Current Affairs

The Valorization of the (Academic) 1%

Bad capitalistJason Brennan is at it again (Wayback machine link, just in case, because Jason has a bad habit of deleting anything that receives criticism he doesn't like) and I've decided to tackle him here, rather than on the NFM blog, because it's a waste of NFM resources to reply directly to this nonsense. But I'm happy to waste my own resources doing it. School doesn’t start for another week.

A quick recap: Brennan (PDF) surfaced a few months ago with an article (now deleted; see above) about how adjuncts (more on that term later) are responsible for their own suffering by agreeing to teach for poverty wages, when they could just go sell insurance instead (hence the moniker Prof. Geico). Not only is Brennan likely to delete his posts if they get too much of the wrong kind of attention, but he’ll delete comments he doesn’t like and both he and his crony Phillip Magness aren’t above closing of the comments portion of their blogs altogether while freely commenting on dissenting venues themselves. Brennan, as his group blog indicates, fancies himself a "bleeding heart Libertarian," which seems largely like an exercise in contradiction, since Libertarian hearts bleed for no one but themselves. In his new essay, "The Valorization of Envy," he proudly calls himself an "academic 1-percenter" whose work is certainly NOT made possible by the underclass of adjuncts teaching general education classes to free him up for research. That's probably more true now that adjuncts at his home institution of Georgetown have unionized.

Before we go much farther, a word or three about the term "adjuncts," especially as it comes into play with a crony of Brennan's, Phillip Magness, whom I also wish to address here. Within adjunct activist circles, the word "adjunct" covers a world of hurt: it generally includes any contingent faculty whose working conditions are precarious and untenured and/or off the tenure track: full-time contract professors and program managers with some benefits and security but almost always lower pay than tenured or tenure-track; part-time professors with extended contracts, paid by the credit hour; part-time professors hired semester to semester or "just in time"; part-time instructors who have full time jobs in industry (the original meaning of the term); part time instructors who rely solely on academic work for their income; visiting professors; graduate teaching assistants; postdocs. There are a number of terms used to refer to these working conditions: adjunct lecturer, adjunct professor, adjunct instructor, adjunct assistant professor, instructor, lecturer—you get the idea. In Canada and Australia, they are called sessionals, in the UK, fractionals. The problem with the terms is that universities are free to call these workers whatever they want, so there is no single term that covers them all or all the different positions they occupy. The commonality is in the precarity and exploitative nature of their positions, in contrast to the (now less so) security of tenured faculty, who, no matter how the statistics are cooked, remain a mere 25% of the faculty (down from 70%). So when I say "adjunct" in this essay, the term includes all these various working conditions. I'll come back to this when I address Magness's specious arguments.

On to Jason Brennan's newest essay.

In "The Valorization of Envy," Brennan sets out to critique Richard Goldin's Counterpunch essay, "The Economic Inequality in Academia." First, let me just say what a dick it makes you seem if you think that people working for equality and fairness in society are merely envious of "people like you." It also makes you look stupidly arrogant if you think everyone who's not like you envies you. It's like reducing Freud's concept of penis envy to the envy of the actual organ rather than the undeserved social power it represents. It's a juvenile argument that should be confined to the playground, but it's also one rooted in a deep fear that the people working for social and economic justice will redistribute the wealth before you get yours. And in a deep hatred of the very concept of equality. But enough of the free armchair shrinkage. Brennan's undoubtedly got a good health plan that would pay for the professional variety. But he'd have to admit his insecurities first.  

Reducing Goldin's analysis to an "envious rant," as I just reduced Brennan’s critique to a juvenile argument filled with ad hominem insinuations, doesn't replace sound argumentation. It's fun, but it proves nothing, and it really has no place in the academic conversation. Attributing motive and making personal attacks are the kinds of tactics used by those without solid ground to stand on. So let's see what kind of ground Brennan's on.

First we get the argument that there aren't as many adjuncts as the activists like New Faculty Majority (characterized on Phil Magness's twitter feed, especially me personally, as "crazy cat ladies") claim, for which, see above. Brennan cites his pal Magness, who makes artificial divisions based on the vague nomenclature used by under-reporting universities to characterize their precarious faculty. Aaron Barlow of AAUP's Academe blog posted a host of graphs to refute this, but again, it depends on how you define adjunct faculty. Unless Brennan and Magness agree to stipulate that non-tenure-track full-time faculty share issues with "just in time" part-time adjuncts, there's not much more to be said.

Part of Brennan and Magness's refutation of this idea of commonality is their focus on R1 universities like their respective institutions, Georgetown and George Mason. I'm not sure why they're so blinkered about this, except that they both work in such institutions. They are a small fraction of the total number of higher education institutions (around 400 or so out of approximately 4,700 total, not counting the for-profit sector). Where R1s fail to employ Magness's narrow definition of adjuncts, they happily employ and exploit graduate assistants and postdocs. More than one college has cut the number of part-time instructors to replace them with grad TAs because TAs come even cheaper and have a harder time unionizing because of their student status.

F-t-p-t-faculty-1Next, Brennan claims that "contrary to what everyone keeps saying, the number of tenure-track faculty slots has been increasing over the past 40 years." Nobody has said this. What we have said is that the proportion of non-tenure track to tenure track has been increasing. That's a big difference. Furthermore, the table he and Magness cite as proof actually shows the proportion of full-time to part-time, without any tenure distinctions at all. We can assume that part-timers are not tenured or tenure-track, but we cannot assume that all full-timers are tenured or tenure-track. But that same table shows the proportion of part-time to full-time hires narrowing drastically until they are neck in neck. So even if only half of those full-timers are untenured, the growth of untenured is still outstripping tenured. Here's a better graph illustrating that growth. Note the growing proportion of non-tenure-track faculty of both kinds, just from the turn of the century. It's even greater from the 1970s.

