is ongoing, case in point is the Facebook conflict. Wilson is also instructive here:

Two of the most visible indicators of neighborhood decline are abandoned buildings and vacant lots. According to one recent report, there are 60,000 abandoned and vacant properties in Philadelphia, 40,000 in Detroit, and 26,000 in Baltimore. These inner-city properties have lost residents in the wake of the out-migration of more economically mobile families, and the relocation of many manufacturing industries.

In the seminal study, The New Geography, by Joel Kotkin, we learn that, “The more technology frees us from the tyranny of place and past affiliation, the greater the need for individual places to make themselves more attractive.” But this is an impossibility when there is no revenue. There is no reason to believe that cities, as we know them, will survive these changes — they may not (see also here).

By 1966, then, Newark had a black majority and was experiencing the fastest turnover than most other northern cities.

Evaluating the riots of 1967, Newark educator Nathan Wright, Jr., Episcopalian minister, scholar and poet, the author of 18 books, and a leading advocate of the black power movement said, “No typical American city has as yet experienced such a precipitous change from a white to a black majority.”

At the height of the civil rights movement, Nathan Wright, Jr., was working in the Department of Urban Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. In his Introduction to Ready to Riot, a sociological analysis of the conditions in black ghettos that led to the 1967 rebellions, Wright described the fear of his wife Barbara, a daycare worker, and their 17-year-old daughter, as they drove into central Newark on the second night of what he called “civic rebellion.”

“There was an air of expectancy but not of anger,” Reverend Wright tells us.  “Barbara and Bunky (his wife and daughter) locked themselves in the car and I stepped onto the sidewalk …Almost immediately there was chaos.  The liquor store was ransacked.  Men ran by with bottles of liquor in their hands and under their arms…With a sound of thunder the large plate-glass window of the bank, just a few feet from our car, was broken.  Mrs. Wright and Bunky were in near terror.”

It was July of 1967 and the disturbances spread quickly to other black urban areas.  The National Conference on Black Power was about to convene in Newark, with Dr. Wright as the organizer and chairperson. One of the first major undertakings of the black power movement, the conference brought 1,100 delegates to Newark from 42 cities and 197 black organizations. It called for blacks to build an economic power base with a “Buy Black” campaign, for the establishment of black national holidays and black universities, and broached the topic of black separatism. The conference marked a change in the civil rights movement from demanding individual rights to group solidarity. Dr. Wright was at the pinnacle of his political influence. (It’s also important to note that prior to 1967, Malcolm X, in the mid to late 50’s, as described in the new biography by Manning Marable, A Life of Reinvention, was already following a separatist agenda, advocating for black run businesses, schools, institutions).

The 1967 Newark riots – between July 12 and July 17, 1967 – were six days of rioting, looting and destruction.   Many African-Americans, especially younger community leaders, felt they had remained largely disenfranchised in Newark despite the fact that Newark became one of the first majority black cities in America alongside Washington, D.C..  “Seen as a society boxed into frustration,” Reverend Wright says in Ready to Riot, “the city as a whole may be said to have an ill-tempered tendency toward repression on the one hand and aggression on the other.”  Local African-American residents felt powerless and disenfranchised and felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality; unemployment, poverty, and concerns about low-quality housing contributed to the tinderbox.

“In the mind of the distraught black community there was a growing sense of frustration, brutality, and repression,” said Wright.  Are we at this point, again?

The riots are often cited as a major factor in the decline of Newark and its neighboring communities; however, the actual factors include decades of racial, economic, and political forces that generated inner city poverty, which helped spark race riots across America in the 1960s. By the 1960s and ’70s, as industry fled Newark, so did the white middle class, leaving behind a poor population.  During this same time, the population of many suburban communities in northern New Jersey expanded rapidly.

The remnants of legalized discrimination that brought about the riots have left their mark on Newark, the poor and the very poor, and the young people among them without a community to sustain them.   For sustainability to be successful, nourishment and the necessities of life are the ground floor – the peace President Obama spoke about in Oslo. “It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security,” said President Obama. “It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, December 11, 2009. But in Newark the self-destruction that accompanies the psychologically oppressive weight of poverty and hopelessness – unemployment twice as high as in white communities, higher crimes, mortgage defaults that tract higher, and the malaise and pessimism that only benefits liquor stores and drug dealers – holds people from below and drags them down.  This is not the path to freedom. It remains, as it did in 1967, a path to destruction.

