Thursday, February 23, 2012

the second congress

I've been arguing with Malcolm Harris and others in the comments at Crooked Timber, concerning his post about David Graeber and debt there. You might be interested in the argument. I like Harris, but he has a bad habit of using the idiom of revolution in his role as an advocate for the bourgeois. That's nothing wrong with that kind of advocacy; most media is devoted to it, after all. Certainly most of what I've written in my life is oriented towards the concerns of the middle class, being as it is my own. And here I am, expressing the need to take drastic action to reform tuition and student debt. I am, measure for measure, a creature of a particular establishment. But the language of emancipation matters, and it has to be applied with care.

The question I asked in the comments is one that is very important to me: how many Occupy protesters would, given the chance, immediately swap positions with the bankers they're protesting? I don't trust and have never trusted those protesters who are ultimately agitating against the outcomes of the system rather than the system itself. "The system is wrong" is a constructively critical statement. "The system doesn't hire enough people, or hired the wrong people" is a statement that reasserts the legitimacy of that system. Do I have personal sympathy for those laboring under student loan debt? Of course I have sympathy for them. I am them. And, again, I'm trying to participate in a national conversation as an advocate for helping them and future college students. But where my sympathy lies and where I think political effort should be directed are separate, and no genuinely critical discourse could fail to parse these differences. We are the 99%, but we are not all the same 99%.

The danger for the left-wing is not that it will be met on some battlefield and defeated by the forces of capital and reaction. The danger is that it will be co-opted, deflected, appropriated, misused. I have read and will read with interest Harris's writing on this topic, and I support the broad effort to alleviate student debt burdens. That effort cannot be used to distort our perception of who is on the top and who is on the bottom, the only political question of enduring meaning.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

the anti-authoritarian's authority

You know, I've debated saying a thing or three about this whole Chris Hedges-David Graeber imbroglio, but honestly, I'm just so exhausted. Every time I start trying to write about it, I end up lying down for awhile. Hopefully sooner or later I'll get something out.

Here's one quick thing, though: I wish David Graeber would stop stamping around and announcing how very integral he was in starting the Occupy movement. I'm sure that's true. Good for him. But an anarchist, making an explicit plea against the movement police, in the context of an anti-authoritarian movement... well, there's better ways he could spend his energy than broadly waving at his own authority. It's not just that piece, either. There's such a fussiness to his discussion of his own influence. It's pregnant with a desire to say what he knows better than to say: that he has some sort of ownership over it all.

I'm not an anarchist, and this isn't personally my issue. I don't doubt for a second how important Graeber was to starting Occupy. And I have long found the denial of leadership to be a deeply self-destruction impulse within leftist movements. (The maddest anyone has ever been at me, at an organizing movement, was when I told someone he was a leader. That he plainly was didn't moderate his reaction.) If Graeber wants to assert leadership, he should just do it. Having it both ways, by speaking about the status that gives him authority without speaking in the vocabulary of authority, guarantees that the conversation proceed in an unhealthy manner.

Update: Yeah, I need to elaborate some. Give me today to get something put together.

Monday, February 13, 2012

google's distractions

I have a post up at the new digs about the endless distractions and annoyances that seem to haunt Google's products, which might be of interest to a broader audience. Check it out. (Don't worry, I won't be cross linking like this often.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

my piece at Consider, and new ventures

I was asked to write a piece for Consider Magazine, in support of President Obama's recent tuition-control proposal that he announced in a speech at the University of Michigan. So I did. I'll be honest: the venture makes me a bit nervous. But at this point, the challenge that stratospheric tuitions pose to the university and its students is significant enough that I'm willing to put that fear aside. It is time for us to solve this problem, and if we need to get heavy-handed to do it, so be it.

You can read a few more thoughts I wrote on my piece here, and this is why I'm really posting. I've registered, and set up a professional and academic website there. For some time, I thought I would keep that completely sequestered from this blog. I'll admit that, at many times, I've come to regret ever revealing my last name online. But as I've said, I believe in accountability for one's statements, and this is the Internet, where everything is forever. There's no sense in hiding.

