Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

Culture, Economy, Education, Media, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

Mark Twain, like an twitter journalist claiming their child wondered how we could entrust the nuclear codes to a man who doesn’t understand the Triad, attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the now-famous saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But I tend to take a less charitable view of the misapplication of statistical evidence in the pursuit of Trend Journalism. I am in the Harry G. Frankfurt school on this; I consider it less a lie than a more pernicious type of bullshit. The liar uses untruth intentionally and instrumentally, but she recognizes the difference between the lie and the truth—in fact, a precise appreciation of truth is necessary for a good lie. But the bullshitter makes no categorical distinction; the bullshitter collapses the categories. The bullshitter is a sort of sub-Nietzschian superman, beyond truth or fiction.

So we find in this recent Times piece, where a few grumbling, mostly older male alumni of certain exceedingly selective and prestigious undergraduate institutions have told our reporter that they will no longer give generously to their alma maters where, as I’m sure you can already imagine, they are shocked and horrified by a benighted culture of political correctness.

Students are too wrapped up in racial and identity politics. They are allowed to take too many frivolous courses. They have repudiated the heroes and traditions of the past by judging them by today’s standards rather than in the context of their times. Fraternities are being unfairly maligned, and men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations. And university administrations have been too meek in addressing protesters whose messages have seemed to fly in the face of free speech.

College protest is as old as college, and whatever you think of the apparently extreme sensitivities of today’s students—I tend to be amused rather than threatened—by and large, it’s salutary for students to flex their new political muscles over topics that, while silly to us old folk, are deeply meaningful to them. Student housing, campus dining, the content and delivery of course material—these are at least as important, as fundamentally life-altering, to a third-year undergrad than, say, the carried interest tax exemption to a hedge fund manager. Speaking of which:

“I don’t think anything has damaged Yale’s brand quite like that,” said [Scott C.] Johnston, a founder of an internet start-up and a former hedge fund manager. “This is not your daddy’s liberalism.”

The that that Mr. Johnson is referring to here is the much-publicized and briefly infamous “Yale student who was videotaped screaming at a professor, Nicholas Christakis, that he had failed ‘to create a place of comfort and home’ for students in his capacity as the head of a residential college.” But I’m more interested in Your Daddy’s Liberalism. Mr. Johnson “graduated from Yale in 1982,” placing his birth date at roughly 1960, meaning that the Daddy Liberalism these-kids-today have viciously traduced with their signs and chants is no more or less than the precise political values of one Mr. Scott C. Johnson himself. What did we used to say at my prestigious, selective, not-at-all-representative-of-the-vast-majority-of-institutions-of-higher-learning institution of higher learning? The personal is the political? Huh.

Having discovered a small band of wandering anecdotes, the reporter must fence them in with empirical evidence, and this is where the 1-year variations in annual giving and participation are carefully deployed to suggest struggles where none really exist.

At Princeton, where protesters unsuccessfully demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from university buildings and programs, undergraduate alumni donations dropped 6.6 percent from a record high the year before, and participation dropped 1.9 percentage points, according to the university’s website. A Princeton spokesman, John Cramer, said there was no evidence the drop was connected to campus protests.

So. A one-time drop from a “record high” with no prior period information to contextualize the multi-year and multi-decade trends is correlated by implication with a campus protest to which in the same paragraph we are told that there is no evidence of a connection. Oh by the way, in 2015, Princeton’s overall endowment earned 12.7% or $1.7 billion dollars, to reach an overall value of $22.7 billion. Yale, Mr. Johnson’s struggling little scrapper, runs what may be the world’s most successful venture capital fund and has an overall endowment of $25.57 billion.

Not every college is Yale, but even at poor, grotty little Amherst we find an almost identical story:

At Amherst, the amount of money given by alumni dropped 6.5 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30, and participation in the alumni fund dropped 1.9 percentage points, to 50.6 percent, the lowest participation rate since 1975, when the college began admitting women, according to the college. The amount raised from big donors decreased significantly. Some of the decline was because of a falloff after two large reunion gifts last year, according to Pete Mackey, a spokesman for Amherst.

You do have to love an article that unironically notes that dudes once stopped giving because they let in the chicks and now will stop giving because “men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations.” But once again, I’m more focused on the figures. Once again, we see a sharp but single-year decline coming off a big reunion year: reunion-year giving always spikes high. What is the 10-year-trend? Who knows?

This story is bullshit in the true, philosophical sense of the term: utterly unconcerned with truth. There may or may not be an interesting story about alumni giving at elite institutions, but you couldn’t tell either way from this farrago of bad information and missing context. And as I’ve observed before and will surely observe again, there’s a small shame and a big shame here. The small shame is that some reporter wrote this. The larger shame is that an editorial staff approved it and permitted its publication.

Skinks for Rump

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Media, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Milo Yiannopoulos, the sort of post-Warholian Z-list celebrity aspirant that the anti-social era of social media hocks up with silly frequency, is a public face—a mascot is maybe the better word—of an equally irrelevant but sociologically and aesthetically interesting not-quite-a-movement called Twinks for Trump.

