Madrigal’s intention for the frame was to offer a provocative meditation on the way that the management of disorder dehumanizes police officers as well as the police–the sort of thing any reasonably well-read grad student should be able to churn out (cf Foucault, Fanon, etc):
I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn’t become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it.
And while the kids may cough up blood and writhe in pain, what happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.
We get the point, as far it goes: Most victims of police brutality recover, but the policeman remains a brute. The ruling class doesn’t do its own dirty work; it pays the weakest of us very well to be its police (and university administrators, corporate lawyers, etc).
The last line of Madrigal’s piece is a direct homage to James Baldwin (who wrote those words about the moral ugliness of Alabama troopers using cattle prods on civil rights marchers). Channeling the novelist, Madrigal positions Pike in an educated liberal’s cartoon of the working class, a child-like Christ-figure and fool, a lumbering innocent “man like me” (except nowhere near as clever), dumbly shouldering the sins of his masters.
There are several problems with this glib, recycled framing observation. It neatly targets the magazine’s readership–the morally-conflicted members of the professional-managerial class and educators (inhabiting the upper and lower half of the top income quintile, respectively), which is to say, “us.”
It makes us feel feel better about our own complicities: I serve the system in some ways too but I’d never do what that guy does!
It produces smug condescension. We have a few moral scars ourselves, but overall we feel glad that we’re not morally deformed on Pike’s scale. We feel wise to have exchanged a degree of possible monetary rewards for affective compensation instead. The framing material is one step away from the consumable irony of the Colbert Report, which has a vast, enthusiastic viewership among those whose ideology it purportedly skewers. Like Colbert’s material, Madrigal’s frame makes it pretty easy to consume the piece in ways all too close to the one he claims to critique.
In short, Madrigal misses the point about the banality of Lt. John Pike. Hannah Arendt’s study of Eichmann (and scores of social psychologists and clinical researchers) have helped us to understand that everyday brutality (the “banality of evil”) is furthered by ordinary, unimaginative careerists obeying both orders and law out of a strong sense of duty. All Eichmanns are little Eichmanns; there’s no master villain to blame. Eichmann is responsible for his own sins and those sins are precisely his ordinariness, his obedience, and conventionality. Eichmann isn’t innocent in the system; he’s complicit.
We are Eichmann. Arendt wasn’t trying to get us to “feel bad for” Eichmann, but to see his evil in our ordinary selves, recoil, and change. The discovery that Lt. John Pike is a nice fellow to watch the game with and a good scratcher of puppy ears isn’t meant to lift his moral responsibility–or ours. His and our failure to refuse the system is the system.
Madrigal’s note erases personal, moral agency on both margins of his caricature. The lieutenant–and a few tens of million like him–have not resisted the inner Eichmann. They have chosen obedience and the warm praise of their masters, and the material rewards of their complicity.
By contrast the objects of Pike and his masters’ brutality have chosen the brave, difficult, path of refusal.
But by brave and difficult, I don’t mean exceptional. At most of the forks in our road, most of us choose the brave and difficult path. Every day, hundreds of millions of us refuse invitations to be Eichmann. We refuse to be exploiters and thugs, or their attorneys and lower managers. That’s why democracy works better than hierarchy, and that, among imperfect social organizations, more democratic generally works better than less democratic.
Of course, many of us having made many better choices than Pike doesn’t make us perfect. Far from it. We have accepted a whole lot of Eichmann in our own lives. We could choose a lot more democracy than at present–particularly in our workplaces and schools.
The lesson of Lt. Pike is not that he’s the victim of a lousy policy (“just the end point” of a system of which he “is a casualty too,”as Madrigal says). The lesson is that even within a flawed system he could and should have chosen better. So can we all.
So no, you don’t pretend that the legion of Eichmanns are master villains. But you don’t make excuses for them, either. You try them for their crimes–and you hunt down the little Eichmann in your own soul.
Update Sunday 7pm: Pike and one other UC-D officer have been suspended, and UC system president Yudof will conduct an immediate review of police protocols on the individual campuses.
If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and watch this incredible footage of a shocked and chagrined UC-Davis chancellor walking through a long, seated double file of silently reproachful students.
Also this interview with one of Pike’s victims in BoingBoing: “I received a lot of pepper spray in my throat. I vomited twice, right away, then spent the next hour or two dry heaving. Someone said they saw him spray down my throat intentionally. Another girl near me who has asthma had an attack triggered by the pepper spray, and she was taken to the hospital.”
What UC-Davis Pays for Top Talent
Campus Occupations Intensify
Occupying the Catholic Church
Teach-in at Washington Square
Crackdown at OccupyBoston
Why I Occupy
All the News Fit For Bankers
Bankers Chuckle (Must-See Footage of the Week)
Occupiers Issue First Statement (And it’s Bigger News than Radiohead Rumor)
Mass Arrests on Wall Street
Protests Spread to Both Coasts
Police Violence Escalates: Day 5
Wall Street Occupation, Day 3
What Are You Doing for the Next 2 Months?
Occupy and Escalate
Big Brother on Campus
California Is Burning
Will Occupation Become a Movement?
Grad Students Spearhead Wisconsin Capitol Occupation
The Occupation Will Be Televised
The Occupation Cookbook
More Drivel from the NYT
Citizens Smarter than NYT and Washington Post, Again
Education Policy Summit or Puppet Show?
Parents and Teachers, the Alienated Democratic Base
Dianetics For Higher Ed?
We Are All Roman Porn Stars Now
The Churchill Case Goes To Trial
I mean, it’s a class war out there and labor’s lost every battle since I started shaving. And by “labor,” I don’t mean some cartoon of a hard hat, broom pushing, or stoop labor. I mean the folks reading this column. Pretty much everybody, actually: If you work in order to live, or scrub the toilet/feed the appetites of a wage worker, you’re labor.
Then today I find out that Wilma Liebman, one of the few people in the academy or anywhere, to give a hoot about academic labor, is ending her long service to the National Labor Relations Board because an army of trolls in wingtips has been coming after her, as she puts it, “with a baseball bat.” One way to go with this is to dump some more on Obama, who always backs up the ballplaying buddy that represents his worst appointment, but consistently left dangling the principled, thoughtful woman that was by far his best.
Of course it isn’t just the president; it’s us, as the always-scathing Bill Maher points out in his brilliant assault on the magical thinking represented by our love affair with “reality” television shows in which “one of our richest 1% drops in on the wage slaves for a week and finds out that living on $185 a week in America really blows, and so then they anecdotally solve the wealth gap problem by showering everyone with cash.”
Sad, but true: It takes a comedian to tell the gut-wrenching truth about the dominance of the top 1% since Reagan’s inauguration:
Say 100 Americans get together and order a 100 slice pizza, the pizza arrives, they open the box, and the first guy takes 80 slices. And if someone suggests “Why don’t you just take 79 slices?” [He says] THAT’S SOCIALISM!
It’s just a “stupid idea,” Maher says, to believe that the rich would “share with us if only they got to walk a mile in our cheap plastic shoes.” Instead, he says, we’ve got to wrench the baseball bats out of their hands and use it on them:
We have this fantasy that our interests and the interests of the super rich are the same, like somehow the rich will eventually get so full that they’ll explode, and the candy will rain down on the rest of us, like they’re some sort of pinata of benevolence. But here’s the thing about a pinata, it doesn’t open on it’s own, you have to beat it with a stick.
Liebman and the apostles of greed who have driven her into retirement understand correctly that the National Labor Relations Act is one such stick. She said that her role as chair of the NLRB was to “further the policy of this statute, which is to further the practice of collective bargaining, obviously collective bargaining freely chosen.”
There’s convincing analysis that unionization substantially reduces inequality. And the many evils of skyrocketing inequality are addressed by Slate’s Timothy Noah and Michael Moore (includes a critical assessment that mostly supports him) and many others. Joseph Stiglitz points out that the quality of life and self-interest of the rich is harmed by the savage inequalities we see today. Even billionaires like Warren Buffett admit it’s time to stop coddling the super-rich.