There is sense in growing. Look: my political positions are what they are. My disposition is what it is. I believe that democracy is about antagonism. I believe that the consequence of rule by the people is that  political disagreements are naturally going to be unfriendly, if they are real and prosecuted well, which is why family and friendship are so important. You know how I feel about this stuff. This is not an apology; for those who don't like the way I interact politically, the bridges have been burned. For those who do, there's no need to apologize. But it's time to evolve. I rarely achieve what I want to achieve here.

I consider myself, at the end of the day, an insanely fortunate person. I am living in a nice place with a beautiful, accomplished, and brilliant woman, with our dog and cat and my books. I've got good friends and great food and dark beer and a warm bed. There isn't much money, but there hasn't been for a long time, and anyway we don't need much. Most of all, I get to do what I've always wanted to do: I teach writing and language, and I get to research about same, and when I'm in my office grading papers or pouring over some recent study, I know how lucky I am. I realized some time ago that many people don't know what they want to do with their lives; I've known since I was thirteen. It's an incredible blessing, and I force myself to consider what a privileged, lucky man I am every day.

What I want is to take this ceaseless push to make myself understood and direct it towards what I want to do and want to be. So I'm inaugurating Interfaces of the Word, my new blog on language and education. It's named in honor of Walter Ong. I wrote a long introductory post for you to peruse. As I say in that post

 I want this blog to consider writing, in many forms and through many lenses. I want to talk about writing I like, or writing I don’t; about trends or fads in writing or writing technologies; about books, articles, magazines, stories…. I also want to give advice for writing and writers, should anybody be interested in taking it. I’d also like to write a book review every once in awhile. I’m not going to artificially restrict myself. If an issue seems interesting and relevant to me, I’ll write about it. But this won’t be a general interest blog. I know myself, and the best way to keep my writing focused and temperate is to engage with issues pertaining to my academic research. 
I also want to consider education, as my primary academic interests revolve around pedagogy. Educational research and journalism are issues of both personal and academic interest to me, and I possess enough professional training and research to write about them with reasonable expertise. Obviously, my focus will mostly be on research in literacy and language, but I will also likely consider education reform efforts and the research concerning them.

This is, obviously, not going to be a high-traffic proposition. But as my critics tell me frequently, neither is this blog. I would rather write something online that is fully myself and fully my own with a small readership than write something with a big readership that duplicated what everybody else was doing. I do hope to fill some of the void left by Alan Jacons and Text Patterns, though Alan and I disagree about almost everything and my blog will be quite a bit different than his. I also recognize that I need checks on myself, ways to control my own anger. That has never been a problem with academics; it has always been a problem with politics. Let's be clear: this is also a part of professionalizing. I need to cool my jets, for self-interested as well as principled reasons. If you'd like, you can feel free to call me a sellout. (Though note that's a term I've never used.) You just can't do it in the comments over there; I'll be moderating those. The comments here will remain, as ever, unmoderated.

L'Hôte isn't going away for good. I've never been able to leave it alone for long, after all. And there will undoubtedly be times when I will feel compelled to speak out about a political culture which I find alienating and wrong. I do hope to channel those feelings into other publications. Perhaps I'll write again for The New Inquiry; I genuinely respect and admire the publication. (The first e-magazine is out now; you should subscribe, for only $2 a month.) But I will continue to write here occasionally, I'm sure. In fact, there's a story I want to tell in this space soon; I've been working on finding the words and the courage for some time. Maybe I'll continue to post a couple of times a week. I don't know, we'll see.