Twinks—some of you already know this, so bear with me—are a gay sub-genre characterized by being young, thin, mostly hairless: the acceptable contemporary for the classically desired pubescent or pre-pubescent boy. The enduring beauty and sexual attractiveness of the adolescent male is one of those things that we’re very careful not to talk about too plainly in the age of gay respectability and marriage and the HRC (that’s the Human Rights Campaign, not Hillary Rodham Clinton, though if you squint, there’s not much difference). The preferred image of gay men specifically and queer people generally is of two fit, mid-thirties, slightly be-stubbled white professional studs who look disturbingly fraternal being married by Joe Biden. But the fact that there is a large gay sub-culture and a mountain of pornography that sexually fetishizes 19-year-olds who look like 15-year-olds is unavoidable, and the defense mechanism is to wink at it as a kind of joke. All those barely legal boys may be barely legal, but they are legal nonetheless.

Also note that twinks, by and large, are white. There are black twinks and Asian twinks and latino twinks, etc., but the group is definitely racially coded as Caucasian: its default setting so to speak.

The twink is a ubiquitous figure within the complex erotic taxonomy of gay male pornographic desire, but unless he is paired with another twink, his function is almost always the same: he is the actor whose youthful effeminacy and receptive position (i.e., he’s the bottom) serve as a highlighting counterpart to the masculine virility of his partner(s). So a common scenario would be to pair a twink with a jock: a slightly older, more muscular, more traditionally and recognizably masculine character. You can imagine the setup. The video is called “My Older Sister’s Boyfriend” or some such.

But equally common and more germane to the erotics of Twinks for Trump is the twink—the boi—and the daddy. The jock will be 29 or 30; the daddy will be 40 and up. In professional porn, the daddy will be somewhere between beefily athletic and totally ripped, a figure of obvious domination; in amateur porn, he’s probably got a gut and some unsightly hair in the small of his back. Either way, this is a sort of recapitulation of the same classical arrangement I mentioned above, where a grown and probably ostensibly heterosexual man gets to take care of his non-procreative sexual energy while the youth gets a figure of, if not wisdom, then at least strength and authority. Obviously this is all overlaid with the titillation of an aestheticized violation of the incest taboo. The video is called “My Mom’s New Boyfriend” or some such.

Unlike straight porn, with its inevitable ugliness and recapitulation of all the weird power pathologies of that strangest of afflictions, heterosexuality, gay porn, though it certainly can be ugly and exploitative, tends to read as good-natured and consensual, and most of these daddy-son scenarios are harmless fun. That said, there is something slightly depressing about the attempted sexual valorization of the daddy figure as an avatar of sexual potency and an object of youthful desire; it can’t avoid a tinge of self-parody, like an ex-NFL coach tossing a football through a tire swing as a euphemism for his pharmaceutical erection, and you can’t help but remember the other part of the exchange: that this older guy who probably can’t get it up without some pretty serious chemical assistance is also the guy with the money and the house and the reservations at the fancy restaurant.

So what you actually end up with is a superficially transgressive erotic exchange as a veneer for the most boring straight cliché: the hot young woman who dates the older guy for his money. And what’s sad about it is exactly what’s sad about Mike Ditka and that fucking tire swing: the exaggerated enacting of male virility only serves to show all the rest of the giggling world just how limp and pathetic daddy really is. No one other than another limply desirous daddy looks at this scenario from the outside and concludes that daddy is a hard, throbbing man’s man; quite the opposite. And the younger and more beautiful daddy’s boi, the less potent he appears, and the more we all titter when he excuses himself from the dinner party to re-up his Cialis in the restroom.

This is the excellent irony of Milo and the twinks for Daddy Trump. These little blond racist shitbirds have got it in their heads that they can help present him as a figure of phallic power, when in reality he—and they—become even more figures of fun. (Interestingly, by the way, the Classical world considered both impotence and well-endowed-ness to be pretty much equally hilarious and unmanly.) They are a punchline that comes to life and imagines itself as the comedian.

Cody

Culture, Economy, Education, Justice, Media, Poetry, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

The children aren’t the future; they are now.
My five-year-old, for instance, is concerned
that five-year-olds in China will have learned
integral calculus while he learns the cow
goes moo. Father, he asked, how can we allow
declines in public spending when it earns
broad wage-multipliers as returns?
Is Xi reformist, or is he a Mao?
And can we win the war on terror with
a formal legal apparatus that
constrains our agencies and binds their hands?
Do coastal elites represent a fifth
column? Is the Bible a samizdat?
Will I have to share the boys room with a trans?

Vagina . . . Without Previous Approval

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Media, Poetry, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

District officials sent WWMT a quote from a school handbook that says teachers are required to get approval before discussing any topic related to reproductive health.

The Washington Post

The word itself makes some men uncomfortable.

-Maude Lebowski

Imagine the spring. Imagine the tulip trees
in the garden—still a chance of morning frost,
the gold-black baby spiders, the first bees
betting on dew instead by instincts that we’ve lost.
Consult the Farmer’s almanac; consult
the weather on the internet; we are obsessed
with warnings, dire predictions; with results
whose precursors embarrass us. Confess:
you too, sex-positive and libertine,
are slightly squeamish at the ordinary bits
a flower represents: fecund, gene-
wet, vaginal. Marble tits?
Appropriate. But a flower is a stealth
lesson in the forbidden: “reproductive health.”

While White

Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry

Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions?

