Friday, March 12, 2010

Broken democracy

        That state politics is often broken in this country is a point which deserves to be taken in.  The stimulus – again, the only really decent thing Obama and the Democrats did to combat joblessness and foster green jobs, was really not enough.  They got some $800 hundred billion through the Congress, even through the broken Senate, mostly a parallel to the early 1930s Supreme Court. Yet economists who remembered Keynes - notably Paul Krugman but across the mainstream political  spectrum - suggested that something near 1.2 trillion would have been needed to restore the economy to job-producing vigor.  What we have now is the spectral dance of Wall Street, while joblessness is still 9.7% officially and 17.2% in David Leonhardt’s real terms, including those who have given up looking for work and those who have part-time but would take full-time jobs.  

         Much of the political problem comes from a perhaps Chicago-induced overconfidence on Obama’s part that capitalism, with a "nudge," will heal itself up.  Chicago-induced – the center of Milton Friedman-style depravity which has hollowed out American manufacturing to merely military productivity at the expense of ordinary people.  Larry Sommers, when he isn’t being a racist or sexist, is the man who deregulated the economy with Phil Gramm; having  Tim Geithner suggest regulations for Wall Street – being Wall Street – is comical. At the Law School, Obama wasn’t far enough away from University of Chicago economics.  On this fundamental issue, what is the difference between Bush who was nothing but this – the fox lives in the chicken coop and the farmer does not exist – and the often intelligent Obama?  Why does he think a "nudge" to what exists (so far not even this has occurred) would fix it?

     In what may become a great disaster for the Democrats, the administration announced that unemployment would only grow to 8% (in real terms, again David Leonhardt’s, perhaps 15.5%) of the workforce.  Actually it went over 10% (17.5%) and is just now returning to 9.7%.  An overwhelmingly Democratic Congress will not survive people’s anger, even though the corporate-media complex is helping to elevate even worse and less deserving corporate/authoritarian enthusiasts (aided, as if it were needed, by the Roberts/corporate Supreme Court). 

      One of the best features of the stimulus was to reach into state politics; there as in California, revenues have sunk rapidly in a depression and taxes cannot be raised to continue to employ teachers and other public servants.  But education is vital to the wellbeing of citizens and the future competetiveness of the American economy. The stimulus money went in part to the states to keep people employed in basic public services.  This is, once again, one of the major common good sustaining things done by any administration in recent times (better than any domestic measure of Clinton or Carter, for example).  The authoritarian depravity of the Republicans (not to mention Lieberman and some Democrats) is underlined by the fact that there will be no second or adequate stimulus. This Keynsian program, inadequate as it was, has a very good chance of being remembered as one really decent thing the Obama administration achieved (perhaps parallel to the health care reform if he gets it through), just not good enough.

       Obama is taking a lot of deserved heat for the moment.*  But one might praise in this dark political environment (Cheney was here not so long ago, I recall, and Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol are circling over the rule of law) those good things.  It would surely be better if the federal government could continue to do the states’ job, given that democracy in the states has been so corrupted, as Tracy Strong**, in response to The March 4th resurgence of student protest here, underlines.  

"Dear Alan --

I agree with much if not all of what you say about the causes of the sad state of education in this country.  There is an additional question as to what and who exactly should be the target.  I think here only of California: consider the following.

1/ The passage of Proposition 13 on property tax has had the effect of a/ reducing state income and b/ dramatically skewing what people pay.  If you bought a house in 1970 for 100,000 you paid 1,000 in tax then and now.  The house may be worth 800,000.  Your neighbor with the same house that s/he bought 2 years ago pays 8,000.  Prop 13 was a reaction to the dramatically increasing tax levels of the time that were making continued residency for people on fixed incomes impossible.  But it is now a problem not only on grounds of inequity but also in terms of state income.  The market and the tax structure are now irrational.

2/ Budgetary and other matters in the state legislature require a super-majority of 2/3.  Given the Republican/Democratic divisions this is impossible to obtain most of the time.

3/  This matter is compounded by term limits.  Since one is only going to be there for 2 terms, it is better to be seen as someone who stand on principle (gets you another job) than compromise and get something done.