“If you increase workers’ purchasing power, that can create a stronger, more sustainable economy,” Liebman told The New York Times. “Some say collective bargaining is antithetical to the economy. I don’t buy that at all. This was a statute that worked. It created the middle class. It created good jobs.”
Goodbye, Wilma. Most of us have no idea what it costs to stand up for workplace dignity in this brave new banana republic. Thanks for paying that price with dignity, passion, and intelligence.
xposted: Chronicle of Higher Education]]>
When planning her own recent humorous chapter book, Brainstorm colleague Naomi Schaefer Riley (no relation to Roscoe) apparently didn’t get the memo that the “lazy professor” stereotype has been consigned to the cultural dustbin since, roughly, her own graduation from kindergarten. As you might surmise from the title (The Faculty Lounges–har har–And Other Reasons You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For), the book relies on silly, outmoded stereotypes, arguments from anecdote and bluster from the likes of John Silber instead of evidence.
At one time or another in what too often reads like an audition for Fox News higher education
attack dog analyst, Riley deals every bromide in the deck, usually from the bottom: while accepting conservative foundation support for her own propaganda, she goes far out of her way to caricature Ford Foundation grants in support of academic freedom as a”gravy train” for left academics (would that it were so!)
Just like the beginning chapter books my son favors, Riley’s book features one cartoon illustration per chapter, usually reprinted from stock cartoon banks. None of them have anything to do with the issues; they just underscore the irrelevance of her stereotypes (“Your wife hasn’t broken the law, professor–she can leave you even if you do have tenure!”) Ha, ha, chuckle, zzzzzz.
That’s too bad, because Riley is bright and analytical, and sometimes grasps real problems with the tenure system, which is more than I can say of many contemporary observers on my own side of the political aisle.
She’s right, for instance, to note that the tenure system as we know it today is deeply flawed:
Supposed to produce courage and security, it breeds cowardice and anxiety, check. Supposed to unite the faculty, it now serves as a marker of apartheid between the academy’s minority “haves” and majority “have-nots,”check.
Supposed to encompass peer accountability for all professional activities it too often rewards those who neglect their students, family, and the profession, check.
Supposedly the pipeline for equality in the professions, the tenure system funnels academic and professional women into subordinate positions, check.
Supposed to guarantee reasonable economic return on education (you know, so that English professors can expect lifetime earnings not too much lower than good legal secretaries), tenure has become a generational lifeboat for greybeards selfishly uninterested in the crisis of young faculty, check.
All of these concerns, which plenty of tenure’s defenders are all too happy to gloss over, add up to an argument against tenure from the labor front.
Contingent-faculty activists like Joe Berry have long observed that tenure is reserved for a shrinking labor aristocracy–the group of persons who do front-line supervision of transient labor, and who provide the talent pool for upper administration. From the perspective of actual, informed unionists like Berry, tenure has frequently served as an engine of inequality.
Nor is it generally the goal of contingent-faculty unionists to win entrance into the stressful, irrational tenure crapshoot which is far from the gold standard of job security that most faculty imagine (ask anyone who’s had a department restructured or eliminated, or had an administrator declare a fake fiscal crisis).
Therefore, many contingent faculty, and left-labor faculty of any appointment type, share Riley’s sense that tenure should be abolished. (Either that, or like me and the AAUP, they feel that a reformed, teaching-centric tenure system should be the norm of faculty experience, as it was in 1972, when the professoriate was largely populated by well-off white men.)
Riley’s at her best and most revealing when she talks about how the tenured (like her father) treat contingent faculty, like her mother. At times the book is honestly reported–Riley admits that tenure isn’t the reason college is expensive–quite the contrary, it saves on salary–and that tenure is a minority experience.
I think if Riley’s analysis had taken the form of a long essay on the extremely important theme of how the tenure system marginalizes women teaching faculty, a topic scandalously under-addressed by liberals and academic feminists alike, it almost could have been one of those occasional offerings from the right that joins with the left in challenging some of the sacred cows of the liberal mainstream. (See chapter 4, “The Academic Underclass,” which appropriately excoriates “the hypocrisy of academics who claim concern for society’s marginalized while ignoring the [gendered and racialized] underclass in their midst.”)
If you subtract the ideological claptrap from Riley’s book, you have a perfectly reasonable call to invest in undergraduate teaching. However, in adding enough vitriol and borrowed observations to make a book, Riley goes awry in two basic ways, the scary and the lame.
Under the heading of scary, I have to point out that every once in a while, Riley’s mask of reasonability slips. In chapter 2, she wonders aloud, a la David Horowitz, Don’t some radical faculty members deserve to be run off campus?
A little later we learn the identities of the radicals to be run off, when she channels the radio talk shows for this sweeping non sequitur: “Whether it’s women’s studies or black studies or queer studies, the entire premise of the discipline often rests on a political agenda…. there [is] a growing sense that projects that are not strictly academic are not deserving of academic protections.”
The scary part is that we and her actual target audience know what she’s saying even though she isn’t saying anything–what is the meaning of the nonsense phrase “the entire premise of the discipline”? This is all too much like Limbaugh, rolling empty longish words off the tongue in order to manufacture a sense of cogitation and portent.
Under the heading of lame, I have to place the one argument she really makes with any vigor, that so much of higher education is “vocational” that there’s no controversy in those fields, hence no need for academic freedom. “These are all fields with fairly definitive answers,” Riley says in total ignorance of the fields she cites–like nutrition, family sciences, security, and sports history. “Faculty members don’t really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them,” she says, with unearned confidence.
It’s hard to believe that someone with two academic parents made this argument or, having made it, kept it in the manuscript–as its great gotcha! centerpiece, no less. When Gary Rhoades pointed out to Riley that nutrition faculty, just for example, engaged in plenty of controversy, she amateurishly dismisses the point rather than checking to see whether, in fact, there aren’t some fairly intense controversies in the field. Hint: there are, as in every one of the other fields she names.
But what of the obviously roiling controversies in other “vocational” fields, like legal, business, and medical education? Riley has nothing to say.
Riley is similarly cavalier with the evidence regarding faculty and teaching. There are literally thousands of studies evaluating faculty teaching, but instead of addressing any of them, Riley uses a few administrators as quote farms in support of her preconceived thesis and dials up the Limbaugh: “Tenure means they can simply neglect their students!”
At other points the just-published work is already out of date, touting the Garcetti decision, which has been successfully challenged, or Stanley Fish’s positions since recanted.
Frequently it’s just juvenile, as with the cartoons or snarkily describing the academy as a “profession” only in skeptical quotation marks.
Sometimes it’s just inept, as when she relies on John Silber’s “analysis” of tenure to make her case that it isn’t necessary to protect academic freedom–when, notoriously, it was only tenure that protected the late, beloved and irreplaceable Howard Zinn from Silber’s relentless efforts to drive him from the campus.
Much of the rest is cribbed from usual suspects like ACTA and Richard Vedder, or retread David Horowitz–Oh my gosh, the Berkeley writing classes sometimes cover controversial content!
A couple of points under the heading of full disclosure: Riley interviewed me for this book, and I make several appearances in the one chapter I thought worthy of her talents. She treats me as far less of a caricature than she might have, and I wish I had kinder things to say about the project.
Additionally, my spouse and I are, like Riley’s parents, and as many as a third of all faculty, navigating the often-breathtaking challenges of a dual-career academic couple in a system that is particularly cruel to academic women.
I share Riley’s disquiet with academic hypocrisy. On top of still rampant sexism and sex discrimination in academic employment, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the viciousness with which many academic “feminists” with tenure treat some of their “sisters” off-track.
As I read Riley’s book–which I had to buy because her publisher declined to send me a review copy–I thought often of my son, and his sunny disposition. I hope that we can find a way to insulate his good nature and deeply, deeply inquiring mind from the academic shabbiness, hypocrisy and dishonesty that Riley chronicles best from her personal experience.]]>
As general secretary, the organization’s top staff position, Rhoades had a darned difficult job during a once-in-a-half-century crisis and organizational re-definition.
