What Matters in Education? Part 1

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Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.

Epicurus

A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.

Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”

“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”

Google agrees.  “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:

new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills. 

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The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over timeGraduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf)Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”

Rather than leading the culture, imagining new and different ways to enable reciprocity and renewal, education has chosen to follow; it has chosen to adhere to a false narrative and promote a stark hierarchy – pay is what matters in education. The problem with this model is that all of us become commodities; we are objects, like consumer products. It’s not a sustainable model. It’s broken – and we can see it by simply looking under the hood.

 

We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,

The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.

The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.

It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.

It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.

“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”

We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.

In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”

It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:

As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.

Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence – we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.

Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?

As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science.  Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science.  And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.

Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.

“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.

I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:

…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes.  The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis.  The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects.  The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups.  The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.

Empathy is key.  But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity.  Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.

Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.

What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.

What matters to us most?

In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.

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ISSUE 74: Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? by Mark Edmundson

Well, well, well … seem to be on the same page with Edmundson – great.

 

Education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education—university education in particular. To almost everyone, university education is a means to an end. For students, that end is a good job. Students want the credentials that will help them get ahead. They want the certificate that will give them access to Wall Street, or entrance into law or medical or business school. And how can we blame them? America values power and money, big players with big bucks. When we raise our children, we tell them in multiple ways that what we want most for them is success—material success. To be poor in America is to be a failure—it’s to be without decent health care, without basic necessities, often without dignity. Then there are those back-breaking student loans—people leave school as servants, indentured to pay massive bills, so that first job better be a good one. Students come to college with the goal of a diploma in mind—what happens in between, especially in classrooms, is often of no deep and determining interest to them.

 

Read more of what Mark Edmundson has to say in the Oxford American …

 

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www...

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www.cityarts.net/n.wiseman.html (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And, along these lines, Frederick Wiseman‘s new documentary, “At Berkeley,” may prove to be quite interesting.  Here’s tidbit from a review in The New York Times by Stephen Holden:

 

In its refusal to identify anyone by name or job title, this four-hour film — Mr. Wiseman’s 38th institutional documentary since 1967 — makes a profound statement about democratic participation. It’s not the “me, but the “we,” that keeps democracy alive. From the humblest janitor to the most esteemed professor, everyone belongs to the same community and is equally important. The modern university is a complex organism that, to function efficiently, needs every component, including someone to cut the grass.

 

 

College Affordability and the Order of the Day

The other day, speaking at Binghampton University, in New York, President Obama said the following:

“But…let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”

Concomitantly, as it so happens, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Bonn, Germany, at the DW Global Media Forum about how the United States is not behaving anything like a democracy, said the following:

“Well, another important feature of RECD [really existing capitalist democracy; it has several daunting characteristics described in Chomsky’s talk] is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.” [inclusion of brackets mine]

We can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Are we indeed moving towards a classless society where social justice, compassion and empathy – and opportunity for all – are at the heart or are we moving towards a society where more and more, each day, we are “herded” further into “bewilderment” and unknowing, which is very quickly followed by apathy, the sense of giving up, because nothing will change so we have to go along with the plan that we don’t see?

We can find an answer to these questions in President Obama’s most recent bus tour to promote his education policies – college affordability – meant to extend the opportunities for those that graduate from college. These policies, interestingly, run parallel to the Administration’s Race to the Top, the K-12 program (more on this below).

A way to end poverty, says President Obama, is to ensure that all citizens that want access to affordable higher education should have it.  Makes sense. Good idea. Obama’s plan is to grade institutions of higher education by matching outcomes to costs. Presumably, then, somehow the cost of higher education will be measured by where graduates land jobs, what they achieve and how these achievements can then point to a profitable, worthwhile future for students and the country. Okay, very dreamy.

But what this proposed plan will undoubtedly create is the following:

  • A stronger demarcation between the haves and the have nots, a more stringent hierarchy.
  • A greater concentration of power among the few, but particularly among those that will follow the path of banking (see Chomsky, above), which is where wealth is being made today.
  • A greater concentration of power is always followed by tighter surveillance, tighter policing and a further reduction in civil liberties; it’s also followed by a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy (isn’t it ironic – even uncanny – that a rise in racial profiling, an increase in drone terrorism and greater power given to Wall Street all happened while the first African American president presides over the nation? never mind the diminution in civil liberties …)

Why do I say these things? Because while the Obama Administration is looking to use outcomes as a means to curtail education costs, a reason for the high cost of higher education is not outcomes, but rather, inputs.