Next, after some more fun but semantically null snarkiness about postmodernists and Koch infiltration and accusations of lying about making minimum wage (the credit hour fallacy, anyone?) Brennan turns the lens back on himself again, reminding us that he is an "Academic 1 percenter":

I’m not making bank because Georgetown exploits adjuncts.  Martin Gilens isn’t making bank because Princeton exploits adjuncts. R. Edward Freeman doesn’t make bank because Darden exploits adjuncts. Rather, the exploited adjuncts are getting exploited elsewhere, at community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, third tier/low output “research” universities, and the for-profit colleges.

The implication, of course, is that Brennan's "making bank" because he's an academic hotshot.

First, I would ask him how many general education courses he teaches, and if the answer is none, who does teach them. Because that's generally where the adjuncts are. And because the adjuncts are teaching the most time-intensive courses with the most grading, that frees him up to do his research, while adjuncts, often scrambling between two or three institutions, have no time or monetary support to do research. While anybody can apply for a Fulbright, adjuncts are generally ineligible for travel funds to go to conferences and for sabbaticals to have time to pursue their own projects. That's just as true at Georgetown as anywhere else. In fact, Georgetown's own Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor produced a report that illustrates this. (See especially pages 9 & 10.) If Georgetown pays its adjuncts better than most places, it's because their union helped negotiate a good contract and because Georgetown has a long history of just employment practices as part of its Catholic ethos. Brennan seems not to realize that he benefits from those too, but more so than his adjunct colleagues. FYI, Dr. Brennan, Georgetown employs about 650 adjuncts. That's hardly the "few" that you claim. Perhaps they are invisible to you in your elite tower.

The next bit of Brennan's argument is largely an ego-driven assertion of the supremacy of research over teaching, of the sort I've heard before from people who don't like teaching. It's a chicken-and-egg argument without winners. They're both equally important. Some people do one better than the other, but it's impossible to say that research hasn't been overvalued in the academy when someone like Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, asserts that "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964" with the pressure of publication currently in vogue.

Brennan then complains about Goldin's characterization of academic hiring practices as a lottery. I can see why Brennan doesn't like this, as it makes his own hiring look less merit-based. Again, that's not actually what Goldin says though. He calls it "something of a lottery" (a difference without much distinction, true) but then goes on to explain that hiring committees have been found to pretty much replicate themselves in their hiring practices: white, male, Ivy. It's one of the major problems in STEM disciplines, especially physics.

Finally, Brennan gripes peevishly, "If madjunct crowd [sic; adjunct activists] sincerely believed that academia is a lottery, they would not act surprised or indignant that they lost and would move on with their lives." In other words, just shut up and take what we hand you, whether you think it's just or not. I've got mine, fuck all y'all. This is apparently the best argument Brennan and his Libertarian tag-team partner Magness can make, because neither of them can do data analysis for shit.

In many ways, all of this is beside the point. The core issue here is the uncollegiality of Brennan and Magness’s attitude. As fellow educators, what is the point of their hostility to financial and labor equity for their colleagues? Or is it that they don't really see adjuncts as their colleagues? (Ironic in Magness's case, because he is one.) The phrase that comes to mind is “punching down,” because none of the people this dynamic duo are griping and complaining about have any power to do anything against Brennan and Magness but what I’ve just done: excoriate them in public via an obscure blog or some other publication. What they’re doing is a bit like kicking puppies. Or crazy cat ladies.

So what makes you all such shitheads? What are you afraid of if adjuncts gain equity in pay and position? Why waste your time on people who are virtually powerless? Why the name calling and derision? Who took your toys, boys?

 Crazy Cat Lady, huh?

Crazy Cat Lady
You want Crazy Cat Lady? Here. Let me get my Docs on.


 UPDATE: Phil Magness responds on Twitter (where I have been blocked) with more of his usual selective editing and complete lack of cogency. I guess I hurt his feefees, but it's okay if he slams an entire class of colleagues.

Cat lady response



Failure of Leadership: Money, Power, Privilege

RadicalMoiI'm generally a big picture kind of person, though my own focus for activism right now is pretty narrow. In case you haven't been watching my every move, I've been spending the last couple of years concentrating on education labor activism but my personal impulse is to be outraged by every sort of injustice: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, war, greed, you name it, I'm pissed about it. I've always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity, a fair and level playing field, and the right to be treated in every way with dignity as fellow human beings.

I have to give my parents credit for that. In many ways, they were a lot like Alice Dreger's Polish emigre parents. My dad was a working class, old school FDR/JFK Liberal and my mother was a deeply religious woman constantly outraged by injustice. Dad's belief in civil rights and free speech were unshakable and he had a real soft spot for underdogs, even if it did take him a while to come around to feminism. Mom was more the avenging angel type and would have gladly carried one of those Biblical flaming swords, had they been issued to mere mortals. So I grew up in a kind of Truth, Justice and the American Way household, without the jingoistic patriotism. In my house, everybody deserved respect and a fair break. Is that so hard?