Whatever the case, I rest easy knowing that there are some amazing writers out there who carry the flame much better than I do. I've already told you about my respect for publications like Jacobin. I am thrilled with the rise of someone like Corey Robin, who speaks plainly about power and revolution. I know that Glenn Greenwald will continue to work tirelessly in pointing out impositions on personal liberty of those here and abroad, and in his insistence that Arabs and Muslims are just as deserving of life and rights as anyone else. And I know that, all around, people are dissatisfied with the way things are, and that the order of things cannot always endure. For now, I'm content to tinker quietly in the soft light of the prime of my life.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

if only

... if only someone on the Internet was willing to blog about the influence of the magazine Sassy
... if only someone on the Internet would share their thoughts on Mad Men
... if only someone on the Internet would declare the death of the physical book
... if only someone on the Internet could express skepticism about the future of marriage
... if only someone on the Internet composed a "big think" piece about Gawker media
... if only someone on the Internet questioned whether regulatory agencies are really protecting us
... if only someone on the Internet posted photos of attractive people on the streets
... if only someone on the Internet would consider conservatism-- from a woman's perspective!
... if only someone on the Internet claimed that their old math teacher could solve the education crisis
... if only someone on the Internet asked us all if we've really thought about our own privilege
... if only someone on the Internet provided a forum for white people to talk about their love of hip hop
... if only someone on the Internet praised Freaks and Geeks
... if only someone on the Internet's Twitter feed was really dry
... if only someone on the Internet published long form pieces about what it means to strive as a young hip liberal educated passionate-but-conflicted young thing in today's society, man!*

to be continued.

*think it over first

day by day in China

Another day, another disgrace from one of the most oppressive societies on earth. Yet more evidence, too, that economic liberalization can exist quite comfortably with political repression and authoritarianism. As if you needed reminding.

Twenty-two years ago today, Nelson Mandela was freed. South Africa was freed by South Africans, with the help of a global campaign of isolation, education, disapproval, and sanction. China, big and populous and poor but powerful, will take a greater effort. That effort is required every day, with constant and principled denunciation. The crucial  message to the Chinese people is that China's future is China's. The question for all of us, as a polity and a government, is whether we can support the self-determination of a people that is truly self-determining, and not dictated by the supposed benevolence of foreign powers. The credibility to oppose authoritarianism must contain within it the rejection of our own authority. There is no path to freedom that travels through Western paternalism, the coercion (whether soft or hard) that has marked all of our liberatory efforts. Only by abdicating our own claims to be the directors of history do we contribute to the genuinely principled goal, the universal suffrage of all mankind.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

credit where due

As much criticism as I have directed at the Atlantic in the past, and as much as I hope to again in the near future, this article by Derek Thompson on the state of marriage and divorce in America is sober, careful, buttressed by reference to responsibly-generated empirical data, meticulously cited, and in my opinion, correct. If you're a young web writer type, this is a good model for the best of the form. Check it out.

zunguzungu on Debt

Aaron Bady reviews David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years to great effect.
By contrast, Graeber argues that purely monetary debts – such as the $14k I owe in student debts to a variety of banks – legitimize violence and exploitation precisely because they take an otherwise irreducibly complex human relation and reductively simplify it into a number. When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality. If my relationship to my parents was a financial one, then I could pay it off and be done with them (or they could forgive the debt and be done with me). Or (and here is where it gets interesting), they could present me with a bill, demand that I pay it, and throw me in jail if I failed to do so.
It's a great, long review, and you should read it.

I've yet to read Graeber's book, but if anything Bady's review doesn't go quite far enough. The neoliberal project has embraced the commodification of literally all human interaction. Creatures of Washington are now pretty blase and upfront about this sort of thing. "Markets in everything." "Think like an economist." It's worth saying, though, that for years conservative types used to deny that they really wanted this, and they'd wank around with talk about the family and the ineffable quality of connecting with Pastor Jim out by the mailbox, and taking old Rusty out to the creek to shoot varmints. I don't think they actually cared about that shit, and I don't think they particularly cared if people knew, but they at least wanted to keep up the pretense. The modern neoliberal is a purer breed, and has that whole "social justice" plausible deniability thing going down.