“The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies,” wrote Kenneth Clark back in 1965 in his seminal work, Dark Ghetto.  “Their inhabitants are subject peoples,” he wrote, “victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.” Has anything changed?

III. Newark and the New World Order — Tomorrow’s Promises

The confusing dilemma around the Zuckerberg Facebook 100 million dollars to improve Newark schools is the result of this structural-cultural history. One of the most dastardly cultural results is that Governor Christie and Mayor Booker believe that the citizens of Newark — and the citizens of poor communities in New Jersey — cannot be trusted to re-build their communities. They are completely left out of the equation. If there is going to be rebuilding, it’s going to be outsourced. We see the reality of this already. This perspective and attitude figures largely in a myth about poverty and the inner-city.We must again turn to Wilson for a cogent explanation:

…there is a widespread notion in America that the problems plaguing people in the inner city have little to do with racial discrimination or the effects of living in segregated poverty. For many Americans, the individual and the family bear the main responsibility for their low social and economic achievement in society. If unchallenged, this view may suggest that cultural traits are the root of problems experienced by the ghetto poor.

We have to challenge this perspective. It’s held quite obviously by Christie and Booker — this is why we see the problem with the Facebook money; this is also why we see the complete dismantling of all services in Newark and New Jersey proper, if we look at the poorer communities. Don’t let color fool you, Booker is first a politician — and politicians are always about changing color.

Finally, Homi K. Bhabha, in his by now classic The Location of Culture, gives us a warning shot across the bow:

The recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each others, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.

That we are disoriented, is obvious. That we are also divided, this too is quite evident, particularly when black politicians further the alienation we sense. And the fact that the private and the public are one and the same, something that Cornel West has also argued long ago, further confuses our sense of place, our histories.

Who are we?  Who and what do we want to be?  Who decides?

We have us to blame in all this, the malaise we’re in, though we’re quick to blame political figures. We have us to blame because we don’t examine ourselves, locating ourselves in this history of oppression that is quite readily available to us for our critique. As I’ve said before, just the other day in a post, I’m merely one voice — among many, I believe — who see these things like, nevertheless, I relegated to  the shadows, the boundaries of culture, to use Bhabha, again,  marginalized and disenfranchised l, and thus speaking only into silences.

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.

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?

Knowing what you know, what America do you want?: Mainstream media and Truth

Dedication:

to my Afghan students, my past, present and future students in Media, Sports and Identity, and to all my Midd students

Mainstream media protects and serves systems of power. Its role is to push the central narratives of our culture by implying a tension with the dominant culture involving representations of class, race, and gender–and especially masculinity. Political campaigns know this. Case in point is how the McCain campaign is accusing Obama of using the ‘race card.’ The McCain campaign knows that the media will fixate on this; however, this isn’t news, but rather, another sign of the manipulation that goes on for the control of images in politics today given the symbiotic relationship between mainstream media–it acquiesces–and political power–control by the few. (I’ve already covered an aspect of this, here.)

In a democracy, we’re in a bind. Democracy requires an informed citizenry. Are we informed? How are we informed? What work do we to do to keep informed? Who do we trust?

In The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century, John W. McChesney tells us that “the creation of such an informed citizenry is the media’s province.” All theories of self-government have this as a premise. Which means that controlling what the message is–the information, the images–requires control over how the message is delivered–the systems of media production.

“The crucial tension,” says McChesney, “lies between the role of the media as profit-maximizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government. It is this tension that fuels much of the social concern around media and media policy making.”

I’d add that it is this tension that produces the shallow reporting we experience today, particularly in agenda driven Op-Ed pages. The agenda is partisan, which is fine and expected (this is why we read opinions), but more often than not, this is tainted by a journalist’s need to push his or her own career in a system that rewards star quality rather than substance. To have “star quality” requires bombastic statements, ill-thought and narrow conclusions about life and death subjects.

The critical problem is that our system hurts the pursuit of freedoms, democracy itself, since to be totally free demands understanding; it, in turn, requires that we participate and debate, challenge and ask questions, and then involve ourselves in the processes of decision making. We must therefore critique and challenge those that describe–and define–the conditions for our debates concerning our differences, needs and dreams.

Media obfuscates this process–it’s been profitable to do so. Good examples are Thomas Friedman and David Brooks of The New York Times.

In the case of Brooks, after William F. Buckley’s passing, his voice is the most formidable of the conservatives. Friedman is difficult to pinpoint because he struggles with attempts at insight while trying to provoke. More often than not, he provokes because he carelessly makes grandiose statements that are extraordinarily one sided, failing to account for any other perspective–The World is Flat is full of these, as undergraduates at Middlebury have pointed out in my classes.