It sure seems to be. And I've been thinking a lot about why, lately, as I get ready to teach my research course that focuses on economic inequality this summer. Human failing is the obvious "Duh!" reason for injustice, or what we more frequently call human nature. We have it in us to be absolutely selfish, vile shits, but we also have it in us to be amazingly altruistic. The sheer number of beautiful, generous, uplifting things we do for each other is one of the best parts of the internet, along with cat videos. We make cheap artificial limbs for kids and dogs. As individuals, we collect massive amounts of money for the victims of natural disasters. We turn our ingenuity to making the lives of refugees and the poor easier. We get out in the street and protest injustice even when popular opinion is against us, changing those opinions in the process.

OutofbalanceAnd still, what we see in the news, and in our lives, is a grossly unequal and unjust world where far too few people hold not just most of the money, but all the cards. Two immediate examples, one petty, one part of an ongoing battle: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration spawned, among other scandals, something called Bridgegate, in which Christie's cronies "conspir[ed] with Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to 'punish' the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election bid." This doesn't sound like much; traffic sucks in New York and New Jersey most of the time anyway. But this was an intentional obstruction that created a public safety hazard and held up EMS vehicles, resulting in at least one death. Christie and his cronies grossly inconvenienced and endangered thousands of drivers and helped cause the death of a 91-year old woman because somebody didn't play pattycake with them.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

The second example, much more immediate and appalling is the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Charges have just come down today against six police officers who not only illegally arrested Gray, but then proceeded to beat the crap out of him somehow in the back of the van he was being transported in. It's too early to say exactly what happened, but it seems clear that neither Mr. Gray's safety nor dignity were paramount in the minds of the cops who picked him up. His pleas for help were ignored and he was not secured safely in the back of the van. Somehow, he acquired a spinal injury that killed him between the time he was cuffed and when he arrived at the station. The New York Times has highlighted a practice called the "rough ride" or the "nickle ride" used all over the country to rough up suspects without having to physically touch them, a form of torture not quite as egregious as that practiced by the Chicago Police Department but nonetheless abhorrent.

A third example, larger and even more systemic than the deaths of black people at the hands of police, is the denial of living wages to workers all over the world, and the sequestration of the majority of wealth in the hands of a few, and the way that gets talked about by others with relative privilege. Far too often, as in the case of this white, male, privileged tenure track asshat, it leads to a rhetoric of blaming the victim for the very injustices under which they are suffering. Likewise this equally phantasmagoric piece by David Brooks, in which he asserts that poverty is not really about lack of money but social psychology. The poor are poor because they want to be, because they're lazy, because they're incapable of taking "advantage" of a broken public school system handed over to shysters, an overpriced higher education system that leaves them tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or of non-existent living wage jobs. Meanwhile, living in poverty has a whole host of deleterious physical, psychological, educational and social effects. So, we fuck children up by not helping to provide secure, healthy living conditions and then blame them for failing. It's a brilliant strategy with all kinds of denial of responsibility built in.

This is where we come to the title of this post. All of these examples illustrate a failure of leadership—or the success of a certain kind of leadership inimical to the welfare of the people these leaders are supposed to be serving. If we posit the idea that political life in a democracy (hell, any political life), especially leadership, should be grounded in morality, compassion, and justice, then the leaders have, in these cases, failed spectacularly. Or succeeded in upholding a morally bankrupt, bigoted, unjust social order. Take your pick.

Humans are herd animals, by and large. We like to be together, we like to be led, we like to follow for the most part (see also: crowd theory). Even so, we are rightly suspicious of the motives of leaders who emerge from the crowd. Lord Acton famously said "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." What seems to actually be true is that the exercise of power heightens already existing personality traits. If we are compassionate, moral people when we're given power or find ourselves in power, we tend to exercise it with those qualities in mind to the best of our abilities. Nobody's perfect, but we've had some truly compassionate presidents in my lifetime, and before (FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter all come to mind, despite their human failings). We've had plenty of the other kind too: the sorts who are more interested in power and personal advantage than they are in service to their countrymen or anyone else. I don't think you need examples of those. *Cough*Bush-Cheney*Cough*

Money, however, seems to have a more universally deleterious effect on people. Money creates a buffer between us and the rest of the world. When we have enough of it to live comfortably, it reduces stress and makes our lives easier and healthier (see above). It also allows and encourages us to be generous. Poor and middle class people give larger percentages of their income to charity than the wealthy and uber-wealthy do. Anything in excess of a comfortable income seems to turn us into greedy asshats for whom there is never enough money. We think, hey, I've made it; I don't care about the rest of you. This kind of contempt is the polar opposite of what we should want from our leaders, whether they are political, financial, or intellectual leaders. Sadly, that's mostly what we've got now: police departments that see a large proportion of the people they serve as insurgents; educational leaders who see children as nascent criminals and sources of income; political leaders who see citizens as potential terrorists and their own nation as a battleground; business leaders who see natural resources as exploitable commodities.

Leaders like Chris Christie and the chiefs of particularly abusive police departments foster an atmosphere of contempt in which abuse, selfishness and cruelty thrive. Christie is known for being a particularly petty jerk who verbally abuses constituents who challenge his god-like self image. It's not surprising that his administration should cook up a juvenile scheme like Bridgegate. That's the kind of tone that Christie sets; he has all the diplomacy and maturity of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully. Likewise, the kinds of police chiefs who look the other way when their officers brutalize or racially profile the public they're supposed to "serve and protect" foster contempt for their own communities. Broken Windows policing sounds good in theory, but without including respect for the people in those communities, it fosters the idea that everyone who lives there is currently a thug, practicing to be a thug, or used to be a thug and might be again at any moment. We then stray far from the principle of innocent until proven guilty and common sense, not to mention the spirit of the law. And if our elected leaders allow the (often useful) paranoia of intelligence agencies to be the pervading attitude toward our nation's citizens, that fosters distrust, hatred, and disrespect of everyone who does not look like "us." Who that "us" might be in a nation of immigrants from all over the world eludes me, but there are plenty of "others" to go around in the minds of the frightened. Right now, it's Muslims who are the potential terrorists of choice, even though lone wolf homegrown white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh are far more dangerous.