Bady makes a little hash with the self-evidently absurd notion that we might someday expect our children to pay us back for the cost of their childhood. The thing to understand, as Bady certainly does, is that the self-evident absurdity of such a situation in no way makes it unlikely. After all, I could carve out a living for myself just writing the same identical "marriage-- it's, like, for money, man" article that you've read fifteen times in the last six months, just rotating between the venues that get all breathless and horny for that stuff. (I fully expect The Atlantic to come out with its new cover story "Ladies: Doin' it for the Cash" any day now.) There's usually a little foreplay before they come right out with it-- an evo psych backrub, a little fake feminist reach around-- but in the end it comes down to the claim that people just get married for security and wealth and status, expressed in that self-assured voice stupid people get when they finish a crossword.

Part of the point here is that they don't have to exactly convince everyone, they just have to get the idea out there. When, for example, a neoliberal insists that you simply must kill your dog for a certain amount of money, and if you say otherwise you're probably a liar, the point isn't to make everybody agree. It's just to stretch the bounds of the discourse, until someday (I'm thinking next week) we're getting a bloggy circle jerk asking "child indebtedness to parents: is it really that crazy?" The insistence on commodification is even more explicit: " of course... the implication is that the majority of pet owners are experiencing huge psychic returns that we're not picking up on in conventional economic statistic.Of course, the only way to understand the decision to kill a living being to which you have an immense personal and emotional connection is economic. It is not merely that the neoliberal doesn't agree with a different perspective. There can be no other understanding.

Ultimately, the point of all of this is that contemporary capitalism has traded the vast improvements to worker safety, power, rights, and benefits for growth. By insisting that all human behavior is merely and only a matter of currency exchange, the terrible aspects of this bargain are ignored. (A bargain made, not incidentally, by people other than the workers who are living with its consequences, and defended by writers and pundits who have nothing personally to fear.) Sure, a factory worker in Indonesia might work in squalor for 14 hours a day, with less than 30 minutes of combined break time, threatened constantly by unsafe working conditions, totally unrepresented and totally without power or redress of grievances, constantly at risk of sexual exploitation and physical abuse-- but she's getting paid, and we can put her wages on a graph, and that's growth. And no other considerations matter. To point out the inherent cruelty and human cost of this bargain is to remove oneself from the discourse of the serious.

Talking to a neoliberal about workers and our moral duty to workers is like talking to a tailor about your lover or best friend. You want to talk about her intelligence, her depth, her character, and he keeps interrupting and telling you she's a size six. When you tell him you want to talk about some other quality, he just keeps angrily pushing his tape measure into your hands. The next time a neoliberal asks you to define your "policy position," head for the hills. It just means "let me dictate a completely arbitrary range of shitty choices to you."

Bady's post also considers the question of possibility, and the fact that an enormous amount of the effort of neoliberalism goes into pretending that there are no other options, that this is The Way, and that moving forward simply does not entail asking questions about where we want to go, as we just have to follow the path. Constitutionally, I'm a pessimist, so I will leave the forward-thinking to Bady's piece. I will just say again that history is filled with people who assumed that they had reached the end of history, that their way was The Way, and that they had found the natural organization of human society. And they always end up wrong.

Update: I kept writing Brady, but it's Bady. Fixed.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

political nonexistence

Look: long post. Don't like? Don't read.

Will Wilkinson wrote a post recently on a subject I'm very interested in, the fact that I don't exist.
I don't think there is really any significant threat to bourgeois ideals "from the left". Respect for business, entrepreneurship, and invention is so thoroughly ingrained in our society, I can hardly imagine grounds for serious worry.... Anyway, if the commercial ethos of our culture is in any way endangered, it's endangered more by the more-bigger-faster-radically-better vulgarity of the capitalist rubber-chicken circuit than by its leftist critics, who are, if they're any good, busting their asses trying to move units like the rest of us saps. 
Chomsky completists aside, the complaints of the left seem to me mild as milk, amounting to little more than a minor refinement in the balance of our bourgeois values, and some welcome resistance to the bad economist's false doctrine that, given the right structure of incentives, self-interest is entirely self-regulating and thus entirely benign.
There's a bit of jiu jitsu here. The left is not actually the left, but of those who are, well, they are fringe loonies. (Thanks in part to their association with one of the greatest minds of the last century.) The literal nonexistence of an American left is often casually assumed by neoliberal types, but when challenged, it is immediately substituted by assertion of political irrelevancy. For creatures of the establishment, a lack of establishment power is identical to nonexistence.