“When the world goes flat, the caste system gets turned upside down,” says Friedman in The World is Flat. “In India untouchables may be the lowest social class, but in a flat world everyone should want to be an untouchable. Untouchables, in my lexicon, are people whose jobs cannot be outsourced” (italics in original).

Friedman must be talking about the lives of sex workers in India, as described by William Dalrymple in Letter from India: Serving the Goddess” (The New Yorker, Aug. 4, 2008). “The majority of modern devadasis (deva means “god”; dasi means “a female servant”) in Karnataka are straightforward sex workers; the devadasis…estimated that only about one out of every twenty of those dedicated as children manage to escape into other careers–not least because almost all of them leave school and begin work from home soon after puberty…Nevertheless, the main outlines of their working lives are in reality little different from those of others in the sex trade.” From Karnataka to Amsterdam to Las Vegas–globalization at its finest.

My students didn’t need Jeoffrey Sachs to suggest that in a world that requires collaboration and cooperation, the “special,” “specialized,” “anchored” and “really adaptable” (Friedman) workers are going to require a totally different form of education, particularly in the humanities, with a strong emphasis on ethics, something that never comes up in The World is Flat.

Friedman’s flat world is either you’re this or you’re out. This is not sustainable–or tolerable. The disenfranchised, the marginalized and the small are voicing challenges to the globalization at any cost because the already powerful can gain even more power and control mantra. Proof is evident in what is being described as the “DOHA failure.” I partially agree with what Tim Worstall points us to in an interesting piece on global trade negotiations by Martin Jacques in the Guardian:

The irony of Doha is that it is being killed by western disinterest in the face of the growing power of the developing world. The rise of China and, to a lesser extent India, is likely to be accompanied by a parallel irony. The west, which has been the traditional defender of free trade – because free trade always favours the most powerful and advanced economies – is likely to run for cover and put up protectionist barriers, unable to cope with the political, social and economic implications of the rise of China. In a sense, the death of Doha is a dress rehearsal, albeit an early one, for the end of globalization. And those who bury it will be those who designed it and proselytized for it – the US and Europe.

All systems move towards entropy. Friedman never accounts for this–ever, anywhere. He is a part of an old system that relies on fragmentation and departmentalization, which is buttressed by an education system that relies on partial truths, fractured information and decontextualization. This is how a ruling hegemony is supported. This is also why we fail to see and understand the solutions we need today.

In Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Plent, Jeffrey D. Sachs says that,

To solve the remaining dire problems of environmental degradation, population growth, and extreme poverty, we will need to create a new model of twenty-first-century cooperation, one that builds on past successes and overcomes today’s widespread pessimism and lack of leadership…Such multipolar cooperation is time-consuming and often contentious. Solutions will be complicated; the problems of sustainable development inevitably cut across several areas of professional expertise, making it hard for any

single ministry—or academic department, for that matter—to address the issues adequately.

It is therefore incumbent on institutions of learning to engage in the myriad ways technologies are enabling a closer look at how we educate and learn, how we become. This requires a focus on the process of learning as defined by a critical pedagogy that questions and articulates that relationships that exist between knowledge production, the teacher and the student, and technology and the ever shifting terrain of language. This also involves understanding the relationships between knowledge production, educational institutions and power.

A few years ago I taught a course where I placed Friedman’s The World is Flat side-by-side with Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home and asked one simple question at the beginning and at the end of the course: “Knowing what you know now, how are you going to live the rest of your lives?” Resoundingly, after criticizing both texts, the class concluded that Friedman’s pursuit of rampant globalization misses the point, particularly in terms of individual rights, the pursuit of happiness and how both of these interact in a single life that has to live close to the earth, a prerequisite, students concluded, for being a vital part of the human race.

There is no accounting for how to maintain a world that is obsessed with more production for consumption’s sake. We have to collaborate and cooperate in a world where we are increasingly intertwined.

Stories in the media, and Op-Ed pages in particularly, aggravate the disciplined world bifurcated along differences that stress continued exile–and concomitant tensions–along borders. If we want to see how the world is really being shaped, we need to actually examine those who are exiled because of war and natural disasters. Our inability to confront these challenges shows how narrow our thinking is.