On his watch, AAUP’s own staff unionized (with the full support of the elected leadership). Rhoades successfully managed the transition into the period covered by that first contract.
The organization completed a complex three-way partition that clarified the relationships between its three roles as a foundation, professional association, and labor union. Perhaps most critical of all, AAUP replaced a disastrous membership accounting operation that routinely lost track of pretty much anyone who didn’t write in and demand that someone collect their dues.
Democracy Is Messy
Of course, Gary didn’t do any of these things alone. Most of them were projects under way by staff and elected leaders when he arrived, but any one of these challenges could have torpedoed a term in office for even the most brilliant administrator.
The best parallel for this kind of job is a deanship, but most deans I know couldn’t come within a hundred miles of handling it. Deans rely on blunt vertical power to get things done.
The AAUP is a grassroots democratic organization. The elected leadership is packed with smart folks richly endowed with ego. The staff are generally the same—most of them academics with a wise and catlike aversion to being led. And the representatives of the big collective bargaining chapters are rarely shy about their positions. Of course those are just the internal challenges—when everything is working well.
Add restructuring and the fact that perma-temping has driven the profession to the brink of collapse, and it quickly becomes clear that in the past three years the job needed some combination of Cesar Chavez, a tax attorney, and Karl Rove.
Forget about managing without ruffling feathers—I don’t know anyone who could have managed the job, period. It takes the skill set that most presidents and CEO’s hire publicists to pretend they have, when really they’re just thugs in suits.
So Gary’s job required him to rely on many others from the paid staff and elected leadership. This large cast of characters doesn’t always work as a dream team. They sometimes disagree quite sharply, but they always overcome ego and make the partnership work.
Most critical to this ongoing team effort is the leadership of Cary Nelson. As often as Gary took up some of the presidential duties of ambassadorship during times of unprecedented crisis for the profession, Cary stepped in to pick up slack in the home office during the organizational maze of restructuring. It wasn’t always what either expected from their jobs, or what they wanted as individuals. But it got AAUP through the roughest patch in its history since the early 1970s.
This week, AAUP’s governing council will vote on a measure that assigns some responsibilities to Martin Snyder, the next most senior staffer and himself a former university president, and some to Cary Nelson.
That will work really well while the organization debates whether to restructure the general-secretary position, which some feel has grown too challenging for one person to fill.
Personally I don’t think so. Sure, in the past three to six years I think it was an impossible job for a squadron of talented people. Without a lot of people throwing their careers and family time into the breach, AAUP might not have survived.
The job needs some clarification and support. But Martin Snyder can do most of it easily, and while Martin Snyders aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, I’m confident AAUP will find one to launch the organization out of repair mode.
The Next Decade
AAUP’s next general secretary and president will have opportunities beyond those that Gary Rhoades and Cary Nelson have had—to look beyond survival toward a renewed, activist agenda. (This is in no way to diminish all of the fierce activism Cary in particular has managed while piloting the mothership into safe harbor over the past six years!)
Looking to the future, though, what should AAUP ask from its next leaders?
I can think of five things, just for starters. OK, I can think of 50, but I’ll keep it to five.
1. Organize the majority faculty. AAUP can do a lot more to support the voices of the nearly 80 percent of faculty outside the tenure stream. Overlooked in the breathless coverage of the single-term tenures of the last two occupants of the general-secretary job is the fact that AAUP is hiring into several organizing positions, including the director of organizing and services. That represents a major opportunity for AAUP to move in the right direction.
2. Organize religious and for-profit campuses. There’s been some talk of targeting faculty at the for-profits, but let’s not forget that a Democratic president means a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that actually does its job. Meaning that thugs in clerical garb are finally getting spanked for their rampant hypocrisy (“social justice everywhere except on our campus!”). Heads up: I’ll be starting a series on hypocrisy on campuses affiliated with religious orders.
3. Continue restructuring. As a professional association, AAUP is burdened with an early-20th-century structure of face-to-face chapters and state conferences. The structure presumes behaviors, values, and communications practices not really in evidence in the contemporary professoriate. I’ve got nothing against having a campus chapter—I’m working to build ours right now—or against a state conference, for that matter. But the organization has to be lighter on its feet, less reliant on the health of local chapters, and have a greater ability to dart in quickly on urgent matters. With the help of social media and a more realistic attitude toward the faculty animal, AAUP needs to acknowledge that many members are more willing and able to send checks than attend a lot of meetings. We aren’t all eating two meals a day at the faculty club: we need to have membership models that accommodate our changing relationship to campus life.
4. Fully digitize communication and membership. It will not surprise some readers that I’m on the board at Academe, and have been asked to be a candidate for editor several times. Every time I say, “Not unless we can stop printing and mailing the damn thing!” No kidding: the amount of money saved would pay for four full-time organizers, or three full-time organizers and a brilliant content-management system, with, you know, social-media functions and stuff. As for membership, we’ve made huge strides. But we have farther to go: Maddeningly, while planning our fall organizing drive, I got sent a paper membership form to use. Why? Because we still can’t collect California conference dues and/or chapter dues electronically. Seriously, who really thinks you can maintain an organization that doesn’t permit fully clickable payment of membership? Again, I personally love our new staffer in charge of fixing this. She has the most thankless job in the organization, and no money to do what she knows needs to be done. But: argh!
5. Capture every graduate student as a free member. I’ve been in AAUP leadership for six or eight years, and one of the reasons I’m glad to be cycling out this year is that I’m tired of ranting about this every year. It’s not rocket science: Just give every new grad student a free membership. (“But our membership program doesn’t work!” “We can’t afford to send Academe to them all!” Again: argh, so stop printing Academe and spend the money on organizers and good membership software.) Why do it? Well, three full generations of scholars have cycled in since 1970 with the majority of them not seeing AAUP functioning on their campus or in connection with their kind of appointment since their own careers began. Most faculty don’t bother to join until they or a friend get into trouble, and then, after they pop in the first check of their lives, they imagine AAUP will send in a flight of black helicopters filled with employment lawyers to save their jobs. We need to acknowledge that the professoriate has not only been deprofessionalized (as Gary Rhoades made his career by observing), but that whole generations have stopped even trying to struggle against administrative dominance. Giving every grad student a free membership is giving them a chance to rebuild something that most of their “mentors” have cheerfully cannibalized.]]>
Administrations have taken note, particularly in the University of California (UC) system, which was the epicenter of last year’s wave of events. Administrators or public-records requests at Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz and Irvine have confirmed “monitoring” of student activists by campus police, freelance investigators, or staffers. In some cases, undercover police officers or staff in “casual attire” have mingled with students to gather information on movement leaders and plans.
One of the more distressing developments is the recruitment of other students into this “monitoring” effort. At UC Davis, according to documents obtained under public-records request by activists, staff reporting to Chancellor Linda Katehi recruited “student leaders” to participate in “Activism Response Teams” with police and administrators. In security speak, the role of the students recruited onto the “response teams” was to “accompany” protesters and “update staff” about the events.
Campus activists have responded by publishing names and photographs of the administrators, officers, freelancers and students involved. They are in essence answering back the administration’s Big Brother with a “little brother” deployment of social media for countersurveillance, solidarity-building, and awareness.
To a modest degree this mirrors the plot of Little Brother (2008) an award-winning “young adult” novel published by BoingBoing columnist Cory Doctorow. Essentially accepting the premise that much of Orwell’s vision has come to pass, Doctorow explores American schools as a vector for authoritarianism and rebellion. Positing an intense government security crackdown in the Bay area, Doctorow describes the rise of a youth-hacker resistance movement, communicating through gaming consoles and bypassing government surveillance and infiltration of high-school social media.
In the novel, though, the student resistance becomes effective when it connects with Bay area anarchist, punk and feminist activists, establishing a coalition across a broad front of movements.
Ultimately, the real success of Little Brother isn’t in countersurveillance–it’s in movement building. Along with the ACLU, I’m sympathetic with the concern to discover, expose and counter the administration’s surveillance. Nonetheless, I wonder if it isn’t consuming energies best devoted to building coalitions? The occupation movement hasn’t been too active at the UC campuses this year.