I wish Wilkinson was a bit more sympathetic to the status of those of us on the political fringe, we "Chomsky completists." In part I feel this way out of an ideological-academic commitment to dissent that, I think, any free thinking person should share. I consider political unanimity to be prima facie evidence of coercion, whether subtle and overt. But more directly here, I just think that Wilkinson should recognize some solidarity with the politically marginal. Wilkinson's policy preferences are pretty anodyne; however he chooses to self-identify, I've always seen him as a pretty standard neoliberal, just with better taste and better writing chops. (I use term here in the purely descriptive, non-pejorative sense.) But for a long while I identified in Wilkinson a particular sort of principle, a rare one, which includes respect for minority political discourses independent of his support for the content of that discourse. Perhaps that was pure projection. But then again, Wilkinson's most admirable quality has always been his moral universalism, which insists on the equal worth and importance of Mexican migrant workers in comparison to an American corporate overlord, and in practice, this is a minority viewpoint, too. He is not just at his most correct when insisting on this equality, but at his best expressed and most assured, as well. So perhaps he has some fringe solidarity, after all.

In any event,  this is a bit more germane for my broader purpose:  "Filter all the OWS hullabaloo through the broader culture and you're left with the complaint that poor people don't get enough help and rich people are too lightly taxed."

This isn't true, and has never been true. And to understand that it wasn't true, you only have to look at the initial reaction to Occupy from the establishment media, which was ridicule and disdain. The narrative that Occupy represents boilerplate Democrat incrementalism arose only after Occupy persisted, drew popular support, and demonstrated deep and serious economic dissatisfaction within mainstream America. The genesis of Occupy is clear: it was inspired by precisely the kind of fringe lefties who have little sway in partisan politics, the kind towards which Wilkinson evinces such slight regard. The intellectual justification of Occupy had little or nothing to do with minor changes in the degree of exploitation of workers by the capitalist class, and much to do with the complete mastery of our political system by that same capitalist class. The refusal to articulate a list of demands had many justifications, both procedural (as a way to protect the right of all participants to define Occupy in their own way) and political (exactly to avoid the reductive, power-worshiping "where's your policy position" attitude of the centrists and wonks).

Establishment political media (and here I certainly don't include Will Wilkinson) insists on the notion that Occupy represents some mild unhappiness with the status quo because the initial urge to dismiss it as irrelevant or fleeting was refuted by events. When you can't imagine it away, misrepresents its character so that it no longer threatens. For a long time, this has been the habit of the neoliberal establishment. (Again, please: I'm not using that term pejoratively.) The ethic has been not to respond to left-wing argument, but to assert that there is no "reasonable" or "responsible" or "serious" left-wing argument at all. The typical move is argument through incredulity-- I can't believe you're saying what you're saying.

Though it will surely be taken that way, I am not here trying to rewage the neoliberalism wars. I do identify, in this exclusion, the hint of the authoritarian that haunts a lot of neoliberal doctrine. Today the battle for the left is still in many ways the battle to say "I exist." Every statement of the type "I exist" is additionally a statement of "I have a right to exist." And people are saying it, in new venues and with renewed strength, and this is a challenge to the edifice of institutional progressivism.

In the Winter issue of Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara argued that the "era of Ezra Klein" is over. This caused some hurt feelings, both in the immediate radius of Klein's friends (which happens to include a vast array of political journalists and commentators) and in the larger perspective of a generation of young liberalish strivers who have gotten comfortable with the status quo. The status quo, that is, of generational political avatars, young men (they're mostly all men) who have been granted the mantle of liberal discourse. I won't pretend to speak for Sunkara. For me, the idea of the end of Ezra Klein is in part the idea that we on the left will no longer accept as given that people who don't represent our views are the best we can ask for.