A perfect example of Friedman’s lack of personal connection with his subject, a lack of understanding of his responsibilities as a journalist in a democracy is his Op-Ed piece “Drilling in Afghanistan” (July 30, 2008). I sent this out to my six Afghan students, friends of Afghanistan I know and to folks that are living and working inside Afghanistan. (Has Friedman ever been to Afghanistan? Does he know any Afghans?).

Most distressing to my students, and others, was Friedman’s cold, callous statement that, “The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.”

Countless Afghans have died for the cause of freedom; theirs is a historically long battle for independence. In fact, Afghans are known for their tenacity and skill on the battlefield. And what about the Afghan journalists that have died trying to practice the most fundamental premise of democracy, freedom of expression? According to the Kabul-based South Asia Media Commission, five Afghan journalists were killed in 2007. This is on top of countless suicide bombings that have killed civilians and police. And On December 20, 2002, 65 civilian Afghans were killed by U.S. air strikes.

Where is Friedman on any of this? Where is any mainstream journalist on this, faulting the Bush Administration’s callous indifference immediately after 9/11? What about John McCain’s pursuit of the exact same policies as the Bush Administration?

Afghan blood is being spilled without cause. Afghan military and Afghan police, along with Afghan journalists, are the first line of defense–this we know for sure. But Friedman is blind to this. He also knows how responsible we are for this tragedy since we evolved a vituperative foreign policy that turned its back on Afghanistan for an energy policy that required the occupation of Iraq. Now the entire situation is a disaster. Afghans aren’t doing anything? The real question is what have we done? Answering this question is the first step towards reconciliation–without it, we can’t move forward.

Sure there is corruption in Afghanistan. But ours is not a corrupt system? The Bush Administration has been quite efficient in its pursuit of destabilization as a means to profitable ends for the very few friends of the White House–mostly oil executives. This is a strategy deployed by banana republics we thumb our noses at–but we’re no better, not to the world we’re not. Why is the media not taking this tack?

But as one of my friends (from Benington, Vermont) pointed out, as did an incredible Afghan student, it’s best to listen to people that are in the country, such as Barnett Rubin and Ashmed Rashid. We don’t though, and this is one of the causes of our problems, giving the Friedmans of this world the opportunity to gloss over lives sacrificed for catastrophic policies that have no vision at all.

We exist in a world where life is cheap and sensationalism, bombastic statements and a fixation on aesthetics is more important. We’re headed deeper into the abyss created by a conservative agenda.

David Brooks is a voice for continuing down this dark path. In Missing Dean Acheson (August 1, 2008), Brooks says that “In a de-centered world, all it takes is a few well-placed parochial interests to bring a global process tumbling down.” By “parochial,” Brooks means the weaker nations, those that are commonly the labor on which globalization for the dominant is built. These nations should reconsider their narrow local concerns for the greater good of humanity (read: the powerful, the societies that already have).

This is an old agenda ensuring that many will still reside on the borderlines; it is the last breath of audacious colonialism. Brooks fails to see that the disenfranchised live in-between spaces that provide terrain for elaborating new strategies for articulating identities. The Doha failure is no failure at all, but rather, a new narrative emerging. But Brooks can only rely on existing–and very old–systems of power. He longs for them. The smaller but emerging nations are articulating their sense of difference from a minority perspective we cannot now turn our backs on, as we have in the past. They won’t let us–the consequence of our interconnectedness.

Brooks clearly wants to hang on to a world that no longer exists. “The dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice,” says Brooks, “this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.” As is his style, this is not what Brooks means; he means that the failure to solve problems is a consequence of smaller, weaker and developing nations not acquiescing to the will of the powerful–the US, mainly, but now China, India and Brazil that are, in turn, also challenging the hegemony we’ve learned to rely on. Collaboration is only good when it’s among the powerful. We need not collaborate and cooperate with the marginalized. The future, though, is dependent on how creative we are in our work with others, and particularly with those that have suffered greatly because of our needs.

Our vision is myopic. A new discourse is essential. New disciplines for the US are required as well. Brooks says that “for the first time since World War II, an effort to liberalize global trade failed.” Of course! The effort would have meant further destabilization by ensuring that the “resourced power of tradition be resinscribed through the conditions of contingency and contradictoriness that attend upon the lives of those who are ‘in the minority,'” as Homi K. Bhabha teaches us in The Location of Culture. Simply going along with how things have always been done would mean further estrangement–but estrangement is good for the powerful because it guarantees a “slave class”; it guarantees that the devadasis will continue their trade, though devastated by AIDS.