So far the kind of truly broad front necessary to victory has developed primarily in Wisconsin and Puerto Rico, mostly in connection with public employee trade unions and, to a lesser extent, in the K-12 movement against test-based school reform. For next year’s campus occupation movement to reach its potential, I suspect a) it’ll have to start at full speed in September and b) it will have to spend less energy on the Little Brother of “stop snitching” and more on the Little Brother of solidarity.
Note: The Occupation Cookbook, with an introduction by yours truly, has just been released.]]>
Despite the timing, this is not an April Fool’s post. During remarks at a heavily-promoted town hall on the Univision network intended to entice Hispanic voters, Obama careened wildly off-message, slamming the misuse of standardized tests and the culture of test preparation promoted by his own Secretary of Education, sitting nearby.
In response to Luis Ayala, a student who questioned the staggering quantity of frequently redundant standardized tests for which his teachers have to prepare him every year, Obama suggested that students in public schools should experience standardized testing in the way his daughters do at an exclusive Washington DC prep school:
[T]just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.
Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.
Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.
So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam.
Fortunately for Duncan, Obama pre-empted the news cycle with a speech on Libya, so these remarks received almost no coverage from the teacher-hating mass media. The parent-and-teacher blogosphere, however, has been picking up on this moment. One particularly astute commentary by Julianne Hing notes the extraordinary extent to which Obama contradicts himself:
Under Obama’s education policy proposals, an entire school’s teaching staff can be fired, schools can be shut down, and new charter schools brought in, if test scores don’t improve adequately. A number of recent scandals involving potential test tampering and impropriety suggest that the charter schools and traditional public schools alike are feeling immense pressure to show yearly gains in test scores.
Hing goes on to ask whether Obama is intentionally punking his own Ed Sec as part of routine politics:
Obama’s great at co-opting his critics’ arguments even if he doesn’t take to heart their policy suggestions. It’s an excellent strategy for cornering his critics and closing off the political space that critics of standardized tests have carved out for themselves in the often confounding education debate.
Just as pointedly, Cody asks whether Obama is a) trying to mislead voters or b) unfamiliar with his own Sec Ed’s policy. “Is President Obama aware,” Cody writes, that Race to the Top and Arne Duncan are rapidly multiplying the number and frequency of such tests, raising the stakes for both students and fauclty, and require states to tie teacher pay closely to test scores? “If ever there was a recipe for teaching to the test, this it!” he writes:
President Obama, I loved the way you described the role of assessment. It should be occasional, not punitive, and used to help diagnose where students need help. What Sasha and Malia are getting is wonderful. Is there a way we could get your Department of Education’s policies to align with your personal vision?
The Department of Education might easily have ignored the blogosphere, given the friendly silence on these remarks observed by the major news outlets.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Duncan’s minions have swooped down on at least some of these opinionators, ham-handedly demanding a “correction” from Cody, claiming that he somehow “misinterpreted” the Prez. Cody peppered them with a few queries and awaits their reply–stay tuned!]]>
On March 22, a prominent group of education bloggers agreed to provide statements loosely organized on the theme of “why faculty like me support unions.” Unexpectedly Stanley Fish, a career-long opponent of faculty unionism, joined them. “I recently flipped,” he confessed,”and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.” In particular, it turns out, it was reading new Brainstorm colleague Naomi Schaefer’s Riley’s assault on faculty bargaining rights in that newspaper you find under your door in cheap motel rooms:
What Riley fears is that if colleges and universities were unionized, teachers with far out, discomforting ideas couldn’t be fired. It’s hard to imagine a better argument for unions (and also for tenure)…. Riley makes no bones about it. Letting the unions get a foothold “could . . . make the environment more left leaning.” The message is clear: keep those unions out so that we can more easily get rid of the lefties.
There are layers of irony in Fish’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but it’s hard to argue with his reasoning: one of the lessons of Wisconsin is that academic unionism is one of the few effective bulwarks against ideological cleansing.
Framed as a dialogue between Walter Benn Michaels and himself, the piece is particularly worth reading for Michaels’ withering replies to Riley’s psychic channeling of Ayn Rand. After circulating the usual unfounded canard of faculty laziness, Riley quotes the chief executive of SUNY Buffalo comparing unionization to “belonging to a herd.” In reply, Michaels observes that his own department is amidst a union card drive and ranked in the top 20 nationally:
It’s the hard-working ones who want the union most. Why? Because we think that the people who actually do the teaching and the research should have more of a say in how the teaching and the research gets done. [S]ince when does having a voice in what happens in your own workplace count as belonging to the herd? The president of Buffalo, despite the fact that Buffalo is itself unionized, apparently thinks that rugged individualism consists in shutting up and doing what management tells you to do.
As you’d expect from someone who describes his view as the product of a “flip,” Fish’s contributions to the dialogue lack nuance and context: it’s hard to imagine that Fish has suddenly discovered that most faculty are a lunch bucket crowd, some of whom qualified for food stamps on the wages he paid them while whacking down a monster salary as dean.
In Fish world, faculty unions used to wear a black hat; now they wear a white one, and his realization came about because of what he saw on tv: a dastardly governor twirling his mustaches and tieing a virginal faculty to the railroad tracks. Only the white-hatted union can save the innocent now!
The reality, as anyone who has actually spent any time in the academic labor movement can tell you, is very different: faculty unions have many flaws–and nearly all of them are the flaws of the membership themselves.
The lessons of Wisconsin and Ohio, at least in part, underscore just how seriously faculty and their unions have blundered–how we as a profession have been selfish, foolish, mean-spirited and short-sighted. All the ways, in short, that we haven’t been any better than Stanley Fish but rather, quite a bit like him, or at least striving to be like him, cheerfully shooting hoops and piloting his Jag down the freeway while the academy burned.
Our Unions Are Not Heroic (Because We Aren’t)
So why do I support faculty unions despite their many imperfections? You could say that I’m a critical supporter of American unions generally: they reflect our virtues–too often expressed at the eleventh hour–as well as our flaws. Our unions are often the final barrier against unsafe roads and hospitals, ersatz education and filth in our food. Unions represent all of us, not just those who pay dues into them. A democratic society cannot exist without vigorous democracy in the workplace.
On the other hand, union memberships have failed to live up to their own ideals for most of my adult life–thirty years now. Faced with the difficult challenges of a politically reactionary era–such as hostile regulation, outsourcing, forced volunteerism, and perma-temping–union memberships in every walk of American life have taken the path of least resistance, securing the benefits of older workers and selling out the young.
The members of education unions have been no exception. Faculty represented by the big education unions have turned a blind eye to the hyper-exploitation of student labor, the conversion of jobs to part-time and volunteer positions, the outsourcing of staff and the hostile regulation environment governing collective bargaining in private schools.
But blaming “unions” for the failings of their membership is like blaming the hammer for smashing your thumb. It’s not the hammer’s fault if it’s idle while you’re sitting in front of your television instead of helping mend your neighbor’s fence.
I support unionism the way a carpenter supports tool use. Unions can be misused or neglected by their members, but they’re indispensable to the job of democratizing and diversifying our workplaces, maintaining professional integrity and autonomy, and sustaining high standards in teaching and research.
The current crises in Wisconsin and Ohio have many lessons for faculty in higher education and their unions. I’ll just put forward five for now:
1. Tenure must unite the faculty, not divide it. The single most corrosive faculty myth to emerge since 1970 is the ludicrous notion that tenure is a merit badge for faculty with research-intensive appointments. The biggest reason higher education unions are powerless is that we’ve allowed administrations to cast the overwhelming majority of faculty on teaching-intensive appointments out of the tenure system: “Oh, they’re not real professors, they teach in a less prestigious university/just undergraduates/in the lower division/community colleges.”
Compare this pathetic, near-total collapse of professional identity, much less of solidarity, to the response of police and fire unions in Wisconsin, who defied the governor to support other public employees not even in their own professions–even when he exempted their unions from the axe.