Here’s what I mean: the best colleges and universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, so on – make sure to attract the best – and best known (read: best published) – professors; this entails paying well and having personalized budgets for the professors’ respective research projects. In turn, these luminaries attract money from all sectors of our society – military, technology, science and medicine, and business. Money begets money.

Students in the best colleges and universities work closely with some of the best minds in the country; students are connected to future work through research, internships, and simple face-to-face meetings at conferences, and so on. In other words, the best students are carefully groomed to be on the cutting edge stage.  Also, these great schools have tremendously powerful and well connected alumni groups that take on as their responsibility the promotion of young, up and coming undergraduates and graduate students. It’s a conveyor belt to wealth and power. The reward is of course a wonderful life, material security, and great fun without needing to worry about the rest, those left behind.  This is not going away; it’s only going to get stronger.  And no one in this world is going to give this up – that’s for certain.

This conveyor belt wants participants to enter into different nodes in the current production system. This system does not want game changers, people that will come up with changes to level the playing field – President Obama is a prime example. In fact, this system works because it relies on the very notion that education is hierarchical and the different nodes in the system are synonymous with the inputs elite colleges and universities have put into place with donor funding.

The outcomes Obama wants to measure are easily done by these elite schools – in fact, they’re already doing it: go to the leading industries in this country – the military, government and Wall Street, technology – and you can see who is sitting where, wielding power and making policy: they all come from top schools – say the top 20 -50 schools. Take a quick look when college seniors look for work in powerful enterprises and you’ll find that the most profitable industries already have in place a method for hiring – and it starts with the Ivies. The back rooms on Wall Street are filled with students that have attended second and third tier schools (Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is par for the course.)

If we then add Obama’s K-12 plan, Race to the Top, we can note some parallels. Take New York City, for instance. Those students and families that have enough understanding of the system, are moving to charter schools and elite public schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. What’s happening in NYC is that those kids that don’t have family support, that don’t have the proper preparation to take entrance tests, and so on, are left behind in some of the more challenged, large, urban public schools. It’s difficult to get ahead. In turn, the best colleges and universities, whether working through special programs in the inner city or looking at individual students, first go to the best schools because, naturally, they want students to succeed; their success turns up on the bottom line.

So where are we?

We are where Chomsky says we are: a nation where power is easily kept hidden from the majority; where the majority are too easily sold programs and ideas by people that have other notions in mind – namely to maintain the status quo. Power, kept this way, is deeply rooted; it’s ancient and therefore hard to move – if at all. This is not pessimism, rather the way things are. We live in a spectacle society because it’s essential; it is a means by which powerful entities claim to have answers, color these answers – college affordability – in dreamy language, when in fact what’s happening is a deeper, more powerful entrenchment of the (historical) ways power is kept. Education is – and will be – a very powerful way to ensure our means of existence stay just as they’ve always been. Education is another arm of power.

Striking Thirteen: The World of Surveillance and Indifference

Since today, June 6, is George Orwell’s birthday, let’s begin with him. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” reads the opening line of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Looking around this morning, I find that the clocks are, indeed, “striking thirteen.”

So let me set things straight for President Obama and the NSA, this way no one has to come looking for me — or if you want to, I’m transparent: I frequently receive phone calls from Kabul, Afghanistan, sometimes even from other provinces; other times I receive communiqués from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong; I receive regular communiqués from Argentina and Great Britain, the odd couple, Spain and France, too. Sometimes Germany, though I’m sure you’re fine with that, unless it’s a white supremacist group. Welcome to the reality of global citizenry in the 21st Century. We’re all interconnected so we’re all under surveillance at all times — through Facebook, Twitter, etc. We’re all very willing to tell the world where we are at any given moment.