David Brooks

Hey, don’t blame me; you hired me to write
these several columns every week, and I
must write each in a little while. White

space is the beginning; it glares back, a bright
tease and an impossibility: for why
(and how) could I have something new to write

three times a week? Why, just the other night
my ex-wife said we’d always lived a lie:
a topic for a column? While my shrink’s white

too-modern couch exerted just a slight
cool leather pressure on my head and on my
weakening back, he averred I not write

about her quite so often. “It isn’t right
to air a private trauma; take the high
road,” he said. His great hair, while white,

is thicker than mine. Sometimes I want to die.
What harder fate than to be a man of high
moral character condemned to write
for money in America while White?

Thee, N-Word

Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Media, War and Politics

I’m as skeptical of safe spaces and trigger warnings as the next asshole, and I’m on the record comparing them to “the crystal vibrations of homeopathy and hypnotherapy,” but in that same post, and by the same token, I believe that while most of the proponents of this sort of thing suffer at worst from a naively misplaced trust in institutions to do right in the hands of the proper government and an overabundance of sincerity, it’s their loud public detractors who frequently suffer from a cancerous form of intellectual hypocrisy. So it was this past Sunday when, emerging from the palace to denounce the worries of the gardeners, Judith Shulevitz, a prominent critic and author frequently published in the most prominent and widely circulated publications in America, rang the alarm on the most worrying trend in the universities today. No, it is not the necessity of entering a lifetime of debt servitude to graduate from even our lousier state schools, nor the declining practical value of general education outside of a few faddish and vocational majors, nor the fact that war criminals and state security charlatans occupy positions of prominence in our best universities, nor even something as banally scandalous as the criminal extortion cartel that is the NCAA. No, indeed, it is the tremendous trauma inflicted upon poor administrators, and society as a whole, when, for example:

Last fall, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be “hurt” when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the free­speech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism “the n­-word” when teaching American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”

“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.

Now, I actually agree with this sentiment; I think the notion that we may be harmed, or traumatized, or “re-traumatized” by the mere utterance of unpleasant or offensive or troubling words and ideas, especially in the service of exploring and criticizing those words and ideas, ranks high on the list of the most bogus notions ever dreamed up by our species. And, I mean, what is the Anthropocene if not one grotty epoch of our species’ inexhaustible supply of bogus ideas? But here is the rub, and the hypocrisy. Judith Shulevitz is making this argument, lighting these lamps in the Old North Church, in America’s premier organ of news and opinion, which, Oh By The Way, does not permit the use of the word nigger in its pages, not even “when teaching American history or ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’”

Here, for instance, from last month, is Dwight Garner’s review of the widely praised new novel, The Sellout:

So much happens in “The Sellout” that describing it is like trying to shove a lemon tree into a shot glass. It’s also hard to describe without quoting the nimble ways Mr. Beatty deals out the N­-word. This novel’s best lines, the ones that either puncture or tattoo your heart, are mostly not quotable here.

I should mention that Garner is also required to “[work] around a perfectly detonated vulgarity,” lest the mere appearance of such traumatizing and re-traumatizing language should besmirch the Average Reader’s tender eyes and brain.

This is a minor point; we could all very easily find thoughts and expressions and whole political ideologies which would never pass the gates of the unofficial but powerful censors of mainstream discourse in America. But I happen to believe that its smallness makes it all the more pertinent, because what, after all, is the complaint about safe spaces and trigger warnings if not that they are small, petty, and un-serious; that they are the ill-considered attempts at prior restraint by what amount to a novel class of intellectual prudes, whose contempt for freewheeling debate is at last a kind of puritanism? Well, so what if it is? Where is the greater threat to freedom, in the seminar room, or in the nation’s most important paper? Censor, censor thyself.

A Sulz on Women

Economy, Education, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

A few brief thoughts on the New York Times-Sulzberger-Abramson affair.

  1. It’s awfully difficult to feel badly for income discrepancies where people are making hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars. Beyond a certain income level, which I would set at significantly less than $100,000 per year, it’s all just surplus value; its only purpose—if that word applies—is luxury purchasing for purposes of status signaling. This is not to say that women executives should be paid less than their immediate male counterparts; rather, no one should be paid so much money to be a general manager.
  2. In any case, the focus on corporate income inequality between men and women is a classic example of mistaking a symptom for a syndrome. Women are not paid less than men—whether in the executive office or at the greeters line in WalMart—because late capitalism is malfunctioning, but rather because that is a function of capitalism. Yes, women’s inequality long predates the modern economy, but the systems of capitalism incorporate preexisting forms of social and material inequality to their own end. A great deal of time and attention and political will is about to be frittered away “addressing the growing concern” over income inequality in the nation’s corporate media. Meanwhile, the question of what it means to have the nation’s singular newspaper a publicly traded corporate entity and the nation’s media in general an elite enterprise accessible as an occupation almost solely to those whose families have the previously acquired resources to support their effectively unpaid labor for as much as a decade will go largely unasked and entirely unanswered.
  3. In other words, yes, it is a problem in a narrowly defined sense that a woman reporter for the Times is making eighty grand a year while her male colleague is making ninety-five, or what have you, but it is a problem in a much broader sense that she went to Bryn Mawr and he went to Brown and both of their New York rents were floated by their parents for 4-5 post-undergraduate years of internships and sub-$30K reporting gigs; that these two employees consider this a natural state of affairs; that their employer considers it so (obviously) as well. These are the people who report on “income inequality.” In a very circumscribed sense, they experienced and performed low-income labor—for them, a rite of passage, a way station.
  4. Here is where the difference between the C-level and the checkout lane start to look a little more important. Let’s go back to that certain level of income. For all practical purposes, the difference between $400K and $500K—this is roughly the range we’re talking about for these Times editors—is meaningless. There is nothing of actual value that these people can’t buy; they can buy anything they reasonably want or need many times over. The idea that the arithmetical equality of dollars-per-annum for a bunch of rich people is a measure of anything beyond mere counting is the fundamental error here. What is at stake is a status claim.
  5. Meanwhile, a representative sentence from The New York Times:

Republicans contended [that Seattle’s attempt to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour] would be a job-killer, while Democrats asserted it would help alleviate poverty. Economists said both might be right.

  1. Wait, that isn’t fair! The Times has strongly editorialized in favor of raising the minimum wage!
  2. Well, sure, but then again, a few months later.
  3. Stop looking at the stories and start looking at the coverage. The narrative it builds is of a fraught and deeply technical political and economic question being argued passionately at the highest levels of government, in academia, and in the media—a debate mediated by and, in a perverse sense, for people who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars—the sort of people for whom there is something called “the economy.” “Both might be right”!
  4. These are the sorts of ersatz and imponderable conversations that capitalism, personified by its functionaries, likes to have both with and about itself. Have you recently used the phrase “rising inequality.” Ding-ding-ding! You listen with some anguish to NPR pieces on the “growing gap between the rich and the poor.” You, like the Times, recognize that it’s impossible to live on the minimum wage alone, and that even $15/hour condemns a wage-earner to a life of struggle and fretting over the bills. But isn’t it true that mandated upward pressure on the low end of wages will force businesses to slow hiring? The unemployment rate is so high! We need more jobs! No, we need good jobs! Oh, woe, what is a “the economy” to do?
  5. Pause. Here’s a question that you rarely hear anyone ask. What is money? I’ve always been very fond of the late author Iain M. Banks formulation in his first science fiction novel. Money is a “crude, over-complicated and inefficient form of rationing.”
  6. Rationing! You mean, like communism?
  7. Yes, Virginia.
  8. Stay with me. In 2010, women comprised 47 percent of the total US Labor Force. Now, estimates differ, as the Times might say, but broadly speaking, women are assumed to make somewhere between 75-85% of what men make in, as the Times might say, broadly comparable positions.
  9. Okay, I want you to imagine the Times, or any similar publication, publishing an editorial that says women should not make as much as men for the same work because of the fundamental damage that “some Republicans” or “some economists” say that “equal pay” would do to our old friend, the economy.
  10. Because, after all, the cost of bringing the compensation of all women in the workforce into wage/salary parity with men would far exceed that of increasing the minimum wage—even dramatically—for the just several million people who earn it. So why, then, is the one a debate and the other a moral imperative?
  11. I’m glad you asked! Capitalism is a system of surpluses, and it allocates them upward. It gives more rations to people who already have a pile. Should women make as much as men, blacks as much as whites? Yes. But these debates are moral proxies for debates that we are not having, at least, not in the pages of the Times. The answer to the question of whether a woman line worker should make as much as the guy next to her is yes. The answer to the question of whether Jill Abramson should have made as much as Bill Keller is smash the system of state capital and reallocate the surpluses in the form of lifetime guaranteed housing, clothing, food, and study for everyone. I am not being crass here. There is, quite literally, plenty to go around.
  12. Yeah, well, how does this affect Hillary’s chances in 2016?
  13. There is, of course, a corollary debate. This debate has to do with the question of why it is that women in leadership roles are pushy and opinionated while men are strong and decisive, or, well, you pick the opposing pairs of adjectives—why, in short, is the behavior of women judged on measures of temperament, and men’s on measures of will? It strikes me that the actual question being asked here is: why, upon achieving a position of dominance, aren’t women as free to act like monstrous dickheads as men? The management behaviors ascribed to both Abramson and her predecessors are the worst kind of B-school blowhard psychopathy: management based on fear; power maintained by its own inconsistent application. These sorts of hard-driven, hard-driving, chair-tossing, dressing-down applications of personal power within a rigid hierarchy of authority are, like that big ol’ salary, a kind of surplus; an excess; an overage. So the question can’t be: how do we permit a few more women to behave like the lunatic men who’ve been running the show all these years, but how do we prohibit or prevent anyone from acting this way? And here, too, the answer is a more fundamental sort of levelling, because the other option, which is the false promise of our society, which is the belief that it is the duty of each person to scramble madly from the broad base toward the unattainable height, is a Sisyphean punishment where we all—well, most of us—under the weight of our own bodies are forever sent tumbling down the sides of the same brutal slope.

The Culture

Culture, Economy, Education, The Life of the Mind

Today, as Summers notes, the economy seems mostly back to normal — but joblessness is still endemic. Growth simply isn’t producing enough jobs. This is a more severe and more urgent problem than inequality. Moreover, fixing it is necessary, though not sufficient, to making real headway against inequality.