What concerns me most in all of these examples is the almost complete lack of compassion for our fellow citizens. More and more we as both nation and individuals are exhibiting not just a lack of compassion but an outright contempt for others who have less power, less money, less luck, less stuff, less education, less privilege than we do, whoever we are. We are "punching down" more instead of lifting up. In the courses I teach, we talk about inequality and social violence of many kinds. Most of my students are first generation college students (like me); many are first generation Americans (like my dad). Most of them buy into the "work hard, get ahead" American dream and are shocked to discover it is out of reach for most of us. But when they read about the fraying safety net we have, they immediately bring up welfare queens and foodstamp fraud, even though many of them have used those services themselves. The rhetoric of our privileged leaders is teaching these kids not to work hard but to hate themselves and their families for failing when they can't realize the return on their own investments. It's hiding from them who the true culprits of their oppression are and turning them against each other. It's an excellent tactic for social control and our leaders are making very good use of it.

But this doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We're currently living in a society that lionizes socio- and psychopathic personalities. If you think I'm exaggerating, think about who we admire most: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, bankers—none of whom actually produce anything—the Forbes 400, most of whom (with some notable exceptions) are vile, exploitative creeps. Example: The Koch brothers (numbers 3 & 4), the Walton family (numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10). Even when they mean well, as I suspect Bill Gates (#1 with $81B) does, money seems to give them an excess of paternalism that is completely misplaced, as though knowing how to make a fortune means you have the intelligence to solve all the world's problems, or even know when there is a problem. Gates's meddling in education is a prime example. According to Bill, our public education system is failing and needs the expertise of Microsoft's genius to fix it. Instead of listening to actual experts in the field—you know, people who've been educators their whole lives, who have degrees in it, and years of study and experience—we should let Bill tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. And now we are eviscerating public education, and firing our best teachers on the basis of an untried testing regime that makes kids hate learning. But that's another post.

Worse than the moneymakers are the politicians, like Christie, that they buy with those billions: ultra conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Bobby Jindal, the Bush boys who apparently really hate poor people, women, minorities, immigrants, or anyone who can't give them money for reelection. Why do we elect these people? Evil must have better PR. We're not just voting for them though. We're validating their frightened, narrow, cruel worldview and often parroting it. We're encouraging their failed leadership and becoming part of the problem.

Stop voting for petty, mean, selfish assholes, people, lest you become their victims. Better yet, maybe it's about time the compassionate, honest people who care about justice showed the leaders we've got now how it's done.

Shock Parents! Enlighten Students! Embarrass Badmin!

Adjunct Wage Theft MoiTell your stories to PrecariCorps in 300-500 words. What's PrecariCorps and why should you care? If you're an adjunct professor anywhere, you know what the wages and treatment are like. Unless you're the kind of adjunct who has a full-time industry job and moonlights because you like to teach, you're making poverty-level wages for those contact hours, teaching up to 9 classes at multiple universities/colleges/on-line for profit diploma mills to make ends meet with no guarantee you'll have anything to teach next semester, let alone next year or over the summer. This is the new academic precariat and we're 75% of the faculty now. Our wages are a fraction of what similarly credentialed experts make in industry, yet we often can't get jobs outside academe because we're overqualified. That's a fine Catch-22, yet many members of the public don't know that their tuition dollars are not going to our salaries, or that their taxes are subsidizing us the same way we're subsidizing WalMart workers: via social services we need to pay our bills: Obamacare, food stamps, unemployment (if we can get it), WIC and other forms of welfare.

That's where PrecariCorps comes in. Their primary purpose is "Improving Lives and Livelihoods of Contingent Faculty with Hardship Relief Funds or Grants for Faculty Development. To accomplish our first goal, PrecariCorps will offer contingent faculty donations through one of our programs, the Hardship Relief Fund or the Grant for Faculty Development. Applicants may email a completed application to receive either a donation to help them pay one bill or help them travel to one conference." To this end, they're applying for 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine if public school teachers in pre-K-12 were dependent upon charitable donations to survive while doing their jobs, instead of making a middle class living (though that has become more rare now too). Imagine if engineers, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and other highly qualified professionals were in the same boat. Would you want a doctor who couldn't pay off her med school bills and had to scramble for work among four or five different offices, never knowing where they'd be and making it impossible to see the same doctor twice? Oh wait, that's what it's like at many clinics for the poor. And we see how well that works by the mortality rates for the poor.

At the same time, professional administrators make many times what adjunct professors do, and never set foot in the classroom, never do the real work of a university, which is education. At many institutions of higher education, there are now twice as many administrators as faculty, full-time or otherwise. Twice as many.

Guess where that tuition money is going.

So to my mind, a large part of PrecariCorps purpose is to highlight the shame of our academic system which is being sucked dry by an overabundance of parasitical administrative positions at the cost of the quality of some of the best education in the world. Hungry, stressed, impoverished teachers don't and can't do their best work when they're worried about survival. No one does. It's time we decided who was more important in higher education and start supporting our educators and not via charity.