2. Maximize the movement, not the revenue. Organizing graduate students and nontenurable educators would have made perfect sense in terms of sustaining a labor movement in education. But education union staff operating unapologetically under “revenue maximizing” principles have been slow to invest in the movement’s future, scoffing at the paltry “return on investment” of organizing folks already so poorly paid. (Which explains the inroads made by UAW, AFSCME, and SEIU among the nontenurable.)
Ditto for private schools affected by Yeshiva: the big unions have made a few challenges to this decision–all in all, a weak and sleazy piece of judicial activism that only passed 5-4 because of swing voter Stevens, who apparently hadn’t yet had enough of what he later called “on the job training.”
Today, Ohio public-campus faculty are facing Senate Bill 5, a bitter plateful of the fruit of the major unions’ failure to confront Yeshiva. Having shrugged off the decision when it applied only to private campuses, the unions are in a far weaker position to contest the application of its principles to public faculty in any U.S. state–ginning up already not just in Ohio and Wisconsin, but Alaska, Florida, and beyond.
Things could have been very different. Addressing the hostile regulation environment of private campuses is similar to the situation of organizing in right-to-work states: it would have required much more effort and involved much smaller economic returns, but it would have paid off in solidarity, sustaining a broad-based union culture in the academy, which in turn could have led to a legislative solution… which would have prevented the present specter, of a domino effect, with “monkey see, monkey do” application in one state legislature after another.
3. “It’s a great job if you can afford it” and “I don’t do it for the money” are racist, sexist sentiments. I’ve written about this many times before. Even in Wisconsin and Ohio, the police unions are more diverse than the faculty unions–because the extreme wage discount unfairly segments the academic workforce by race, class and gender. Only a small number of persons, disproportionately white, can afford the extreme economic irrationality of most forms of higher education teaching appointments. Defending irrational compensation schemes on the grounds that persons who start out on third base economically are “doing what they love” is really defending a system that denies everyone else a fair shot at doing something they love. The struggle to make academic compensation fair is a struggle to enormously enlarge the academic talent pool: way too many black and brown intellectuals are working at the DMV, fighting wars, and walking a beat instead of teaching at the state university. Too many teaching positions are filled by persons who can afford to work for the status compensation of saying “I work at the U.,” rather than the most qualified.
Every time someone with wealth, parental or spousal backing, and/or high household income brays about how they’d do the job for free, they put another brick in the wall in front of those who don’t have those advantages.
4. There is no democracy without active, embodied participation. Emma Goldman shocked the feminists of her day by saying that they shouldn’t prioritize winning the vote, that voting can provide the satisfying feeling of political participation without the substance. The struggle in Wisconsin has made clear to faculty that our politics can never be just teaching and writing, but has to be made real with boots on the ground and bodies in the street. If every professor’s coffee-shop oration and blog comment were instead a knock on the door in the effort to recall the power-grabbing state senators, the battle would already be won.
5. Leadership comes from below. It’s hardly accidental that Walter Benn Michaels’ grad students unionized a decade before he did. The cutting edge of education unionism always has been, and remains, the working-class intellectualism of ordinary schoolteachers and parents. In the far less accomplished sector of higher ed, the best thinking can often be found among graduate students and nontenurable faculty, who represent nearly eighty percent of the teaching force.]]>
This Sunday a fellow member of the University of Illinois Graduate Employees Organization, Zach Poppel, and I traveled to Madison to support the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol. We went there in support not just of public workers in Wisconsin, but of the very idea of collective bargaining. Many of us also were there because we know graduate employees in Wisconsin, and know how higher education in Wisconsin will be decimated by these proposals. The University of Wisconsin would find it much harder to retain faculty if its professors have to surrender their hard-fought gains in collective bargaining (currently faculty on the Eau Claire and Superior campuses are unionized, and the LaCrosse campus recently voted for unionization as well). Similar proposals for gutting unions are being pursued elsewhere–Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky. Moreover, in an underreported proposal, Governor Walker is seeking to separate the Madison campus from the rest of the UW system, essentially privatizing the campus by raising tuition to private university levels.
We saw this as everyone’s fight. We had both been energized by the previous day’s experiences—Zach had organized the Springfield rally, which had several dozen GEO participants, and I had gone to Madison with several dozen other GEO members. In Urbana we had a simultaneous rally that drew about 150 people. From our union alone, over 100 people have traveled to Madison since the protests began. Zach and I both wanted to build on that energy.
By the time of the departure, we knew that it was uncertain whether we would be able to get into the building, and therefore we were ready to support our colleagues inside who may have faced potential arrest. GEO staffer Amy Livingston and History steward Anna Kurhajec had arrived last night, and Officer-at-Large Leighton Christiansen came with another labor group this morning.
By the time we parked, walked to the capitol, and got into the line for entrance, it was about 3:20, and the police had promised to close the doors promptly at 4:00. The line was moving slowly (police were allowing one person in for every two that left), but we knew that Leighton was inside. Sometime around 3:45 we resigned ourselves to the fact that we probably wouldn’t get in, though we stayed in line. Shortly before 4:00, we got word that Amy and Anna had been among the last people to make it in after waiting about two hours. When the doors closed at 4:00, the outside crowd chanted “Let Us In” for 15 more minutes.
You all can see what happened on the inside on TV feeds and on Youtube videos. On the outside, we saw an energetic protest that still had the spirit of Saturday’s rally. Despite the bitter cold, people were in good spirits. We kept hearing conflicting reports about the status of the people inside. Earlier in the day we had heard promises that there would be no arrests; later on it seemed like arrests were a likelihood. While still waiting in line, I had scrawled the GEO’s Kerry Pimblott’s telephone number on my arm with a permanent marker in case of arrest—a surreal experience for someone who’s never even had a speeding ticket. I had to explain what was going on to my parents, who couldn’t understand why I would “jeopardize” my future career as a scholar and educator. But to me, what we were doing in Madison was essential to secure the career I want to build, to protect the conditions for teaching and learning.
Once the doors were closed, of course we were worried about our people inside. We received a blessing from GEO headquarters to leave if we wanted, that other people could come up to bail them out, but Zach and I were both firmly resolved that we wanted to bail them out. It would get them out much faster than if someone new had to drive up from Champaign. And to be honest, I think both of us felt disappointed that we weren’t able to be in the Capitol, and we wanted to be there to help the people who were. The plan was for us to be their first phone call if they were arrested. There were ACLU representatives available to bail people out, but they would be responsible for all the protesters. The difference between us bailing them out and the ACLU bailing them out could have meant a difference of several hours or more in jail time for Amy and Anna. (The labor group Leighton had gone up with was prepared to post his bail if necessary).
The crowd was lively and many were in constant contact with people inside. At one point we formed a human chain around the building. Protesters made a commitment to stay until either everyone was out of the building (one way or another) or until the police had announced there woule be no arrests. Driveways, entrances, and exits were blocked. Some of the people inside chose to leave voluntarily upon police requests, and were cheered by the crowd outside as they left the building. Others (several hundred) stayed inside, understanding that they were risking their own liberty to do so.
As the temperatures dropped, people climbed up to the second floor to get a sight of the people inside. We also held a candlelight vigil. Chants and drumming continued. Of course, as basically an unplanned event, it was a much smaller crowd than the massive Saturday rally, but it still maintained tremendous energy. For me, the most thrilling part was hearing the car horns of supporters driving the streets around the capitol. Throughout the day there had been constant supportive car honks. At some point, though, they fell into a regular pattern: a call-and-response chorus version of the favorite union chant, “This is what democracy looks like,” which was surprisingly well-coordinated. This kept up for well more than an hour, as each successive wave of commuters picked up on the game and kept it going. This will be one of my favorite memories.
Though none of us could get in the building, we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press. By 7:00 we had received word that everyone inside had been guaranteed they would be able to spend the night peacefully and would not be arrested. Leighton, Amy, and Anna are still inside as I write, along with hundreds of other protesters.