4/ The referendum process, instituted to curb the power of the trusts and the "interests," has run amok and is now the servant of special interests who can get items on the ballot.  The constitution mandates expenditures for prisons due to a referendum.  (And with the extraordinary rise in prison population since 1980, this situation is exponentially worse). Budgetary flexibility is constitutionally reduced to a few items (such as support for higher education). Schwarzenegger, for all his faults, is proposing an amendment that would require that the state spend more on education than on prisons.  Unlikely to succeed.  But the California Constitution has been amended 500 times in the last 100 years. It is over an inch thick and on page 1 there is a clause regulating trout fishing on certain rivers.



     California politics is rigged so that the prison guard lobby (including a network of reactionaries) can force exorbitant expenditure – 5 times as much per prisoner as is spent on each student in K-12 in order to keep more people in prisons.  America has the largest prison population in the world, often of those who do victimless "crimes" or are falsely convicted.  The prison guard population and reactionaries push to throw away even more, so that they may have more minders.  It takes a likely losing referendum from a sometimes reactionary, in this case entirely decent Republican governor to (fail to) do something about it.  And the California Constitution regulates trout fishing on p. 1.  Mel Brooks could not have written this. A large movement from below may force a few slow steps toward sanity in the elite.

       I recently posted on Hilary Putnam’s defense of the humanites and the undermining of scholarship for its own sake here.  This is a complement to the issue of anti-democratic, anti-common good cutbacks to education.  Steve Wagner, a fine philosopher at the University of Illinois and an acerbic judge of the harms of mainstream politics, sent me a dark and apt response as did historian Julio Pino about Kent State; both emphasize how often scientists are foolish about the humanities and, in desperation for money, narrow about universities. These scientists seek, as Steve says drily, to be “nth rate for arbitrary n.”

"Dear Alan,

Thanks to both you and Hilary for your fine reflections on the humanities, and not incidentally on the sciences.  I have done some thinking of my own on this—not just as we all do, but also specifically on the science side, where I am convinced that the situation is awful—weirdly, in some ways the situation is better in the (dying?) humanities; another way to look at it is that the one good thing you can say about the transformation of the humanities is that it's not that much worse than what's happened in the sciences—although of course, the latters' mountains of cash can compensate for a lot... Of this, perhaps another time.

By chance, just a few days ago I read Erwin Panofsky's epilogue to Meaning in the Visual Arts (I'd read another essay, then stayed for the epilogue).  Panofsky discusses humanities education in both the U.S. and Germany in the early 1950s, not at all whitewashing either system—and from the present viewpoint it's all heartbreaking, as when you come across 17th/18th-century warnings against massive environmental destruction and think, how fortunate they did not live to see this future. 

But we digress.  My one note, to you and Hilary, is that the latter is wrong or at least only locally right.  At the University of Illinois, certainly a first-rate scientific institution and one with a worthy humanities/social sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) record, the scientists despise the human studies and have no interest in their continuation. —Of course there are honorable individual exceptions (it can't be coincidence that many of them are non-American), but as to the collective and political fact there can be no doubt. To say nothing of second-rate, They will be content to have Us n-th rate for arbitrary n.  Comparative Literature was abolished years back; there is both clear external evidence and inside word that Philosophy is en route to being reduced/restructured to some sort of shell; various other small units can hardly be longer for this world; and once They are done with those, English and History will be in the crosshairs. —I'm speaking of the humanities specifically, but it's not essentially different with social sciences. —The sentiments are widespread; I spoke to a Chicago law professor (whose degree is from the famously, or depending on whom you ask, notoriously, generalist-theoretical Yale law school) who thinks the humanities nationwide are due for major downsizing: "what do they actually produce?"  So I would say that Hilary's argument is dead, or better that it's alive only in certain places.  

If elaboration is needed, I should say that at Urbana-Champaign the major science departments/schools are totally-owned and -managed subsidiaries of major corporations.  This is completely open and a point of pride—there is not even any pretense of public character or service to the public. —In its own way refreshing, I guess. 

A digression (or is it?) before closing.  In the story just now I neglected to mention that History and English at Urbana are cheering the process on.  Because for the moment it means more resources for them.  These are departments full of post-colonial scholars yet apparently unable to work out that they are like the turkeys in early November celebrating their extra rations. —When many years back I first learned of divide et impera, I thought the "divide" part was supposed to take some sort of work, at least; apparently not in academia. 

With kind regards,


       Steve has a lovely sense of irony about divide and rule, but of course scholars are divided by discipline (and incentives from administrations).  It usually takes thought and organizing from below, just as in democracy generally against capitalism, to do anything decent.