Ezra Klein thinks that the American left—bizarrely, he seems to include the Democratic Party in the category, but that is the least of his category errors, so we’ll leave it be—is overly concerned with the problem of income inequality and insufficiently concerned with unemployment. There is a sense in which he is correct. Too much economic discourse focuses on the narrow caste of people who, because they are mentally disordered, deranged, and in deep need of our pity and the best psychiatric treatment that our doctors can yet provide, waste their lives not in the pursuit of human joy and affection and invention and transcendence, but in the weird, obsessive accumulation of hundreds of millions of electronic credits. “Yes Mr. Lebowski, these unfortunate souls cannot love in the true sense of the word.” Marginal efforts to solve all of our ills by sending the taxman to shake a few more rubles from these sad gangsters are indeed doomed to fail. Most of their wealth is illusory, a product of the speculative machinery of the financial markets, soap bubble wealth, one good solar storm from evaporation.

I mention this because these billion-dollar fortunes are part of the same illusion that causes Ezra Klein and Larry summers to wonder “whether the country’s growth machine [is] so fundamentally broken that adequate demand required credit bubbles.” This is a question? Of course demand requires credit bubbles. Also, what is this growth stuff?

When a society financializes its economy as thoroughly as ours has, growth is nothing but a bubble; it is the computerized manipulation of electronic currency to cause numbers to get bigger. Growth in the sense of extracting more resources and making more things and hiring more people as the population increases is like Manifest Destiny, like the frontier. Eventually, you run out of Indians to swindle and massacre, and all the cars and TVs are made by robots. It’s the closing of the frontier, in the Jackson Turnerian turn of phrase. Economists call these phenomena “gains in productivity,” which just means that the fake pile of fake money that is our fake economy is self-inflating fast enough to make it appear that each little still-employed economic ant makes a larger share of the wealth. You take the big pile of money, divide it by some man-hour construct, and suddenly it appears that few workers are making all the wealth quite well, thank you very much. We need fewer people to make all this pretend money. For all the Tom Friedmans who lament the lack of “skills”—and really, has anyone ever managed to mention what any of these skills actually are, I mean, specifically—the larger problem is demand for workers. We just don’t need that many of you guys.

So Klein’s solution, the broad, technocratic consensus on both the left and the right, is that we need to figure out a way to create more jobs. The Democrats want to over-hire more road crews, and the Republicans want companies to use the windfall of reduced taxes to hire more phony middle managers, and then all that unnecessary employment will make it rain like a cash-heavy bar owner at a strip club. Regardless of the mechanism, though, all these jobs have one thing in common. They are fake.

Well, here is a quote from that congenial lunatic, Bucky Fuller, that’s been making the rounds lately:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

He said this in the seventies, so you can only imagine how true it is today. The increased automation of industrial production has reduced the necessity of employing lots of people. A few of us may invent the internet, or whatever, and be free to make our billions and cackle greedily over them in the lonely attics of our tacky mansions. Meanwhile, per Fuller, we ought to just give most people money to go to school, not so that they can Develop the Skills of Tomorrow Today in order to Win the Future against the Chinese, but so that they can do chemistry experiments or read Russian literature or ponder the mysteries of the Trinity or learn to throw pots. If Ezra Klein can make, say, what, a buck fifty—probably more?—to blog, then why can’t we just agree to pay everyone who takes cute pictures of their cat or makes lists of their favorite recipes fifty or sixty grand a year? Thesis: maintaining an interesting Tumblr is more closely related to labor in the classical sense than writing macros as an “analyst” in a Fortune 1,000 firm.

But really, this gets us back to those accumulators of immense fortunes, both individuals and corporations. Because we are addicted to primitive forms of exchange that are probably necessary to the allocation of goods in an environment of actual material scarcity, there is a sense that, by hoarding so many dollars, the very rich are preventing the poor from getting the currency required to acquire the things that they need. True, but in the long term, the solution is to recognize that we are actually a post-scarcity society; conditions of material deprivation are artificial products of the very economic system that is supposed to allocate goods. Thesis: inequality and poverty are failures of the supply chain. The problem is not the hoarding of money, but the persistent connection of money to things that we can easily produce and distribute to everyone without some conniving Whartonian middleman.

The Won Percent

Education, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

Oh, Jesus, you’re already thinking. Another one of those “when I was at Oberlin back in the good ol’ days” stemwinding openers. Fuck you. Get your own blog. When I was a whippety little undergrad at Oberlin College lo this last dragging decade ago, one Larry Summers—you may have heard of him—was invited to speak at Finney Chapel as part of a yearly “Convocation Series”, the sort of series that well-heeled college and university presidents pride themselves on, the kind of convocation in which one is likely to encounter, say, the phrase “thought leader” incarnated in the form of various state functionaries and intellectual popularizers, an ongoing and geographically distributed set of temporary Chautauquas, pace Mencken, a sweaty, Gilbertian landscape of eating, praying, and love, at least, of money.

Summers was Clinton’s Treasury Secretary at the time—this was just before Harvard signed him on waivers. If you want a good example of exquisite mediocrity as the sole unkillable constant in American public life, just look at this guy’s career as he’s careened from one gorgeous scam to another, forever making millions. Anyway, I don’t think we yet knew about his role in the manufactured California Energy Crisis, but those were the waning glory years of gaudy Clintonian neoliberal economic imperialism, and plenty of us were outraged that this towering economic shock doctor was going to be ushered into our sylvan utopia and given a polite public reception. Of course, I was mostly interested in the business end of my bong in those days, and thus unable to rouse myself to any sort of action, but a bunch of campus socialists got themselves into the chapel for the speech, unfurled banners, shook noisemakers, and shouted the greedly little schlub off the stage.