Once the outside protest dispersed and we knew Leighton, Amy, and Anna would not need bail, we headed home. Stopping to warm up at a local bar, we overheard the news that Sen. Dale Schulz had switched his vote on the bill. We now need only two additional senators to kill Scott Walker’s budget bill and allow the Wisconsin 14 to come home. When this was announced in the bar, there were cheers throughout. Talking to our people inside, I was glad that they also had learned about Sen. Schultz’s switch and there was cheering inside.
One thing you notice in Madison is that just about every local business has a window sign supporting public sector union rights. Many of the people I saw both days had signs proclaiming that they were “private sector workers,” “small business owners,” “non-union members,” and “taxpayers”—the groups Walker claims to represent—who were coming out to support their union brothers’ and sisters’ rights.
Right now, Walker is thoroughly despised in Madison. Over both days I was there I saw one right-wing counter-protestor, against approximately 120,000-150,000 of us. What I did see was a massive group of people (and their dogs), diverse in their race, ethnicity, age, economic background, sexual identity, religion, and even in their professed politics (it was surprising how many “conservatives” believe in union rights). All of them have had enough of Gov. Walker, after he’s been in office less than two months. An incredible proliferation of clever signs lambastes Walker and his multi-billionaire benefactors, the Koch brothers—punning and the double entendre are very alive in the Badger state.
But there is a serious tone as well. People here profess their disgust for Walker’s willingness, caught on tape, to plant agents provocateur in the crowd to try to cause violence and discredit the movement. What kind of governor, the Madison Chief of Police asked, would consider risking the safety of law enforcement officers and protesters, including their children, for his political gain? http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/116828353.html. And Walker ultimately backed down from the idea only because he decided it would hurt him politically.
It was also a crowd that connected the dots to larger social issues, and demonstrated precisely the kind of critical self-awareness that Left intellectuals often claim to be unable to find in the American working and middle classes. These were not people marching, as the Right charges, just to protect their own benefits. The people marching understood the connections between war spending, corporate welfare, and tax cuts on the one hand, and cuts in education, health care, and social programs on the other. They understood the absurdity of a governor who claims to have to crush unions in order to plug a $140 million deficit, right after he signed $140 million in corporate giveaways and tax breaks. They understand that the divisions between skilled and unskilled, middle and working class, union and nonunion, and private and public sector, are meant to divide working people against one another. Many of their signs emphasized the value of education, and a number took shots at Governor Walker over his own lack of a college degree. Their signs made reference to both the good (LaFollette, Feingold) and bad (McCarthy) elements of Wisconsin political tradition. These were people who believe in the public good and the public sphere, and are trying in every way they can to recreate it.
However much he likes to talk about the silent majority who supports him, I have seen almost no evidence that anyone likes or supports Walker, let alone a majority. He literally cannot be seated in a restaurant in Madison. Walker went to one of Madison’s premier fine-dining restaurants, and the owners refused to serve him. Of course, his support is higher in more rural areas than in liberal enclaves like Madison and Milwaukee, but even outside the cities he is opposed by solid majorities. Statewide, his approval rating is below 50%, an astonishing number for a governor who only won his first term in November. The polls I’ve seen have shown supermajorities (over 60%) of both Wisconsin citizens and the American public as a whole against Walker’s proposals. And that’s after a steady drumbeat in both the right-wing and mainstream media, claiming that public workers’ wages and benefits are responsible for our economic situation. On the bus I took Saturday were people from Green Bay, Stoughton, and Beloit. The caricature of the protesters as mostly urban liberals would have been absurd to anyone who spent even five minutes among the crowd.
My overall impression, like the Saturday protest the day before, was of incredible peace and harmony. (Fox News, the only national media outlet that has maintained consistent coverage, has claimed to see “hate” and “vitriol” in the eyes of the protesters, and that our goal is to shut down and harass the media. Nothing I saw in any way comports with that absurd characterization.) I have never seen this many people assembled (for any reason—not just a political rally) without any unpleasantness or violence. People speak plainly and from the heart, in their posters and in their words, about how this bill will affect their lives, how it will take away things they’ve won, not only through their individual effort but through generations of workers who have sacrificed to build their unions.
The symbolism of reclaiming the Capitol for the people against the special interests and Gov. Walker’s attack on democratic union rights was very powerful. Wisconsin’s State Capitol is a beautiful, neo-classical white marble structure, the kind of architecture that was built, at the time of the U.S.’s founding, as a kind of living expression of the idea of the public good. From the outside, you can see signs in the windows of Democratic Assemblymen/women and Senators’ offices, cheering on the protesters. Sometimes these legislators or their aides would open up their windows and wave. From the inside, the spectacular Rotunda has taken on a new kind of beauty with the thousands of signs, fliers, and banners that have transformed it into a true site of civic engagement.
I was able to get in on Saturday, along with many other GEO members, and the reborn Capitol must to be seen to be believed. The cameras don’t do it justice. On Saturday a massive, loud yet somehow completely orderly crowd alternated between cheering and drumming passionately on the one hand, and on the other, listening carefully and attentively to a stream of dozens open-mic speakers who talked poignantly about how the bill would affect their lives. I had the chance to briefly speak to the thousands of people in the crowd and found it simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. The most rousing speech I heard was a passionate and eloquent appeal by a Wisconsin preschool teacher who wondered, “Why should I have to beg this man to build the life I’ve earned?” Periodically parades would march through the center of the crowd—I saw a firefighters’ parade, and a massive parade by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, a union with new, radicalized leadership and a strong commitment to progressive labor and educational policies.
The energy is tremendous. But they will need to keep it up in the next few days and weeks, in order to win over more Republican Senators and finally kill the bill. I hope to make it back up to Madison (my third trip this week) to spend a night with the brave workers of Wisconsin (spearheaded, I should say, by the unbelievable UW grad local, the Teaching Assistants’ Association). Others will as well. I will say, for those who haven’t yet been to Madison, it is an experience you will never forget.
Two weeks ago I remember telling someone that “Wisconsin is coming to all of America next.” At the time, this sounded ominous and threatening. Now, it has become transformed into something hopeful. I’d like to think that the energy, passion, selflessness, and civic engagement that Wisconsin has shown the world can become a model for all of us. Wisconsin is coming to all of America next, but not in the way Scott Walker intended.
Does anyone know how to get permanent marker writing off your skin?
Michael Verderame is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where he studies nineteenth-century British literature with a focus on literature and the environment. He is a member and activist in the Graduate Employees Organization, an AFT-affiliated union representing over 2000 teaching and graduate assistants at UIUC.
Monday afternoon update: We heard that the windows of the Capitol are being welded shut in an effort to force the protesters out. Law enforcement is not allowing new people in. There are claims that new protesters will not be allowed in unless protesters inside comply with certain (unspecified) law enforcement requests, although it’s unclear what those requests are. About 100 of the protesters remain. According to reports, Walker has shifted operational control from the Madison Police, who strongly support the protesters, to the State Troopers’ Office, whose superintendent is a political appointee of Governor Walker’s (and also, amazingly, the father of both the state Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader). A disappointed Democratic Assemblywoman Kelda Helen Roys tweeted that seven corporate lobbysists were let in even as protesters are being excluded. The ACLU has filed a suit to force the state to readmit protesters. We’ve also learned that over the night a number of people, including Anna and Amy, left overnight based on the promise they would be allowed back in at 8 a.m.) Anna and Amy are currently trying to get back in.
Nonetheless, spirits are high throughout the country. My own union, the Graduate Employees Organization, an affiliate of the AFT/IFT has been holding a 24-7 vigil ever since the protests began to support the public workers in Madison. We have hosted rallies, film screenings, lectures, teach-ins, and concerts. Members are spending every night in the basement of the YMCA, with sleeping bags and pillows. We have also hosted three local rallies in support of the 39 heroic Indiana Democratic legislators, who are staying in Urbana, just like the Wisconsin 14, in protest of anti-union and anti-education legislation. One of them came to the University to speak to undergraduate and graduate students about the issues in Indiana, and received rousing applause.