        Julio Pino provides a dark tale of Kent State:

“Dear Alan: As a student of Pound's paieduma (or "kulchur") I wish I could agree with your optimist take on the state of the humanities, but my experience at Kent State, and recent articles from/about other universities convinces me otherwise. Stanley Fish recently wrote, ‘The humanities are not in a state of crisis. Crisis implies phenomena---a passing phase. The humanities are dying.” The New York Times reported a while back on how universities all over the country are being transformed from the groves of academe to ‘Career U.’ That's certainly the case here at KSU, where we know have a business-model approach to the humanities. Each department must answer one question: what can a student get with this degree once she/he has graduated? I've been arguing for years that the humanities are an end, not a means, but the dollar is mightier than the pen. KSU has, over the past two years, suspended sabbaticals, frozen job hiring, and forced all departments to prove they can generate income for the university or face further cuts, i.e., put up (the money) or shut up and shut down. I'm glad your colleague made such a strong case for the humanities at Juan Carlos University, but to offer a balance try reading Susan Jacoby's THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON or Morris Berman's DARK AGES AMERICA on the triumph (temporary one hopes) of folly, frivolity and ignorance in American culture. Peace, Julio Pino

       I see what Steve and Julio see, but am not so disheartened.  We are all in universities fighting to do what is decent against the tides. Scholarship and even deep intellectual creativity can still flourish against the odds.  Steve acerbically remarks that scientists who are serious about the humanities tend to come from abroad and that is noticeable where I am also.  But that Tracy was a provost at UCSD or Tim Fuller at Colorado College or Peter Steinberger at Reed or Gregg Kvistad – they all serious political theorists – or Bill Zaranka (a poet) at the University of Denver is actually pretty striking, and there are many of us, who do not teach or work mainly for the money’s sake (money need not corrupt activities, even if one is, hopefully, paid adequately to do them).  Yes, there are bad things here - and if America becomes fully fascist, something that is, as Chris Hedges stresses, a possibility, then Universities will make themselves like the Bush administration; the most Ph.Ds of any administration and the dumbest, most dishonest and criminal policies.  But as even inside the Bush administration, decent people will still resist.  

      Short of that, one might look at a life spent in research and teaching, if one follows one’s own path, as something pretty good.  Learning of Arabic, as I emphasized here, will produce some classical learning in spite of administrative intentions or blindnesses.  There are always threats to learning and dark times.  But scholarship lingers and is often connected to speaking truth to power, standing up for what is decent.

*I might mention Chris Hedges, whose book on War is a Force that gives us Meaning is beautiful. personal and sad, and has produced a particularly striking, dark piece on fascism here four days ago, emphasizing Camus's notion of rebellion (one can say no, as Thoreau and Brecht also underline, when the leaders commit crimes).  Chris’s book admirably celebrates the power of love, incarnate in the Moslem Fadil Fejic in Bosnia, a poor man who took the milk from his cow everyday to a Serbian baby instead of selling it, while some of his fellow Bosnians were, as fascists, hunting and murdering Serbs.  In the war, he had eventually to eat the cow, and Hedges found him selling a few worm eaten apples, but glad to hear of the baby whom he had put first.   Yet Chris misses the anti-Vietnam war movement then, and Thursday’s protests of a new student movement three days before he published his article.

**Tracy Strong is at the University of California at San Diego, a wonderful political theorist, who was for a time the Provost.  He and I were long ago graduate students at Harvard and involved with the Harvard strike in 1969.  He is one of the world’s great scholars on Max Weber – I respond to a striking letter in my piece on Weber as a hero in fighting against anti-semitism here – and he works brilliantly on Schmitt and Heidegger, and knows much of their dark relationship with Strauss.  He is also in the debate with me, Catherine Zuckert, Tim Fuller and Mike Goldfield at the APSA in 2007 on Strauss’s May 1933 letter to Loewith – see the video here – which was an important stage in the gradual unraveling, still far from fully clear, of Strauss’s eccentric politics as a quasi-“Nietzschean,” pro-Nazi Jew.  Both Tracy and Hilary Putnam have rightly warned me that in speaking of Strauss’s love for Nietzsche and trying to correct some common scholarly weaknesses about Nietzsche’s inspiration of fascism (which is real enough, unfortunately), I have underemphasized the subtlety of Nietzsche and how he – not just as a psychologist which I have underlined – escapes Strauss.  I will make this emphasis stronger in a final version of Enmity and Tyranny (see here and here), but I wanted to underline my agreement with their criticism.    


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