The internet was as-yet inadequate to viralizing this sort of thing into a national scandal, but on campus, recriminations broke along predictable lines. The college administration and that portion of the student body and faculty who believed the purpose of education to be preparation for Congressional internships, get-out-the-vote campaigns, and Teach for America, with subsequent stints at the Kennedy School or Wharton and nice lives in the leafy Maryland suburbs were outraged at this abridgement of Summers’s right to be heard, besides which, it was impolite. The more radical sorts, mostly students and some of the hipper profs, replied, well, shit, our positions are totally unequal; he gets a stage, while we get lines at the microphone for a Q&A; he has a national, an international, forum; we have the letters to the editor in the Oberlin Review. The whole thing eventually blew over. Despite the earnest worries of the Leave Larry Alone faction, he was not irreparably tarnished; he went on bilking millions out of American institutions, and I’m sure he still gets invited to convocations today.

Thirteen years later, Ray Kelly gets shouted down at Brown. In a fully reciprocal, eye-for-eye, digit-for-digit justicial universe, students would have thrown him against a wall, forced his legs apart with their knees, grabbed at his crotch and fingered his anus, all the while laughing and cracking vulgarly wise about the size of his dick and the failures of his race, then publicly claimed it was for his own good. Instead, he suffered the mere indignity of not being able to read the same prepared remarks he’s read a thousand times before. But the internet has matured into a great engine powered by a steady injection of mere indignity, and although the truth is that this was a forgettable incident, a typical confrontation between young people with a burgeoning awareness of the systems of power in America and the sort of asshole that middle-manages those systems, a meeting of unequals in which strength in numbers briefly triumphs before the jerk they’re booing trundles off to a paid sinecure in one of the oligarchical pensioners villages set up by the finance industry for former servants of maintaining the status quo, it all became a great opportunity for national tut-tutting. The President of the University made a pitiful public apology; your cheeks and mine would burn with shame at such personal and professional abasement, but these people are the worst sort of masochists, and they get off on their own humiliation, so long as it’s in the service of someone with a slightly higher rank in the hierarchy. She promised that these students would “face consequences”, and the university has formed the hilariously Soviet “Committee on the Events of October 29th”. No, really.

Divisive, intemperate, ineffective. There’s plenty of scolding to go around, much of it from liberals who ostensibly see themselves as opponents of Ray Kelly. Most of these are reliable party Democrats who forever plead for work within the system. And it’s no coincidence that they call it work. Politics, including its PR arm, the press, is a profession. We can’t have all this shouting in the workplace. Some of us are trying to get something done here. Typical of this attitude and its attendant misunderstandings is Democratic commenter par excellence Katha Pollitt, of The Nation, who writes:

More important, shouting Kelly down shows lack of respect for the audience and for the larger—much larger—number of people who had never given stop-and-frisk much thought. By shutting down the event, activists successfully threw their weight around—all 100 or so of them—but did they persuade anyone that stop-and-frisk was a bad, racist policy? Did they build support for their larger politics and their movement? I don’t think so. I think the only minds that changed that night were of people who felt bewildered and irritated by being prevented from hearing Kelly speak by a bunch of screamers and now think leftists are cynical bullies who use and abandon free-speech arguments as it suits them.

It’s fashionable on the left to mock liberalism as weak tea—and sometimes it is. But you know what is getting rid of stop-and-frisk? Liberalism. A major force in the campaign against stop-and-frisk was the NYCLU, which carries the banner of free speech for all. And Bill de Blasio, who just won the mayoral election by a landslide, has pledged to get rid of the policy and Ray Kelly too. Those victories were not won by a handful of student radicals who stepped in with last-minute theatrics. They were won by people who spent years building a legal case and mobilizing popular support for change.

This is a type of rhetoric much-employed in the polite liberal press, a strategy for being superficially correct through artful misunderstanding. Nothing Pollitt says here is wrong, per se, and yet, if you ask me the proper temperature to roast a chicken and I tell you that the square root of two hundred and twenty-five is fifteen, well, what’s that got to do with the price of milk? You see, the point of shouting Ray Kelly off the dais isn’t to get rid of “stop-and-frisk,” which these students are sophisticated enough to understand as merely symptomatic of greater injustices and inequalities in American life. No, the point is to get rid of Ray Kelly, to make the point that he has nothing to say that’s deserving of public consumption, that he is a wicked fellow who ought to be drummed from public life, his opinions, like those of most of us, to be shared grumpily over beers with no one to listen but the other cranks and kooks drinking in the middle of the day. The point is to shame Brown University—admittedly, a difficult task, since the university in the form of its administration is, as noted, shameless—for inviting the weasely little fascist onto the stage in the first place.