The problem of allies: lead, follow, or get out of the way

Bite Me heartSo yesterday, on Facebook, I posted this synopsis of my proverbial (Thanks, Alex Kudera!) long day without much comment:

Here's my day as a adjunct today; it's not typical but it's not unusual, either:
9-10:30--commute to York College, Queens
10:30-12--office hours (paid), class prep
1:50-3:30--commute to New Jersey
3:30-5--union executive committee meeting (paid; which I'll be a half hour or so late for)
5:00-6:00--commute to Manhattan
6:00-8:00--mandatory (paid) faculty meeting
8:00-9:30--commute home

I do this periodically to make my life as an adjunct instructor visible to people that it's usually invisible to, and who should know about it because my working conditions affect them: students, parents, the general public. Later, two good friends, people I love dearly, both tenured full professors, asked me the equally proverbial "why do I do it?" question. My pissy response after that long day was this:

Why do I do it? Why do you do the work you do? Why do you teach in China for $3,000? Why did you take the job as assessment officer? Why did you keep going back to academe when it was so hard to get a job? Why do anything worth doing? I and other adjuncts get tired of answering that question. We do it because the job is worth doing and because we want to see others paid what we're worth. Nothing changes if the only response is to leave and let it be someone else's problem. That's what full time faculty have done for the last 30 years. That's how we got in this mess. That's not a question an ally asks. The real question is why I should have to do this when you don't.

I'm pretty sure I hurt some feelings with this response, but as an activist-educator, I can't pass up the chance to use this as an object lesson to allies. I've confronted this question before in real life and in a performance piece I wrote. It comes up all the time in the adjunct world and it's one of the weapons used against us by management/administration and the entrenched privileged. "Why do you keep letting yourself be exploited? Why don't you just get another job?" My friends asked me this out of concern for my health both physical and financial, and I love them for that, but as academics I wish they were also more my allies in this struggle. Because their words make it harder, not easier, to keep doing what I'm doing.

One of the first lessons I learned as a baby feminist in the 70s was the slogan "The personal is political." The conditions of my life as an adjunct and as a union activist really can't be separated from my personal life. Those conditions are my personal life. Teaching is as much a part of my identity as being a writer or a feminist is. Like my tenured colleagues, I sank a lot of time, money, and effort (though not as much as they) into becoming an educator. Whenever I could (i.e, whenever I could afford it), I kept coming back to it because it felt like vital work, and because it was soul-filling and not soul-sucking like the far more lucrative job of writing advertising copy was. I want a return on my educational investment that makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile, not perpetuating a sick, exploitative system. Because even while I'm signing those sick, exploitative contracts, I'm subverting that system every time I walk into a classroom and open my mouth.

Asking me why I keep doing what I do isn't the same as asking how I keep doing it, or commiserating with my exploitation. Because when that question is personal, it places the responsibility back on me rather than on the system that exploits me, with the subtext that I could walk away if I wanted to. That's why that question pisses adjuncts off: because nobody asks why Tenured and Tenure-Track profs don't walk away when they don't get raises or are denied tenure or when administration exploits them by squeezing more administrative work out of them for the same money. Somehow, tenure has not only given academics security, but a right to love their jobs that adjunct and contingent faculty often don't seem to have (more on this in a later post). (And please don't say this in response. Please. Just don't.)

Phrased another way, "why do you do it?" reads as "why don't you get another job?" But an ally asks, "what can I do to help change this system that exploits you?" Or, if you're a local ally, "how can I support you, personally, if not professionally, in making this better?" And why should I be supported? Yes, this is a choice I made, and continue to make every time I sign an exploitative teaching contract, but it's no different from the choices that people working for justice everywhere make, whether it's working for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or some other activist NGO, or on a political campaign. People who work in the non-profit world don't often make a lot of money. Many of them go into dangerous situations to do what they do, and risk death, imprisonment, or torture to help others. Do I really need to remind anyone what civil rights marchers, anti-war protestors, or even the Occupiers of Zucotti Park faced? Social change does not happen without risk and sacrifice. Continuing to work as an adjunct and as an activist at the same time is my risk and my sacrifice.

I'm not trying to sound all noble here; my risk is relatively low by comparision, and mostly economic. But it's precisely because I don't have dependents and haven't sunk all my apples into a Ph.D. basket that I feel I need to be one of the people in this fight. Many of my adjunct activist colleagues are single parents with kids to support and massive student debt, or people who don't have a partner (like me) to support them, or people whose partners don't make a lot of money either. My personal risk is pretty low, so I need to take a stand in this fight. It doesn't cost me much except personal security and time, and I've always lived on the economic edge, mostly by choice, though also because of the same wage exploitation that we're all suffering from.

Which brings up another point: how interconnected this fight is with economic justice for the dying middle class, of which my colleagues are a part, and the increasing numbers of working poor. Many of my colleagues from grad school teach at institutions that serve the working poor and have watched their school's tuition go up and up and up until it is crippling and as unobtainable as an Ivy League school. Student debt load is killing our economy and crippling a generation of students. Administration ties that debt to poor adjunct salaries, as in, "if we pay you a living wage, we'll have to raise tuition." If we don't expose this lie, we're doing our students and our society a grave disservice. And we're falling down on the job as educators. We are, instead, modelling economic and intellectual poverty and complacency for our students, instead of enaging with the political and economic realities of the world around us.*

This is why I do it: Because I can. Because I must. With or without your support.


