Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

Fiscal austerity gets the most attention, but there’s another type of neoliberal austerity that is arguably just as important: possibility austerity. Every policy “debate” is backed into a corner by artificial constraints, where certain obvious solutions are ruled out in advance. For instance, once the idea of Medicare for all or some other single-payer solution is deemed “off the table,” our only options become continuing the status quo or something like Obamacare. Under those constraints, I obviously choose Obamacare — but why were those even the options to begin with?

It’s not just in domestic policy. Perhaps the crassest example of this paint-yourself-into-a-corner logic is the “debate” about drone strikes. Whenever someone criticizes Obama’s flying robot murder program, it’s all but inevitable that a sensible liberal centrist will come along and point out that it’s preferable to sending in ground troops. And maybe it is! The idea certainly has an initial plausibility when we reflect on the trainwreck of Iraq. But again, why are drone strikes and ground troops the only options? There’s one particularly tantalizing option that you never hear much about: simply not killing those people at all. They’re thousands upon thousands of miles away. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that any of them have terror cells based in the US. So just leave them alone. That option leads to no civilian deaths and reduces the deficit.

For my money, the most elaborate version of this logic is education reform. Here we start with the premise that urban public education is impossible. Funding cannot be increased, even though many urban areas are gentrifying at an astounding rate and hence there should be more property tax money available than ever before — but Tax-Increment Funding districts make sure that money never materializes. So basically things are just going to get worse and worse.

That’s the baseline. Within that set of constraints, you know a lot of children will inevitably be left behind, and so you figure out a way to make sure that the good old talented tenth has a way to escape (and join the mainstream power structure). You also might try a few hail-Mary passes, like setting aside public money to gamble that talented edupreneurs can devise some magical new mode of education, or cutting teacher salaries to make sure that everyone who goes into the field is motivated sheerly by love — hence presumably increasing your odds of an inspiring educator and an “O Captain My Captain” moment (although you shouldn’t stand on the desks because the maintenance budget was cut a while back).

In this context, the most heroic political gesture of the last decade came during Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Republicans admittedly aren’t as good at coming up with convincing constraints, and so the ruse was much more immediately transparent: either we switch to a private retirement system or else Social Security will go bankrupt and everyone will die. Nancy Pelosi rejected the privatization plan, and when pressed for an alternative, she said: “My alternative is nothing.” In a world of fake crises and forced choices, perhaps doing nothing is the most subversive gesture possible.

The good inequality

My working theory is that virtually no one wants equality as such. They want inequality, but the good kind, the justified kind. Hence it is plausible that someone could rail against the power of the 1% and yet still get snippy: “They want $15 an hour for flipping burgers?!”

The good inequality now would be based on getting a college education, but whether you received that education and the degree of quality would be based solely on your merits and efforts rather than your wealthy parents. Hence the focus in mainstream education reporting on making sure that Harvard’s student body is representative. Never mind that Harvard commands such vastly superior resources in a world where adjunct professors have to buy their own chalk.

It’s weird the directions that meritocracy starts taking you, though. Have you ever noticed how many firm believers in meritocracy seem to assume that taking race into account automatically cuts against a merit-based approached? How the people displaced by the “affirmative action” candidate are always qualified white men? It’s not surprising if we realize that racism was once considered the good kind of inequality. The racial hierarchy — scientifically established, mind you! — was a reflection of inherent merit. After all, how could whites be so much more powerful if they weren’t somehow better on the ontological level?

Those for whom the race-based meritocracy was too crass leaned on the superiority of cultural institutions. Westerners had developed a better culture, more open to innovation, less beholden to sclerotic traditions, more rewarding of good hard work. Never mind that the average peasant from any part of the world worked unimaginably harder than an enlightened colonial administrator could ever claim to. Never mind that every culture by its very nature is continually changing and thus innovating, that every tradition is an ongoing dialogue with the past and not some kind of robotic carrying out of obscure ancient instructions. And of course, one should ignore the fact that Islamic institutions had always been more supportive of commerce and social mobility, highlighting the dumb luck of the West in stumbling upon new technological approaches first.

The same strategies are repeated today when we learn that the black community’s culture is defective, insufficiently supportive of monogamy, sobriety, and responsibility. It’s not that they’re racially inferior, of course, it just so happens that one racially defined group has developed systematically better institutions than another racially defined group, which justifies the differential treatment of the two groups… And so we’re back to classic racism in all but name.

More enlightened approaches to the good kind of inequality recognize that every race has its “talented tenth” — and seeks to harvest that 10% to serve the dominant power structure. This seeming equality of opportunity, by depriving subaltern communities of their most talented potential leaders, reinforces the subordination of the whole even as it allows greater room to maneuver for selected individual members. One might think here of the juxtaposition of a black president and the callous murder of blacks by the police.