After all, Bill de Blaisio’s presumptive firing of Kelly will not get rid of him, any more than the election of George Bush or the Enron fiasco could get rid of Larry Summers. I think de Blaisio’s comments on NYPD practices have been mostly laudable, and firing Kelly would be correct. But Kelly is going to get a bazillion dollars and a no-responsibility job at JP Morgan (or the like) for his troubles, and for the rest of his life, Brown University (and the like) is going to pay him tens of thousands of dollars a pop to opine sagely on the tradeoffs between the comforts of white people and the brutal oppression of everyone else in the service of an empirically dubious but psychically reassuring notion that this “reduces crime.” Paid public appearances are performances, and booing a bad band or a lousy soprano is not a First Amendment issue. If Kelly doesn’t want to be booed, he should recant and become less odious; otherwise, any effort to make him and his kind publicly unacceptable is a good, clean game.

We Like Ike, Man

Culture, Education, Uncategorized, War and Politics

I graduated from Oberlin College ten years ago, and if the college was in many ways an exemplar of the sort of economic inequality and unfairness that define the waking American dream, a charming oasis of unostentatious but everywhere evident family wealth amid a lot of Cass Gilbert architecture plunked obscenely in the middle of one of the poorest counties in Ohio, then it was also a fine example of what a college or university ought to be. Yes, it had its share of bureaucrats, and yes, there was an occasional adjunct, though usually just visiting for a year right out of graduate school, but there were precious few deans; I never once met a “director” of anything other than, maybe, campus dining; the departments were run by faculty; the office of career services was a distant backwater, an uncomfortable fishbowl near an underutilized computer lab; we got stoned and complained mightily about the fascist administration of then-college president, Nancy Dye, about the progressive, radical spirit of the school disappearing in the assault of Ivy-League-ism, but in retrospect I most remember that everyone seemed genuinely to believe that the purpose of the whole shebang was for everyone to read a lot, think a lot, and learn a few things. There were a bunch of professors, most of them seemingly well-paid, and not very many students as far as the ratios went. It was very expensive, but you could multiply the number of kids times the number of dollars per kid and come up with a reasonable cost for operating such an institution for a year. Select any random college employee, and you could figure out without too much trouble what it was that he or she did all day.

So you can imagine the revelation of entering a business school at a large public university almost a decade later. Great gouts and floods of ink have already broken the dam and overrun the banks of the conversation about “the rising costs of higher education,” and I won’t bother repeating all the data that others have collected, collated, and explained better than I ever could. But I can’t help but share my anecdotal astonishment at the number of inessential administrators running around. Even the dean (especially the dean?) of the business school drifted from here to there on campus in a slightly overlarge suit that seemed expressly tailored to contain both a man and his aura of uselessness. Of the dozens I encountered, only one manager, a sensible, lovely woman named Linda, far down the hierarchy of pay and title, ever managed to get anything done; I mean, she got everything done, from our schedules to the hiccups in our travel arrangements when we went to conferences abroad.

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on their characters. One of the bad habits in the radical’s critique of any institution is to presume evil intentions on the parts of people who simply, unthinkingly serve. Most of the people involved in the spiraling scam of university administration are just doing their jobs, however hopelessly unnecessary they may be to the actual operation of an actual organization dedicated to the real teaching of students. Making some assistant director for recruitment the object of moral ire is like hating on some corporate spend analyst in the bowels of Enron. How many of us would give up our livelihood at the vague prospect that our employer might be causing an indefinable and distant harm? The assistant director of recruitment just wants to make his quota for the year, save enough money for a vacation, pay his rent, go to a nice restaurant from time to time. Does he realize, in some general way, that he’s implicated in the personal debt crisis, or the Taylorization of learning? Hey, he went to grad school, too. He’s no dummy. But you gotta feed the monkey.

This isn’t to say that there’s no moral blame; it is to say that you’ve gotta amortize that blame over an awful lot of associate deans and provosts and boards of trustees. We are uncomfortable with the idea of distributed guilt, but there it is. What makes the problem intractable is precisely its lack of some monstrous secret master, some center, not to mention the essential ordinariness of all the participation by all the beneficiaries of a rent-seeking education apparatus that largely apes finance and government by siphoning money from the general wealth and moving it to certain select cadres of the population. That last bit, of course, makes the whole thing even more confounding, since the scam is so non-particular; you can’t even blame the institutions of education, which are only comporting themselves to an even broader social and economic pattern. The modern university is to contemporary American society what that vice-provost for media relations is to the university: a functionary, just doing its job.

So I’ve been thinking about David Petraeus, a former military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan and the director of the CIA for a year before an inconsequential sex affair involving a sycophant biographer and bankrupt Tampa con artist caused him to resign. He was hired by CUNY to teach the sort of bogus celebrity seminar that appeals to college administrators because it predominantly involves reading Economist articles and consulting group reports and considering how to reproduce them in the form of PowerPoint presentations, in other words, exactly what an assistant director of does for much of the day. This is a slightly more advanced version of the kind of education foisted on primary and secondary students, with the slide show template filling in for the bubble sheet. It’s mostly notable in that it requires no thought; it’s an exercise in formatting. For this, the university offered to pay the general $200,000, later reduced to $150,000, and then, when a load of malcontents refused to shut up about it and administrators got worried about bad press, finally, they knocked it down to a one-buck honorarium.