In Brooks and Friedman we see how media protects and serves. By merely echoing representations of the surface structure of things, nodding to an alleged tension with the dominant culture, we, the citizenry, are dealt the illusion of truth. There is no truth in what Brooks and Friedman say–other than it would be best if the ways of production designed by the ruling hegemony remain. Everyone need simply go along. It is still, in their hands, an “us vs them” world, which is exactly the Manichaen world defined by very close minded conservatism that is running out of air.

Of course there are moments when Brooks blasts the conservatives for not being conservative enough. And there are moments, likewise, when Friedman addresses the Bush Administration’s narrow field of vision concerning the Middle East and the environment. But as Noam Chomsky points out in Manufacturing Consent, the progenitor to McChesney’s work, dissent is built into the system, it is allowed, even expected so to give the illusion of a dialog between differences, whcn in fact, read this way, dissent becomes merely another vehicle for the strengthening of the ruling narrative.

(We never see Chomsky, for instance, anywhere in mainstream opinion pieces, do we? Why? We never saw Edward Said, either–why is that? What’s the relationship between power and the control of voices of opposition to the ruling class?)

So, knowing what you know now, how are you going to live the rest of your lives?

Freedom and democracy require a lot of work; ciphering through information delivered by powerful institutions is the most difficult thing we have to do because it requires that we first face our biases, then our differences and pierce through the fog of mythologized idealism.


There are alternatives to mainstream media. It’s up to you, the reader, to seek these out–and to read.   Here are but a few:

Asheville Global Report: Progressive News Sources

Democracy Now!

Pacifica Radio

WBAI, New York–99.5 FM Pacifica Radio

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal

Dahr Jamail’s Mideast Dispatches

Raising Yousuf and Noor: Diary of a Palestinian Mother

The Ever-Receding Future

Dedication: For My Students @ Middlebury

To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

Common myth says that a person doesn’t choose a horse—the horse finds his owner.

We’re unsure when or how our accumulated knowledge becomes our very own signature—nor if it ever becomes so since our antecedents are eternally lurking, ghosts whispering in our ears; we are not even sure how much experience and study will be required for us to lay claim to the recognition that this or that is known, completely ours.

So what we do is wait—we prepare and we conjecture and we project, we assume, and we wait for the dawn of the day when we’ll rise and pull open a curtain on to the universe we’ve imagined and suddenly there it is, a slight tug, a pull, a subtle but simple realization that everything we do is somehow interconnected. And we smile—but we don’t know exactly how we got to this point, to this intimate acquaintance with ourselves, a state of familiarity with everything we do, every gesture. Since we have been so used to waiting and projecting, so accustomed to assuming what might be us, when a moment of certainty comes we mistrust it. Take you as ‘twere some distance knowledge of him, says Shakespeare in Hamlet. We see a ghost of ourselves—a version of some imagined being; we’re not quite sure what to make of what we see and feel then. We look to the poets and philosophers—are they the true antecedents to who we are? —to help us along and fill us in on what we may be silently feeling and thinking. W. B. Yeats tells us that the “aged man” is nothing but “a paltry thing”; nothing but “a tattered coat upon a stick.” What hope is there when the single most significant recognition we can lay claim to is that life has passed us by much too quickly? That the world is moving much too rapidly for our desperate need to recognize ourselves in it all—the trees and the birds; the oceans and the sky; the people; the mountains and the deserts; the buildings and the bridges, the made-made wonders of iron, steel and plastic; the bits and bytes of our metaphorical expressions of ourselves?

We have to be ready for it—the ah ha moment; be alert and aware; sense ourselves in the world. See the world for what it is—and what it’s not.

But our world—fast-paced, information driven, globally networked through fiber and nature and plastic mechanisms—works against our need to attain knowledge through time—time enough to be aware, time enough to realize ourselves within a moment in history and define its relevance, and time enough to be, simply to be in it, the world, and thus define who we are.

To be knowledgeable is to possess a great deal of awareness. This suggests that intelligence is achieved through maturity—the condition of being ripe or fully grown, especially mentally or emotionally. For this we need nurturing. Our age, though, is really about setting forth, being independent, growing up fast and furiously, consuming early. “Every spirit makes its house,” says Emerson; “but afterwards,” he tells us, “the house confines the spirit.” The houses we’ve built protect us, we assume—but they also confine us and create border conflicts among us. We appear destined to rebel against our very own architectures. There is something there that does not love the confinement of our house; it is the knowledge, gained almost too late, that what we have erected is marred by ways to obfuscate and avoid, defer and repress, alienate and accuse.