Even in the best kind of inequality, someone’s life chances have to be thwarted. Someone’s single life on earth, the only shot they get, has to be squandered. People demonize equality as totalitarian uniformity — but true equality would be the equality of a livable life for everyone. That would look different for different people, and I think it’s fair to say that such a life might contain its share of tedium and toil (rendered more bearable by its being shared and unstigmatized). It’s hard to predict in advance how to achieve this in all cases, but it seems to me that seeking the good, justified form of inequality is always going to lead us back to racism — hence it’s worth the effort of trying to figure out the elusive “what it would look like.”

What’s lost in the immigration debate

The majority of immigration to any given Western country comes from areas that have either been colonized by that country or else stand in a looser relationship of subordination and dependency. While presumably there are still at least two or three people who believe the ideological bullshit of the “civilizing mission,” most adult human beings recognize that the whole point of colonization and subordination of other countries is to gain access to their wealth and resources so that they can be expropriated for the enrichment of the colonizer or dominant country.

Hence it’s not just that the target country happens to be rich while the immigrant’s home country happens to be poor (or, I might add, in political turmoil, in a state of civil war, etc., etc.). Those conditions hold in the home country because of the destructive effects of Western involvement — not just during the era of “official” colonization, but on an ongoing basis. People generally don’t leave prosperous, self-sufficient countries en masse in order to drive cabs and clean hotel rooms in a foreign country where they will be hated and scapegoated.

Rather than recognize this simple truth and act with some basic human decency, though, the former and current imperial powers choose to demonize the immigration their own exploitative and unjust domination has produced — and they would rather let the people whose nations they continue to despoil drown or die in the desert than let them drive those cabs and clean those hotel rooms.

My all-time favorite Star Trek episodes

For the last several years, as many of you know, I have been watching a metric shit-ton of Star Trek. I have finally hit the point of diminishing returns where watching more Star Trek no longer seems very realistic in the near term, and this has led me to reflect on what I’ve most enjoyed about the experience. Hence I share with you my personal favorite episodes, which often don’t tend to make it onto the all-time best lists, but which made an impression on me. I’ll limit myself to one from each series.

The Original Series: “All Our Yesterdays.” I’ve written about this one here before, and I don’t have much to add to that post other than to reaffirm that I find the premise of a society attempting to disappear into its own past very compelling. The fact that Spock, of all people, is the one who gets most drawn in makes this an especial treat, because it allows Leonard Nimoy to show much greater range.

The Animated Series: “Yesteryear.” I am hesitant to endorse conventional wisdom, but in this particular case, we are dealing with an episode that is clearly superior to anything else TAS did — an exploration of Spock’s past, written by arguably the greatest creative force behind Star Trek other than Roddenberry, namely Dorothy Fontana. Here again, time travel provides a poignant premise: Spock must return to his own childhood to save himself and give himself necessary counsel. Since I’m such a fan of the Animated Series, though, I’ll add a couple honorary mentions: “The Lorelai Signal” (in which Uhura takes command when the male crewmembers are disabled by a Siren-like species) and “The Terratin Incident” (which takes full advantage of the animated format to explore what would happen if the crew started shrinking).

Next Generation: “The Most Toys.” Of all the many Data-oriented episodes, this one pushes things to the limit. He is kidnapped by a galactic collector and exhausts all avenues for resistence — until a last-minute rescue prevents him from carrying out his logical decision that murder is the only answer.

Deep Space Nine: “Melora.” I have literally never seen this episode highlighted in any best-of list, and it does come early in the show’s second season, before it started becoming the more ambitious series that contemporary Trekkies know and love. To me, this is the very darkest episode in all of Trek, as Dr. Bashir falls in love with his patient — and then shows that he really fell in love with his own self-image as her savior. The final scene is truly chilling. (I hesitate to say more because this lesser-known episode arguably remains spoilable.)

Voyager: “Infinite Regress.” I’ve confessed before how much I identify with Seven of Nine, and I’m tempted to choose an episode that I highlighted in that post. Instead, though, I want to put forward Jeri Ryan’s true tour-de-force performance, which challenges the best of the Data “multiple personality” episodes. Truly, Voyager was not worthy of the character — or the actress.

Enterprise: “Carbon Creek.” Star Trek returns to its roots with a true Twilight Zone plot as a crew of Vulcans finds itself stranded in small town America. It’s a cool reversal in many ways, above all in dealing with the question: What would it look like for another species to try to navigate the Prime Directive with us?