*Oh, by the way, Nicholas Kristof: you want engaged academics? Come meet my adjunct activist friends.

Thinking about the UIC Strike

BadGirl Moi @workRight now, professors and adjunct professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) are on strike to (among other things) protest the lack of a contract they've been trying to negotiate for more than a year with the administration. There was a time when higher education didn't need unions and when professors largely took care of the internal governance themselves, so the necessity of strikes was small. Now, everything has changed because universities and colleges are increasingly being run on a business model. But that model, clunky as it is elsewhere is a particularly bad fit for education institutions.

Why does our society only have a worker/manager dichotomy to describe how we make a living? It clearly doesn't apply to all the ways we work. Part of the problem with organizing the work of universities is that the law sees professors as managers. Who are we managing? Students? They're not workers; they're "consumers." Each other? Then how can we be managers? Oh, wait; that leaves the *adjuncts.* They don't manage anything and all they do is work. But what do the administration do? Aren't they managers? What are they managing? They're not managing the professors because we manage each other. They're not managing students because students are consumers. Oh wait: that leaves the *adjuncts.* No wonder administration wants more adjuncts. It makes the worker/manager delineation clearer for them.

Fund or RefundAnd this is why a business model for education does not work. Education is a co-op. There is no owner of an educational "company" at a university. We see how poorly for-profit schools where there is an owner do the job. Boards of trustees exist to insure not just the financial health of the institution, but its ability to carry out its mission. Administration is not "in the business" of providing education, because education is not a service or a product. It's a cooperative endeavor between student and teacher with a largely intangible, unmeasurable result: the creation of knowledge. You can't "sell" that. You can only acquire it through personal investment of time and skullsweat, while others help you develop it and nurture it. When you pay teachers, you are supporting them in "work" that's intangible and unmeasurable, but which has a social value beyond any product and which forms the basis of all other tangible products. Starve teachers and you starve the nation and its economy. Fail to support teachers, whether K-12 or higher ed, adequately, and you do the same.

Another Adjunct Story

Depressed MoiI've been teaching as a regular career again for about five years now, occasionally supplemented by freelance work, and been an activist and vocal shit-stirrer on behalf of adjunct faculty for about two years, beginning when I joined the union at New Jersey City University. In some ways, I'm not the typical adjunct story: I've worked in industry and made a good living, even working part time; I have a Master's degree (an MA, not a terminal MFA) not a Ph.D., which means that I'll probably never get any kind of tenure; I like teaching the general ed courses of composition and intro to lit and could settle down there happily. What gives me common cause with my Ph.D.-bearing sisters and brothers is the shit pay we get for the jobs we do, and the lousy working conditions that affect not just us, but our students. But before this, I've never really felt like I had a personal reason to complain, beyond that. I didn't have a dramatic story of deprivation. 

Until my landlady decided to sell the condo I'm renting from her. Now I have a story.

I moved in here ten years ago when I was working part-time as a marketer for an environmental consulting company doing booming business. I didn't have benefits, but I took home $48,000/year and was vested in the company pension plan. I travelled a bit, bought some nice furniture, made a nice home for myself. That all changed, as it did for many people, around 2008, which is when I got downsized and started teaching again. My savings dwindled because I was making about half of what I had been, and my previously non-existent credit card debt shot up. And I don't mean it shot up because I was buying stuff I didn't need. It shot up because I was buying food and paying for medical care, which starts to happen more frequently when you're staring down or staring at the back side of 50. But even with my credit cards, I'm in less debt than most people. I live pretty frugally. I don't have dependents (aside from my elderly and temperamental cat, but that's another story). I don't even want a lot of things anymore. My major purchases now are books and cheap stuff to make art with, and the occasional train ticket to Maine. My credit card debt is my only debt (no house, no car, no education debts), but I can't get out from under it because of how little I make, and I keep racking it up, also because of how little I make and the precarious nature of the work I do.

But now that my landlady is selling, I don't have the money for a new lease (first and last month's rent, security deposit, broker's fee) saved up, or money for movers. Fortunately, my landlady is also a good friend and she and her wife are helping me out with fees and such, and other friends are loaning me money for moving expenses, because at 53, I'm too damn old to do UHaul. If it weren't for my friends and landlady, I would probably be SOL and have to sell or store everything I own and move to a tiny, shitty studio.

This is a story that a lot of people can tell you, about the slide down the financial ladder from the middle class. I was never very far up that ladder to begin with, which was fine, but when you're not, the bottom is a lot closer, and lot easier to get to, and my education was supposed to be what kept me off the bottom. But now, in our free-market world that rewards greed as "hard work," my hard work and education, and the hard work and education of millions of others, goes unrewarded, and in the case of students and especially those who go for advanced degrees, it's now punished with enormous amounts of debt.

I was lucky to escape that bit, but I'm being screwed, like so many others, by the new mantra that the business world has made sacred: profit at all costs. And that profit is not to the people who do the actual work. It's profit for people who already had money to invest in other people's work. It's profit made on the backs of all kinds of working people, from Wal-Mart's obscene billions subsidized by government aid to its workers who live on subsistence wages, to trained freelancers bilked of wages or made to wait months for payments and having to fund their own retirement and healthcare, to highly educated college professors whose wages are stolen from us by the lie that we only work in the classroom, and by a low value on that.