I am open about all of my communications because it makes little — or no — difference to the Obama Administration since it is pursuing with great force the Bush era Patriot Act section allowing for secret surveillance of US citizen’s phone records (number only for now). I am also a Verizon Wireless client, which is named in the New York Times (yes, I also have an iPhone — just keeping with the transparency). Screwed every which way, I guess.

And just to be clear, my conversations with Middlebury College alumni, which is mostly who I speak to, unless it’s family in Argentina, usually cover the following subjects:

  • The rejection of the Bush – Cheney lies that got us into Iraq, forgoing Afghanistan, until it was time to enter there.
  • The complete understanding that the government in Kabul is totally corrupt and millions U.S. dollars have been siphoned off and the Afghan people continue to suffer — and will suffer for yet another one or two generations. But we don’t really mind that.
  • The disgust over drones that in Obama’s hands makes Bush-Cheney war-mongoring seem like Sesame Street.
  • The militarization of key spots in the world to protect multinational oil business that, in turn, is channeling money to buy senators and congressmen, thus continuing our climate / environmental debacle and our dependency on fossil fuels.
  • The continued global policy, by the most powerful nations, to disenfranchise the poor – those without voice – on whose backs our way of living is built on, though, by all logical uses of statistical models we see that it’s in decline but we don’t want to look inward. So it goes.
  • The willful and systematic dismantling of public education in the USA — and education that’s meaningful globally — in order to ensure that production models of existence that malign one’s identity continue on our current conveyor belts to oblivion.
  • I also discuss, just to create a list of themes: Inverted Totalitarianism, the environmentalism of the poor, world wide, climate change, the industrialization of food and our decaying health, as well as the confusion over health care, which is an inalienable right.

There. If anyone this morning is looking around, just browsing and skimming, it’s impossible not to be depressed. Besides the U.S. secretly collecting the phone exchanges of citizens, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe says the IRS scandal leads to Obama — and it’s as bad as Watergate. So Obama is being compared to Nixon? At this point, does anyone really care?

Obama, back in 2008, ran on the promise of change. “Yes we can.” Indeed, we can. We have changed — and Bush-Cheney are having a grand old time smiling away their respective retirements because never in a million years could they have imagined that Obama would out Bush-Cheney them. Frankly, I don’t really know why the conservative right is all bent out of shape about Obama; he’s outdoing even them.

Let’s see:

  • Obama is weak on the environment, the Keystone pipeline likely to be the next feather in his cap.
  • Obama is weak on education, following No Child Left Behind — and Duncan’s rather mindless approach to any real education reform (I say reform rather then change, though they mean the same thing to this administration: privatization and homogeneity).
  • Obama is weak on civil liberties, particularly when it comes to our rights as citizens, going full force with an Orwellian (thus the beginning of this piece) scheme that will blanket the nation — and the world. (See the book: Chatter)
  • Obama is strong on keeping our banks strong, as I said he would during his 2008 election campaign; shortly thereafter appointing Timothy Geithner, a Wall Street insider, Secretary Treasurer — the fox in the hen coop.
  • Guantanamo is still open — what more can we say?

On June 23, 2011, I said that even with an Obama victory, nothing will change. GMO’s everywhere so that we can’t tell what’s what; a Farm Bill that, according to Mark Bittman in Welfare for Wealthy, is, well, just that, welfare for the wealthy — multinational agribusiness will be guaranteed pay-offs and given an open door to increase their monoculture production that has ruined land and air, while the poor will get less; Eric Holder is still on the ropes with the FBI scandal, the aggressive probing of journalists.

Has anything changed, really?

In my mind it has — but it didn’t change with Obama. In my mind things began to change and become more violent and aggressive, government more elusive, abrasive and prohibitive, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At 12:30PM, Central time, on November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, the world changed — and if not the world, then the U.S. certainly did. A standing president could be assassinated. Shortly thereafter, Malcolm X was assassinated (February 21, 1965), in New York City. On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And, on June 5th of that year, shortly after midnight, Bobby went. In the span of 5 years, a sitting president, a brother running for president and two civil rights leaders were all shot down before our eyes. We were all witnesses. American violence played on the evening news, alongside harrowing images of Vietnam and dogs attacking Civil Rights marchers. We passed through the looking glass and became something else altogether different — callous, angry, colder and more reserved and reluctant.