I recognize that this will be taken as part of a general personal antipathy I am purported to hold against these progressives. I know that the chances of this post being taken as something other than ax grinding are very low, and I know that's my fault. Yet to me, the rise of a young, unapologetic left could benefit the Ezra Kleins. When I have attempted to document the ways in which social and professional factors undermine a genuine left-wing, I have always tried to demonstrate how these factors are institutional and systematic, and not, generally, the result of personal failings. As I have argued, the young progressive bloggers were navigating in an environment that no one yet understood, at a very young age. As frustrated and angry as I often feel towards institutional progressivism, I have never denied admiration for the intelligence and dedication that many of them possess.

It's just time for us all to admit that the progressive bloggers aren't anybody's vision of the leftmost flank. And that's okay. I'll be happy not to be represented by people I don't agree with, and they'll be happy to no longer be expected to carry a flame they never really wanted. Or so I hope. For a long time, people who were sympathetic to my position told me that I should stop looking for solidarity with wonks and politicos. I always thought finding mutual intelligibility was a worthwhile project, but I've come to think that I was being selfish and unfair.

In the end, the discrepancy in values between the two groups will prevent competition. Most people who are of DC don't recognize influence or importance unless it's the kind that gets you play in Fishbowl DC; the people in this young new left would never desire that kind of influence or importance. If I were to list the people, publications, and organizations that constitute this next phase, those in the conventional progressive political apparatus would scoff at their lack of connections and power. For us, that is exactly the point. So perhaps they'll just orbit apart from each other. Maybe, someday, even reach sympathetic indifference.

It's funny how things work. I have longed for an emboldened left for my entire adult life. And here they come, in a movement to which I have contributed nothing of value. And (of course) they're so much younger than me. I don't quite know what's going to come next, but I do know that these are not people who are going to accept the conventional script, that liberals should be apologetic about their own values.    They embody the virtues of diversity, as well as espouse them; the New Inquiry is a testament to the immediate and obvious benefits of leadership by women in criticism and politics. They assume that their project is worthy of pride, in marked contrast to the leftism of apology that I grew up into. Someone like Bhaskar Sunkara is not going to defer to the notion of the superior seriousness of the man to the right. These young leftists shame me with their dedication and results, but they energize me with their talent and spirit, and they convince me that I could move on to writing about the issues I love best and am best able to discuss, confident that someone else is fighting our fight. I'm so happy to see them, at n+1, at Jacobin, at the New Inquiry. I'm silly enough to say that they're beautiful, and I love them.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

yet again, the conventional divorce rate is pure bunk

So Matt Yglesias and Mike Konczal  and presumably others are talking about divorce rates and the economy. Unfortunately, they are taking the conventionally-calculated divorce rate at face value, when in fact the statistic is useless. I bring this up again and again. As it only tracks number of divorces compared to number of new marriages, the conventional divorce rate is both easily susceptible to small numbers of serial marriers, and more importantly, matching the data pool of divorces from all existing marriages against the data pool of just new marriages. A couple that has been together for years and stays together has no positive impact on the divorce rate of any given year, despite the fact that this is precisely what we're interested in. Indeed, a couple that stays together until death is never represented in the divorce rate at all other than in the year that they are married. A more accurate divorce rate, tracking individual marriages until they end in divorce or don't, is a much more difficult statistic to derive, but much more accurate. The best info I've seen is that the true divorce rate peaked in the early 90s, never exceeded 40%, and has declined since.

This isn't some crank view of mine, by the way, but a well-known problem in sociology. Quoth the New York Times: 
But researchers say that this is misleading because the people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, and that the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates. In fact, they say, studies find that the divorce rate in the United States has never reached one in every two marriages, and new research suggests that, with rates now declining, it probably never will.
This particular discussion that Konczal and Yglesias are having is actually the perfect example of when the conventional divorce rate is most misleading. I don't blame them at all for using the conventional divorce rate, as despite its lack of analytic rigor, the popular press never stops using it. Maybe somebody with a better reputation than I have could get the word out.