It is difficult, but we are winning. One Republican senator has already switched; as we keep the pressure up, I believe more will follow. And the lessons of Wisconsin will carry over into the rest of the country as this fight continues.]]>
Certainly some of its viewers, as you might expect, tune in for the objectified porn-star bodies of the actors. But they stay because they identify with the characters in the story. I think it’s worth trying to understand this identification, in large part because it seems to be an identification with a mode of exploitation similar to our own.
With balletic violence, gorgeous CGI, and lovingly detailed mature sequences, this Sam Raimi production doesn’t at first seem calculated for the status-conscious intellectual (ie, the sort of person that exchanges prestige for salary). That said, one of the show’s persistent themes is the personal cost of pursuing psychic rewards–such as celebrity, or the esteem of one’s colleagues. The show invites identification with the gladiators on the supposition that the audience is also imprisoned by their own pursuit of affective compensation, of which our own teaching for love (and consequent super-discounted wage) is a leading example, not to mention our complicity in the super-discounting of the wages of others.
Dalton Trumbo, Meet Larry Flynt
Consistently winning its cable time slot in the 18-49 demographic, the show’s success suggests what even our friends at The New York Times (NYT) have to acknowledge appears to be a growing appetite for stories of class warfare. Of course this use of the term “class warfare” erroneously assigns it only to class struggle from below (as if the arduous labor of Palin, McCain, Boehner, Beck and O’Reilly to roll back medical care, education, and workplace rights isn’t the class war of the rich on the rest of us!) What the NYT reviewer means is to hint that recent trends in cultural consumption might indicate a growing will of the other 98% to fight back.
There are two paths into this version of Spartacus that any reasonably competent cultural-studies person might pursue: genealogical relationships, especially those with earlier versions of Spartacus, and transitive relationships with parallel iconography, like the masterless samurai of Kurosawa, Leone, Eastwood, etc.
The first approach would be largely a project of mourning–ie, exploring all the ways this latest iteration of Spartacus measures a retreat from the Left cultural imaginary tapped into by the blacklisted dream team of Dalton Trumbo and grand old Howard Fast. For decades a bestselling writer of openly anticapitalist fiction, Fast was imprisoned for resisting HUAC and forced to self-publish the 1951 novel on which the Kubrick/Douglas/Trumbo film is based. (Apparently Kirk Douglas produced the film largely out of pique after losing the title role in Ben Hur to Charlton Heston, but still deserves enormous credit for having the courage to employ these writers, and helping to break the blacklist.)
The contrast between the 1960 film and the present is especially obvious in the variant handling of the line, “I am Spartacus.” In the earlier production, the line comprised a climactic appeal to solidarity, shouted for Kubrick and Douglas’s sound crew by the crowd at a Michigan State vs Notre Dame football game.
In a nice turn, the contemporary version reimagines the line as a second-act complication, indicating submission: “I am Spartacus” in this version indicates the Thracian’s acceptance of his slave name, a la Kunta Kinte in the most famous scene in the mini-series Roots. Drawing this parallel to the more defiant and hopeful imagination of the mid-1970s (now thirty-five years in the past) is, however, similarly unflattering to the present.
The second analysis would recover part of the first–finding in this cynical Spartacus a free-ranging rebellion. He inhabits a modestly domesticated variant of the masterless samurai/Pale Rider trope, protesting “I burn for no cause but my own,” but grudgingly making an exception to that rule.
A figure for the salaryman who puts on the office costume–but rides his hog weekends– motivated by a goodfella’s desire to protect spouse and home turf, today’s Spartacus provisionally accepts the fraternity of the ludus and even more provisionally the dominion of Batiatus, an ambitious Capuan fight promoter reminiscent of Tony Soprano.
That the fight promoters are the next tv gangsters-as-lower-management is abundantly clear in Season 2, Episode 2, in which Batiatus is stomped in a butcher’s shop; the scene references a similarly-located assault in The Sopranos and attempts to top it with a long-running and full-frontal urination on the victim.
Both of these lines of analysis could be extended usefully, and doubtless will be, but I think they aren’t enough, not least because they bypass the repeated, clear references to gladiators as the adult film stars of their time.
The mapping of gladiation by way of the contemporary cultural space of porn is literal, with repeated scenes of gladiators sexually performing for an audience of citizens, who sometimes offer direction (a la interactive porn sites), zoom in for closeups of the action, etc. (I don’t bring up pornography in order to get into a moral debate. If I have a moral position on pornography, it’s probably something akin to class struggle: potentially the likeliest, best outcome of porn’s cultural victory is self-abolition: Can the universally explicit be visible as pornographic?) Certainly there are serious complaints to be made about the series in this department: for instance, it can legitimately be read as trivializing the contemporary traffic in women by its representation of male gladiators as sex toys for the Real Housewives of Capua. In any event, if you want to argue porn’s morality, take it up with the extremely thoughtful Jane Juffer or, say, the million-strong Netmums demographic–mostly British, mostly women under fifty, mostly with kids–75% of whom say they consume it.
The Grammar of Super-Exploitation
What interests me about Spartacus and the grammar of adult film is the question of delivering work without a wage, for an extreme wage discount, or over and above the requirements of a wage. In the technical sense, most wage work (excepting the hyper-compensated type) is simple exploitation: you produce more value than you receive back in wages, often a lot more, and that value goes to someone of the Real Housewives class, who buys jewels and a good conscience by making occasional donations to charity.
By contrast, working without a wage–or for a discounted wage–or for psychic compensation–or delivering additional work off the clock–generally involves some form of super-exploitation. The cutting edge of management practice is finding ways to maximize the employee’s donation above and beyond the wage: checking office email at 11 pm and 6am, taking calls on weekends and on vacation, working through lunch, etc. One of the vectors for this is making workplaces “creative” and “fun,” as Andrew Ross has analyzed; another is faux professionalism; another is providing elaborate nonwage recognitions, a la the military, church and education bureaucracies. Internships are both straight-up extortion (“can’t get a job without one”) and status awards (“I won the competition for the position!”)
Gladiators experience the most primitive forms of super-exploitation (direct enslavement, imprisonment and degradation). All of these “primitive” forms of super-exploitation are alive and well in today’s global economy, from prison labor to the traffic in women. And some aspects of gladiator labor are realized cinematically as the kind of locked-in dormitory workplace associated with Chinese manufacturing.
But the primitive forms of super-exploitation don’t explain the Starz/Netflix demographic’s identification with the characters and situation. The viewer identification has much more to do with fact that the gladiators also experience the most advanced or progressive forms of super-exploitation associated with Western workers employed in some of the most sought-after positions in the global economy: While gladiators do receive some material compensation (better food, occasional prize money, etc) they are ultimately paid in the coin of emotion. This is where the mapping of gladiation onto the porn industry delivers the most insight. The gladiators are almost exactly analogous to today’s porn “stars,” who support one of the most lucrative industries on the planet–but who can make as little as a hundred dollars per filmed sex act, might work on just a couple of films in a “career” that lasts a few months. The cost of plastic surgery, physical training and so on easily outweighs the earnings of many, a fact known perfectly well to most of the men and women struggling to get into the industry. The idea that all of these persons are delusionally trying to win a lottery of high adult-film paychecks misses the point. For the most part, they understand that they are also being paid in a kind of reputation that they have chosen to seek (perhaps mistakenly) even if they don’t get rich.
This is the heart of the series’ appeal–its insight into a core question of our time: “if the rewards are so slim, why do it?” And the series captures the complexity and honesty of the answer: that most of us are deeply pro-social in our motivations, that we strive most vigorously for nonwage compensation…. and that these generally pro-social preferences represent our vulnerability to the economic predators of our time.
Given the number of fronts on which its politics are fairly regressive, the largest contribution the series makes to consciousness-raising is its consistent representation of affective compensation as a form of Monopoly money printed up by a cynical management. Indeed, the central characters’ struggle to reject the psychic wage–and management’s effort to seduce them into accepting it– is the substance of the series’ story line. It is not that the series opposes honor, reputation-seeking, or loyalty per se: it’s that the series understands these and other emotions are vectors through which economic predators snare their victims.