Chewing the pedagogical cud

One problem I have perceived in Shimer’s general approach to course design is that there is not much room for students to fully “digest” all the difficult texts that they’re working through. In part, this is due to the Iron Law of Curriculum Design — namely, that it is possible only to add to a curriculum, never to subtract, so that the reading burden will tend to grow over time. Papers provide one solution to this problem, but they necessarily only apply to a limited number of texts (usually two max), and the paper writing process itself would surely benefit from more digestion time for all the texts.

In the senior capstone class, the major writing comes in the form of “protokolls” (summary papers), which primarily summarize and respond to the previous day’s discussion. I am thinking that for my next upper-level class, I will partly adapt this model. Instead of summaries of the discussion, students will write brief summaries of a given day’s reading, with the goal being for the students to collaboratively generate a summary of all the course readings. The course would then be divided into two or three distinct units, and at the end of each unit, there would be no new reading except to review all the summaries for that unit, so that we could talk about how they fit together, etc.

I’m undecided on exactly how to implement the summary papers. My current thinking is that an initial draft of the summary will be due before class the day the reading is first discussed, and then they will be required to rewrite it in light of the class discussion and my comments. They will then present the summary in the following class to provide a review of the previous reading and hopefully create greater continuity. If there are still serious problems with the summary, a further rewrite could be generated and then distributed to the class (or stored in a Google Drive folder accessible to everyone).

Another issue I’ve been grappling with is how to change their habits in paper-writing to get them away from last-minute all-nighter type strategies. Currently the reading load militates against that, especially for working students (i.e., virtually all but the very most privileged students). In my current course, it has worked out pretty organically that the final text we read is both easier to read and very conducive to bringing together a lot of themes from the previous readings — so perhaps after the discussion of the final “unit,” we could discuss a text like that (no longer doing summaries as we go) and also build in a few writing steps (an outline or summary, an annotated collection of salient quotes, etc.) prior to the final deadline. Including peer review at some stage could be helpful, not just intrinsically but as a way of introducing “positive peer pressure” into the mix and making sure the students actually do the steps required.

There are many possible drawbacks. Above all, a lot hangs on making sure students provide summaries of passable quality — or even provide them at all. This doesn’t seem to be a problem with the capstone course, but then their entire writing grade depends on the “protokols,” whereas I am still including a traditional paper as well. I can think of punitive measures, but I don’t want to create that kind of atmosphere. Every other measure I can think of (such as letting others do a missed summary for extra credit or letting other students edit an inadequate summary) would seem to have hierarchy-generating effects that cut against the collaborative approach. I don’t know. Maybe you do.

Digesting the Cross

What if the Gospel writers didn’t know why the crucifixion happened? What if the Gospels are all an attempt to cover over this fact by making it seem increasingly predicted, inevitable, mysterious? Making the cross something that promises meaningfulness, without a concrete meaning?

The basic strategy is twofold. First, establish Jesus’ authority. He’s the messiah (though he kept this fact secret for most of his career, according to Mark), he’s the one who was predicted by certain decontextualized fragments of the Hebrew Scriptures — it’s all right there in front of your face! And once we have that established, we primarily rely on his authority to establish the necessity of the crucifixion. He reaches a turning point in his ministry and begins mysteriously invoking this paradoxical event. He knows it’s coming and meets it with calm assurance. It’s the culmination of his mission on earth.

It’s often said that the Gospels are all Passion Narratives with introductory materials. Clearly the crucifixion is central to all their accounts. Yet I am beginning to suspect that the mountain of detail is meant to distract from the fact that they don’t know why it’s happening. It’s persuasion through repetition and ritualization — “Do this in memory of me!” Why? Because I said so. And if you don’t understand, you can take comfort that the original apostles, almost uniformly portrayed as bumbling dolts, didn’t understand either.

The most meaning we get is that it sets the apocalyptic sequence in motion by inaugurating the resurrection of the dead. But why this specific event? Paul begins to develop some ideas about its relationship to law and justice and human divisions — but for the Gospel writers, it basically happened because it happened. We have to trust that it’s the right thing because Jesus is the messiah and he knew what he was doing.

CFP: The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Heritage

Colby Dickinson of Loyola University Chicago reports the following:

I’m very happy to announce an interdisciplinary conference, ‘The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Heritage’, set to take place 14-16 April 2016 at Loyola University Chicago. Please see the attached flyer for more details.

Our conference is designed to explore and celebrate the mutual enrichment between the Catholic tradition and continental thought, and brings together some of the most important figures in this ongoing dialogue, including Julia Kristeva, Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Luc Nancy, Richard Kearney, John Caputo and Adriaan Peperzak.

For further information and updates about the conference, and the Call for Papers, please visit our page on facebook, and/or follow us via any of the other links included on the Call for Papers.

If you are so inclined, we would greatly appreciate your circulating the attached flyer to any and all interested parties. Thanks.


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