It was no wonder that this lead to Richard Nixon and Watergate. The stage was set for the coming of our hostile age of surveillance and indifference, the twin brothers that accompany a politics that gives justice to malice.

In his seminal work, The Idea of Justice, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says that, “What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just — which few of us expect — but that there are clearly remediate injustices around us which we want to eliminate.” All around us, daily, we see, “inequities or subjugations from which we may suffer and which we have good reason to recent, but it also applies to more widespread diagnoses of injustice in the wider world in which we live,” continues Sen.

So I want to be clear, I want to be transparent about what I’m saying, this way, Mr. Obama and the NSA have a clear mission: the most profound injustice, which is evident in the U.S., as a leader, and the wider world, is a resentment towards creative, free and open uses of the imagination; rather, justice, now, is interpreted as equal to or consistent with the injustice brought about by homogeneity and subjugation, the children of surveillance and indifference.

In other words, when I talk to my former students in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Great Britain, Germany and France and Spain, we all note the same thing: the closing of the American mind leads the world so powerfully that the abuses and violence we see in the rest of the world are a mindless mirror of who we are and what we’ve nurtured. That’s been the big change. We’re leading the world in our repression of social justice, of humanity. We’re all interconnected; it can’t be otherwise.

The Coming Plague: the RYAN – Romney Ticket to the Middle Ages

Is anybody scared?

I am. I’m very scared. Very.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a throwing down of the gauntlet: America is going to abide by a stringent hierarchy that will impose a highly structured system that won’t bend – for you or anyone; each class will be identifiable — and verifiable. We will have different Americas. Some Americans will be on the inside, others will forever remain on the outside. It’s all we can afford, so pick yourself up by your bootstraps — and if you can’t, oh well.

This is the election: do we continue to struggle on the demanding, bumpy road towards freedom(s) for each and everyone of us, working really hard, in difficult times, to re-adjust social mobility and tolerance, or do we give that up for a sure place on a ladder’s rung without being able to control (a) which rung we land on and (b) without being able to move the ladder this way and that, this angle and that, re-adjusting it in concordance with great suffering — and there will be plenty of suffering.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a window into who the Republic Presidential candidate actually is and how he works. Romney’s selection is a window into his soul, a dark, foreboding place. It’s obvious now.

Romney is the second coming of “W.” Romney, like W, is willing to be used. With W came Cheney, a very powerful, intelligent and articulate conservative, with hands in some of the most powerful pockets in the world — oil, defense, Wall Street, fundamentalist capitalists. He changed the course of history — and W went along. Cheney’s and W’s tack caused deaths, depravation and a furthering of the American decline: the 2008 economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Bin Laden running around like a lunatic planning his next destruction, education nearly collapsing, the greatest economic separation among Americans in history. The evidence is indisputable. This was the world handed to Obama and Biden.

Those same forces that gave us W and Cheney are now stronger; they’ve learned from their loss to Obama. Now they’ve forced Ryan onto Romney. Ryan’s economic plan will float money upwards, much like Cheney loved to have power and influence float upward only to him, then he could push the punk, W, around. Romney’s been pushed, for sure; Ryan has the upper hand.  Ayn Rand is winning, an early influence on Ryan, he admits. (I read Rand as  teenager, too, but had the instinct to turn away.)

If I’m not telling the truth, saying it like it is, watch the 60 Minutes Interview that aired last night, Sunday, August 12th.

Romney is cautiously in love. And Ryan can hardly sit still, so enthralled is he to describe his vision. He’s so excited with his new stage that he had to hold back from jumping in with data and projections, deferring to Romney’s jingoistic responses to rather soft questions. When Ryan speaks, Romney looks like a puppy that’s having his belly scratched, grinning from ear to ear. But his eyes, they tell a different story: watch it, this guy is really ambitious — and he can talk better then I can.

What’s he saying? For starters, we’re learning that Romney will have less control. We’re also learning that Ryan’s plan controls from the top.