In this version of Spartacus the successful “lanista” and “doctore” (manager and trainer) are, first and foremost, managers of the arena’s workplace culture, providing the gladiators with rewards calculated to trigger the investment of their whole selves in their work: a sense of fraternity, accomplishment, professional reputation and public recognition.
The whole of Season 1’s interior action comprises the complication-filled but steadily rising acceptance of this manufactured workplace culture by Spartacus, who swiftly wins the title of “champion of Capua.”
His arc of acceptance is matched by a parallel, gradual disaffection with that same workplace culture by his chief rival Crixus, the immediate past champion. Just when Spartacus’s growing acceptance of a bargain with management is burst, abruptly returning him to his original state of implacable avenger, the evolving emotional life of Crixus carries us forward.
For Crixus, the transformation from true believer to revolutionary means abandoning most of the psychic rewards on which he’s built his identity–the recognition of fellow professionals, public celebrity, etc. It also means a painful repudiation of the belief that gladiation offers a professional, democratic, meritocratic venue, in which ability is inevitably recognized.
As we cheer along Crixus’s workplace epiphany, we are invited to have one of our own–to cast a critical eye on our own workplaces, and the management-engineered workplace cultures that enmesh us.]]>
This is the front lines of academic labor struggle, pitting the moral force of the NLRB against a conservative, reactionary Federal court that refuses to enforce its rulings and the arrogant hypocrisy of wealthy, influential religiously-affiliated administrations.
Legal Fictions: Great Falls
The terrain of this struggle is far beyond the Yeshiva decision, which applies only to the minority of tenurable faculty (on the basis of the specious claim that they are managerial employees). Since ¾ of today’s faculty are graduate students or lecturers on casual appointment, they can hardly be described as managerial, and can’t be denied bargaining rights by way of Yeshiva.
Instead, today, private institutions with a religious affiliation rely on the claim that employees at “religious institutions” should be sweepingly excluded from National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protections. (As if being forced to bargain collectively with groundskeepers, secretaries and writing instructors might interfere with their “religious liberty,” an argument that could be made with the same merit about obeying traffic laws.)
While the NLRB has consistently distinguished between institutions with a substantial religious character and those with a religious affiliation, a 2002 D.C. Circuit Court opinion involving the University of Great Falls, a small Montana institution, radically undermined the Board’s authority, substituting a very loose religious-exemption test for the NLRB’s stricter standard.
Under Great Falls, courts may compel the NLRB to accept at face value the claims to a religious exemption of any institution that “presents itself to the public” as a religious institution.
Denying NLRB the power to distinguish between real and false claims to the exemption is a transparent assault on long-established employee rights and protections. Under the Great Falls ruling, essentially, any employer that claims the exemption may have it.
And unlike Yeshiva, the ruling applies comprehensively–to part-time faculty, students, and non-teaching staff.
This sweeping and radical new barrier to organizing came into being in much the same way that Yeshiva did, with the determination of a conservative activist Circuit Court judge. Backed by Jesse Helms and appointed by Ronald Reagan to fill the seat vacated by Antonin Scalia’s elevation to the Supreme Court, and at this writing the chief justice of the D.C. Circuit, David Sentelle has been described by The New York Times as “one of the federal judiciary’s most extreme conservatives.”*
Sentelle’s vote was instrumental in overturning the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter. He replaced the moderate Robert Fiske with the right-wing ideologue Kenneth Starr as independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. A long-term Republican party operative, even four years after his appointment to the federal bench, Sentelle was still publishing right-wing screeds against “leftist heretics” who he claimed sought to establish “a collectivist, egalitarian, materialistic, race-conscious, hyper-secular, and socially permissive state.”
Sentelle’s transparently activist opinion in Great Falls gutted the NLRB’s authority so far beyond reason that several attempts have been mounted as a test of the ruling.
The best of these before Manhattan College came forward in March 2009, during the first year of the Obama administration. Fully supported by the NLRB’s ruling that the school’s ties to the Presbyterian Church were too insubstantial to justify a religious exemption, the UAW-affiliated faculty of Carroll College, like the faculty of Yeshiva, simply came to Federal court seeking enforcement of the Board’s ruling in its case.
But who did the NLRB and the faculty union find waiting for them? A fellow named Thomas Griffith, who arrived at the D.C. Circuit Court directly from a five-year stint as general counsel and assistant to the president of Brigham Young University.
Unsurprisingly for the recent former general counsel of a religiously-affiliated university, Griffith’s 2009 opinion in the Carroll case bluntly applies the 2002 ruling advanced by his sitting chief: “Under Great Falls, Carroll is exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. We thus need not address Carroll’s argument that its faculty members are managerial employees who fall outside the protection of the NLRA. We grant Carroll’s petition for review, vacate the decision and order of the NLRB, and deny the Board’s cross-petition for enforcement.”
*New York Times, August 17, 1994. Qtd in Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. The Hunting of the President. Macmillan, 2000, p131 (cited p 387).
Tellem’s Stand: Against the DC Circuit Court
With his decision in the Manhattan College case, Tellem is clear about the nature of the struggle: “The D.C. Circuit has refused to enforce Board cases asserting jurisdiction based on the Board’s test. Instead, the D.C. Circuit has set forth” its own test, which the NLRB “has not adopted.”
By highlighting the Circuit Court’s activist intervention and NLRB’s resistance–in a decision that will likely be contested in that same Circuit Court, with David Sentelle still sitting as its chief–Tellem is placing the court on notice that the NLRB will continue to affirm its constitutional right to jurisdiction.
Waiting for Tellem?
It’s not clear how the Manhattan College struggle will turn out.
What is clear is that decisions made by Tellem and the NLRB don’t make faculty self-organization possible.
It’s the other way around: Faculty self-organization makes it possible for Tellem to make decisions like this one. The Manhattan College faculty serving contingently have been fighting this battle for well over a decade and will keep fighting it.
When we face shabby rulings like Great Falls, does it make sense for us to assume that the decision proceeded from ultimately reasonable arguments advanced by truth-seekers? Are they arguments put forward in an adversarial system but refereed with a reasonable degree of impartiality and with the prospect of eventual accountability in higher courts?
Of course not. We need to see clearly that these are specious, intellectually dishonest arguments by activist reactionaries abusing the power of the bench to deny fundamental human rights.
We need to see clearly that these rulings are the product of a flawed, inherently political process that is likely to disadvantage both truth and justice for decades to come. Few observers would say, for instance, that the current Supreme Court is the place to test David Sentelle’s opinion in Great Falls.
But if the Supreme Court can’t help us, what should we do? If the United Auto Workers and American Federation of Teachers aren’t willing to spend any more of their resources fighting a reactionary judiciary, what should we do?
Ultimately what Yeshiva (1980), Great Falls (2002) and Carroll (2009) teach us is simple: what matters more than the law is the movement. The individuals who used (or abused) their power in these decisions were part of a social reaction to liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including workplace democracy, feminism, and civil rights.
They aren’t lone wolves; they’re conservative activists bound in a net of common culture, values, and mutual support. They didn’t have law, precedent, or reason on their side; they simply imposed their reactionary will and made new law out of the power represented by their movement.
It would be tremendously foolish if we permitted any of these rulings to constrain us.
We can build a movement with the students, nurses, young lawyers, schoolteachers, and countless others affected by exploitative and super-exploitative patterns of employment.
We can overcome this dense lattice of hostile law. We can and must imitate the 1960s movement of public employees whose self-organization was illegal and yet also an unstoppable force for writing new law reflecting truth, justice, fairness, and democracy.
From the perspective of our individual campuses: Is Yeshiva relevant? Are Great Falls and Carroll?
Not to a movement, no—no more so than any of the thousands of municipal statutes once theoretically constraining the movement of schoolteachers and sanitation workers. The tightest straps on those schoolteachers and sanitation workers were never the law; they were emotional and intellectual and habitual—habits of deference to, and trust in, authority.
They burst free. We can too.
Partly adapted from a recent contribution to Expositions]]>