There's a rather naive tendency in this country to tell people like me to just shut up and get another job, without realizing that many of us have sunk years of our lives into educations to do this job. It's not like we all graduated at 22 and went out into the work world. Our training goes on far longer than in most professions and our careers don't even get started, if we go straight through with no breaks to raise more money, until we are in our early 30s. Many of us, like my friend Rob who just got tenure for the first time at the age of 50 didn't start our teaching careers fully until we were into our 40s, because of the prevalence of contingent labor like me. That contingent labor exists, not because there's a plethora of cheap labor as the freemarketers would have you believe, but because there is a dearth of funding for the full-time jobs that should sustain the educational enterprise.

Where's that funding going? Part of the problem is lack of funding from the government for education, except when it comes to profitable student loans. But a good deal of tuition, which has been rising faster than inflation, goes to administration salaries (some of them exorbitant), luxury campus buildings, and high-tech teaching tools which are often invested in with the final goal of replacing those pesky human teachers. And it goes into the pockets of trustees who are turning our universities into job training camps for their industries, and saving them the cost of having to train their workforce, and who sell the universities buildings and tech they don't need.

I'm not talking about fairness here. I know life isn't fair; but neither does it need to be nasty, brutish and short anymore. I'm talking about morals and ethics and the kind of civilization we want to be living in and building. Or perhaps I am talking about a particular kind of fairness. Educators and working people are not asking for excessive amounts of money. We're asking to be compensated fairly for the work we do. "Fairly" in this case, means a sustainable, living wage for everyone, so that no one requires a government subsidy unless something catastrophic happens. My fellow educators and I have invested a great deal of money and time in making sure we are equipped to do one of the most vital jobs of civilization, especially a democratic society: not job training, but the education of citizens and the collaborative creation of new knowledge that drives advances in technology, medicine, law, and the other engines of a civilized world. Business and money alone do not create civilization, clearly. But well-educated citizens do.

What this means for me, personally, is to have some job security, a regular paycheck for more than 8 months of the year, to make wages on par with my full-time colleagues, to be able to participate in the educational community of the university I work for, to buy books without counting pennies, to be able to move without borrowing money from friends who work in the business world, to be the best educator and person I can be with the skills that I have. I would like the "luxury" (and it has become a luxury now) of being able to contribute to the future well-being of my society by educating young minds without going into debt I can never repay, relying on a government handout, or living with the threat of homelessness.

If that seems like whining, you're probably one of the barbarians at the gate.

The Deprofessionalization of Educators

WonderWoman ScrunchieiconsmalllOkay, for my second post of the year, I'm getting out the scrunchie.

I’ve been an educator off and on for about 10 years. The off and on part isn’t because I lack credentials, or lack the ability to hold a job, or because I’ve left for greener pastures. I’ve left teaching over and over again because I cannot make a living doing one of the things I love most, one of the things that I’m really good at. I’m an adjunct college instructor with a Master’s degree in English.

Education, especially post-secondary education, is an odd profession. To practice it, one must be highly credentialed, an expert in both the subject matter and the ability to impart one’s knowledge to or create that knowledge in others. And yet, teaching is a lot like writing: everyone thinks they can do it just as well as the professionals. In no other professional sector do the public and government officials feel free to tell the experts how to do their jobs.

Our society expects much from educators, as it should, but it doesn’t really think our job is that difficult, and it doesn’t really trust the professionals to do it as well as we know we can. If they did, there would be less bureaucracy, less demand that we quantify the unquantifiable, and less legislation governing our practices in the classroom. Imagine legislating the methods Boeing engineers have to use to develop new aircraft. Absurd, right? But what teachers at all levels do in a classroom every day is just as complicated and complex. We’re engineering minds, something both far more malleable and far more friable than any material aircraft engineers work with. And yet there is more jiggering of the work environment and requirements by non-experts than in just about any other profession, except, possibly, doctors providing women’s healthcare.

No other profession gets told how to do its day-to-day job as much as teachers do. Imagine telling a doctor or nurse how to dispense healthcare: what pills to prescribe, what tests to run, what course of treatment to follow. To be sure, insurance companies attempt to do this with their pay guidelines, but doctors often successfully buck against it by appealing to their own expertise. Who, after all is the doctor? Now, imagine telling an engineer how to build a hydroelectric dam. Imagine telling an airline pilot how to fly the plane. That’s what people do with teachers, even teachers who are literally masters and doctors. If universities are becoming obsolete, and I argue that they are not, it’s because they’ve lost their focus because of pundits and the inexpert, not their usefulness.

David Brooks, for example, makes me apoplectic when he talks about education. He confuses information with knowledge, lecturing with teaching, test scores with learning. His enamoration with MOOCs is especially worrisome. Online education cannot possibly replace the human interaction necessary to real education. At best, it can fill in a few gaps and make basic information more accessible, but no computer, no podcast, no on-line video will ever replace real-time, personal teaching. A reasonable facsimile of personal teaching can be done successfully online, live, and often is in places like Maine, whose university system uses teleconferencing technology of various kinds to unite students in remote parts of the state with classrooms at various university centers. That may be part of the new model, but it cannot be allowed to entirely supersede the old one. If the only educational interaction is a recorded one between teacher and student, students still lose. Lively, real-time, in-person discussions are also necessary. So are study groups. And so are late nights in the dorm or a café or a bar chewing over with your friends the ideas you’re learning.