This original scandal was mostly about money. Adjuncts were starving in the outer boroughs, while some four-star jerk was going to get paid $10,000 an hour to show up and gallop through material prepared for him by his own underpaid assistants. What was fascinating about this episode was less the imbroglio itself than the reaction of the participants; most notable to me was the initial incomprehension and painfully slow dawning of the problem on the administrators who brought the general to the table to begin with. Their first reaction was visceral disbelief. But, but, he’s David Petreaus. Former 4-star general and CIA director David Petraeus! These are people for whom status and career recognition hold intrinsic value—name and title function as a kind of irreducible gold standard of human worth. The idea that one might not richly compensate such a guy just for showing up was so alien to them that they could not, at first, understand what the fuss was about. The relationship between this and the underpayment of temporary faculty was thoroughly beyond them.

But eventually they did come around to the idea that there was, at least, some sort of fuss, and they grudgingly reduced his pay. With the economic argument now largely undercut, opposition to Petreaus’s appointment found a new target in the idea that he is an abominable war criminal who presided over unspeakable violence and torture in the illegal occupation of other countries, and who now sullies the university with his very presence. Since I am, and have always been, deeply opposed to US military action abroad, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, I’m innately sympathetic to this view, but I also believe that we err in assigning this sort of direct and unique moral culpability to Petreaus, that we commit, in effect, the mirrored error of his boosters, who generally proclaim him the hero and genius who rescued one, possibly two American wars from utter catastrophe.

Petreaus strikes me as a skilled bureaucrat who rose steadily through the ranks of America’s largest and most byzantine bureaucracy, but I find it hard to believe that a man who assigns Brookings Institution readings and Washington Post op-eds as anything other than object lessons in bad prose can be any kind of genius. His legendary success in Iraq was no success at all, not even by America’s own self-interested, self-designed, and self-applied metrics, and his supposedly ingenious reinvention of America’s Iraq occupation was never more than a tactical redeployment cribbed from a centuries-old colonial playbook. Remember the glowing reports of military brass gathered in dark conference rooms watching The Battle of Algiers? We’ve been to this theater before. His proponents would cast him as some kind of Eisenhower; his opponents as some kind of latter-day Heydrich. In reality, he was a functionary, and for all the horror perpetrated under his command, he was only the latest in a long line of commanders going back many decades. The war in Iraq, let’s not forget, began not under George Bush, but under his father; the US never ceased its low-level conflict under Clinton; Bush Jr. just re-upped; Obama continued it, although it seems as if he may have been out-foxed by the Iranians into withdrawing at last. The US project in the Middle East dates to the passing of influence from Britain to America after the Second World War; we’ve been fighting conflicts and proxy conflicts in the region for half a century. Petraeus may indeed be a criminal, as the internal auditors at Lehman were criminals, but in our zeal to condemn, let’s remember that all of these guys just showed up for work and did what they were told. Better men would have resigned; good men would never have found themselves in such a position to begin with; but there aren’t that many good men in the world, and most Americans do what they’re told.

None of this absolves Petreaus of responsibility or culpability. He was, after all, a general, but the main characteristic of his life and career is not the vicious contemplation of how to bring violence, misery, and death to peoples around the world, but rather the stubborn inability to think about that violence, misery, and death, to consider it in any way other than the unfortunate but necessary ancillary outcome of some other thing that had to have been done. The very same unthinking allows the President of the United States of America stand before the United Nations and say that the US harbors no imperial agenda because it frequently invades other countries. This is taken as evidence of extraordinary hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance, but both interpretations require an element of cognition that’s wholly lacking. The principal characteristic of these sorts of pronouncements is their lack of deliberateness and their lack of thought. These are just rote recitations of obligatory memorization; is it any wonder that a society led by such cliché machines chooses to measure intellectual achievement through standardized tests?

I think this is the really salient point. A brutal and unfair society requires a population that conceives of the intellect in terms of taking instruction. Even in my own student days, when testing was far less important, I can recall teachers and exam proctors stalking up and down the aisles between desks warning us of the dire consequences of not carefully reading the instructions. A culture thus educated develops mental habits that revolve around taking and interpreting commands. Its sense of duty and ethics isn’t is this right, but rather, am I doing this right? In this regard, the appointment of a David Petreaus, or a John Yoo, or a Condoleeza Rice to prominent positions in the academy are less significant because these people are monstrous than because they are expressly not so. When Yoo is asked about the torture memos he authored and replies that he was just providing the executive with what it requested and required, people tend to see obfuscation, but I see an instructive kind of honesty: he just can’t imagine that one wouldn’t provide what his boss required of him. He didn’t torture anyone.

This by the way, was Arendt’s misunderstood point—she had the bad luck to coin a very quotable phrase that distracted from it. What enables evil is not so much the capacity of ordinary people to be converted to dark purposes, but instead the incapacity of people to think about purpose and consequence. Our dilemma is that this form of thoughtlessness is exactly what the reformers of education at all levels seek. Unfortunately, for the most part, they too are unable to think about what they’re doing. The people who hire a Patreaus only perceive that his instruction might in some way help some students do what he did, and what they themselves have done to a lesser degree: enter an institution, serve it, and move upward through its ranks to their natural place in the overall order. Does it occur to them that this is Huxley’s dystopia, a life of servitude in a predetermined class interspersed with the occasional recreational bunga bunga and some Coors Light Lime? No. They haven’t read it. But you can divide into groups of four and prepare an in-class presentation for the next time we meet. Here is a Harvard Business Review article summarizing the case. Use it as the basis for your work.