The Romney-Ryan plan wants less social welfare drag, more struggle in the under classes, more riches at the top of the income ladder. It’s not a solution to our problems, it’s merely a re-distribution of a dwindling pie. Re-distribution, according to Ryan, can only happen by guaranteeing denial of benefits to Americans that are in trouble and struggling, hurting, maybe even confused and vulnerable. Ryan’s plan never looks at the reasons for our state being the way it is. The market place will then run free and produce growth; however, what kind of growth this is, we don’t know. What we do know is that growth depends on how rules and regulations are erased — particularly when these rules pertain to the environment and the extraction of natural resources by international corporations.

The gamble is that Ryan’s plan will provoke the upper-middle class and the socially unconscious. It goes something like this: People are always willing pay for the good life. Let’s take it. Make it. Sell it. Let’s take it now. Screw it. Climate change. Dwindling resources. Hell, there may not be a tomorrow. Let’s take it before it’s too late. Down the road, after much wealth is acquired and it all works out, maybe we’ll have the technologies in place that will allow us to tack back a bit. But for now, let’s take it. What do we have to lose?

Ryan’s plan is medieval. We’ve seen it before — the lord, his serfs and the anonymous living in abject poverty reliant on hand-outs from the serfs. Free market enterprise is the moat — free meaning that to profit one must be socially mobile to access open, competitive enterprise where there are rules that guarantee a kind of success, provided that monopolizing capital is something you’re willing to go along with. It’s a wonderful life.

But no one has a crystal ball. Obama and Biden could win. Romney and Ryan could win and end up paralyzed by a congress that opposes them, having to redefine their harsh perspective on the American future. In the meantime, as each party lobs insults to the other — and at the American people — we can feel safe in knowing that there are dark, harsh forces out there —  we can see them and identify them; it’s not a conspiracy at all —  throwing tons of money into the Romney – Ryan coffers, perhaps because they see the ticket as being Ryan – Romney.

I’m scared. Very scared of that!

Vero Beach, Florida and the Manufacturing of Consciousness: How the GOP Will Give Obama a Victory in 2012

At the height of the GOP primary race in South Carolina, I was in Vero Beach, Florida, and suddnely what came over me was the uncanny feeling that I was in-between worlds, a kind of vertigo, a foreboding I was not expecting since I was happily running up A1A.

In South Carolina, the reformed Catholic, Newt Gingrich, surged ahead by deploying a recognizable racist attack — Obama, the European socilaist, as food stamp president — rejecting his lobbyist self — though we know Newt was (Congress wrote the rules to ensure this kind slippage for themselves, post-Tom Delay, increasing their wealth on our backs) — and admonishing the poor for being lazy, resolving that it’s best to give poor children brooms and mops to clean schools.

(Am I the only one that’s reminded of Mussolini and Juan Perón, here — the self-righteous tauting of fundamentalism cloaked by the Church’s altar, the word of God Almighty?).

Benito Mussolini

Newt Gingrich

Juan Perón

In Vero Beach, as I went for runs, I was ovewhelmed by the illusion of reality — MacMansions by the sea (guilty: I was in one!), gated communities, vegetation that is not indigenous (all of it has been imported, except for sea graves and the St. Augustine grass,) and a constant burning of fossil fuels to maintain lavish lawns — mowers, blowers, chain saws, large trucks, off-road vehicles and yachts; the late-model luxury automobiles that are required in a place where pedestrain traffic is, as in L.A., non-existent and strip malls and golf courses that have become the new valhala.

And not a single person of color within sight — unless cleaning houses, mowing lawns and on garbage runs standing behind large trucks.

It’s not surprising that Vero has it’s own Disney Resort. The master of illusion has made Florida its own. Does this illusion follow the America psyche or does it help construct it, as do our politics, I wonder?

I was shaken by the very plastic nature of this living — and perhaps the very plastic, constructed lives we lead that scream unsustainability.

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

The BMW’s and Cadillacs and late model SUV’s abound. It is prosperity writ large; it is also a final sign, at the last third of someone’s life, that I’ve arrived, I’ve achieved. It’s what Mitt Romney argued in the GOP debate in Florida: this wasn’t handed to me, it was earned. This is the American way now.

But our American way has become divisive, we know that now — we can feel it. The left and the right are so distant from what we the people perceive our American mission to be, that we’ve lost any real understanding of Representative Democracy. Who is representing what and whom?

If it was only that we’re in an economic quagmire, the way out would be simple; we would collaborate and cooperate, plan and execute. But our condition is beyond being simply a bind — it’s a new construction that sprinkles old, recognizable American rhetoric over a new order that is redefining Representative Democracy: we no longer vote for people who represent us, the people; rather, we vote for representatives of multinationals and narrow special interests; we vote for extreme special interests that only comply with a very fine line defined by those holding the purse strings — or worse, with interests that comply with ultrathin social ideology, such as the complexities of marriage, civil unions and a woman’s right choose.

In an enlightening interview on the PBS News Hour, Thomas Edsall, a longtime Washington Post reporter, now a New York Times columnist and professor of journalism at Columbia University, who has written a new book, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, said, “Well, what’s happened, I think, in the past — really since the collapse, economic collapse, is that the country now is — has become dominated by the issue of debt and deficits.” Edsall goes on to say that, “Somebody’s going to take a hit. It’s no longer a nice and friendly game. It’s who’s going to get hurt. That makes for — we already had a polarized politics. When you add this notion that politics now is one not just of what can I get out of it, but what do I do to the people to get what I want, that makes it a much nastier and much more hostile circumstance.”

Thus our confusion. We don’t understand this bifurcation characterized by a nastiness and indifference to the well being of most Americans.

At the heart of this problem are the psychologies of liberals and conservatives, respectively, says Edsdall:

Liberals are very concerned with compassion and fairness. Conservatives have what one person describes as a broader spectrum, but not as much focus on compassion and fairness, but also on issues of sanctity, of a different kind of fairness. Their opposition to affirmative action, for example, is a different kind of fairness.

Edsall clarifies, saying, that

…the idea that conservatives are willing to inflict harm is not necessarily a criticism. If you are in a fight, and you’re fighting to protect what you have, being loyal to your own people is not necessarily a bad thing. If you and your family had to protect what your child is getting what your husband and so forth — if they face serious threats of lost goods, in effect, you’re fighting for them, and, in fact, if that meant someone else had to get hurt, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

This is the crux of the matter because, as Edsall says, “There is a stronger natural instinct among conservatives to see contests in zero sum terms, (witness: GOP debates AND NEWT — which is why I’m reminded of Mussolini and Perón), that there are going to be losers and winners. Therefore, I want to get into this and be sure that I am the winner and that people that are around me are winners” (parenthetical inclusion mine).

This is short term thinking, not long term planning that is creative; it takes away and does not build. It is destructive in nature since it means, by design, to push certain people away.

In “The Obama Memos: How Washington Changed the President,” by Ryan Lizza (The New Yorker, January 30, 2012), we learn from Thomas Mann, “of the bipartisan Brookings Institute,” and Norman Ornstein, “of the conservative American Enterprise Institute,” in a “forthcoming book about Washington Dysfunction, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, that,

One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, and scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Ultimately, this kind of hostility ensures that none of us sees clearly, least of all politicians. It’s by design. While Obama came into office with a spirit of change, trying to direct the country in new, fertile directions, Lizza tells us that the President, “was the most polarizing first-year President in history — that is, the difference between Democratic approval of him and Republican disapproval was the highest ever recorded.” Obama, we learn from Lizza, had to change in order to survive. And we also learn that, “Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street.”

It’s because of Obama’s accomplishments, I would argue, that, alongside dwindling resources, the Republican willingness to inflict harm, divide and (try) to conquer, even by waging war on voting, has become the strategy that is overwhelming this run to the 2012 elections.

What’s left, then, is a populace running towards Vero Beach, running to escape this violation of our rights, close our eyes, and enjoy what small, square plot of earth we can call our own, even though much of the American people will be left out.

Welcome to the new, uncanny presidential election cycle where we might see how inflicting pain may become the winning solution for the GOP — or it may undo them to such an extent that, perhaps, Obama’s willingness to work for change, his 2008 promise, can become something closer to the truth during a second term.

What we do know, is that the system is broken and it’s unsustainable.  This is certain.

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.”