All of these experiences are endangered now when people like Brooks—who is not a professional educator, but an occasional adjunct in the original meaning of the word—talk about moving universities on-line and replacing teachers, instructors, and professors with videos and on-line classes. Learning is a collaboration between teachers, students, administrators, parents, communities. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum all alone in a room. Standardized tests don’t produce it or even encourage it and neither does a standardized curriculum, because people aren’t standardized. We may have a set of concepts that we agree all students should know and be able to navigate, but how those concepts are acquired varies wildly from student to student, grade to grade, subject to subject.

What educators do looks easy, it looks simple, it looks like anybody could do it, and that’s because most of us are good at what we do. Bad teachers, contrary to popular opinion, don’t last any longer than bad middle managers do and don’t affect the overall performance of the system. Students can survive a bad teacher; we all have. We’ve all worked for a company with deadweight employees. Did the failures of that company get blamed on all the workers? No? Funny about that. Because when children fail, it’s always our fault, never the fault of poverty, lack of resources, and lack of institutional support. Not the kids’ fault, not the parents’, not the rigid curriculum we’re forced to used, not the tests we have to teach to, not teaching kids what to think instead of how to think, not the lack of books, libraries, computers, pencils, paper. It’s our fault. Not one single teacher, but every teacher.

On top of this is the outright hostility toward teachers who dare complain they are underpaid and overworked. People in nine-to-five jobs (and I’ve worked those, too) can’t seem to get past the idea that teachers get three months of “vacation” during the year, and that their day “ends” at 3:00 pm. I’ll be the first to say that there are a number of perks to the academic life, but none of them involve a two-month vacation or a day that ends at 3:00 pm. This is true whether you are an elementary school teacher or a college professor. The actual perks are that we get to do something we love intensely; that we’re intellectually challenged every day; that we are more our own bosses than most people working in offices. We have sabbaticals when we do pursue projects we can’t get to at other times; we have more than the average job security if we have tenure (but often far less if we don’t).

One of my fellow teachers recently described her summer work this way: “I’m really enjoying researching and prepping Volpone now. I’m using sources and influences such as Ovid’s Golden Age, Classical Legacy Hunting, Aesop’s fables, Bestiary tales such as Reynard the Fox, Morality plays and Commedia Dell’arte. All very rich and fascinating. Hopefully the students will find it just a fraction as interesting as I do!” And they do, because she makes it fascinating. That’s what good teachers do: open our minds to ideas and works we never would have considered ourselves, even if we had known they existed.

But if we don’t have tenure, or if we’re not on a tenure track, as nearly 75% of our college professors now are not, we have zero job security and opportunity to pursue our own new ideas. Many of us (for I am one of these professors), must scrounge for a new job every semester, and because we are barred from teaching full time at one college or university (to save on paying benefits, you know), we must scrounge for appointments at more than one university. This means most of us spend as much time on the road as we do grading or prepping for class—which we are also not paid for; only our hours in the classroom are, apparently, billable (imagine a lawyer only billing for time spent in court). We don’t advise, we don’t have a voice in university governance or curriculum development, we often don’t even have an office where we can meet students, or the most basic of office support. That means students can never develop intellectual relationships with us, turn to us for meaningful long-term assessment of their work or guidance in their careers, or even for a recommendation letter. If they want to take another class from us, they probably can’t, because we are stuck teaching—not in our areas of expertise—but introductory core and general education courses. Personally, I love those courses, but I would also love to teach a class on, oh, apocalyptic science fiction from the 1950s through the 21st century, to map how our ideas of the apocalypse have or haven’t changed, and how this reflects society’s biggest fears. That will probably never happen in the system we’ve got going now.

Here’s the current destructive game plan for education in this country from K-college: Defund public education and then blame the failures of the system on teachers so it can be privatized to push a curriculum where students are truly badly educated, so they’ll end up either in prison (another privatizing “industry”) or as unthinking, docile cogs that the rich can exploit for profit. This sounds like a radical, reactionary, nut-job conspiracy theory, but it’s what we’re already beginning to see happen. The students who come into my freshman composition class are terrified by the idea that I will not give them the answers for the test, whatever that test is. They have not been taught to analyze or think for themselves, and know how to read only in the sense that they know what the words are individually and in sentence form. They can decipher instructions, but not extrapolate principles or discern subtext.

The last thing an oligarchy or plutocracy run by a minority of wealthy people (the 85 top earners, for example, who now control as much of the wealth as 3.5 billion people) wants is a thinking, intelligent populace to challenge them. If you want unthinking, interchangeable widgets, build a factory—or a charter school. If you want thinking, truly educated students, give professionals the resources—and respect, which includes a decent living wage—they need and get out of their way. And, if you have never spent a moment on the teacher’s side of the desk, stop pretending that you know better than the people who have spent their careers there.

New Year, New Focus

NYCMoiIt's been almost a year since I blogged here and I admit I've kinda missed it. I like writing, and I've been doing a fair amount of it (novel, poems, diatribes, conference papers), an awful lot of it on Facebook. In case you haven't been keeping up there, I've gotten myself neck deep in activism of various kinds, mostly the petition signing kind for human rights, environmentalism, social justice of various sorts. But I invested in a pretty big way in the labor movement too, especially educational labor.

For instance, over the summer, I went to the UALE/Cornell Summer School for Union Women, which was a fantastic experience, and at which I made some great friends/contacts. My local, (or one of my locals) AFT 1839 at New Jersey City University, where I'm part of the executive committee, footed the bill, for which I'm extremely grateful, as I couldn't have done so myself. I was on employment for the first time since 1992 because even freelance work is thin on the ground right now. While I was up at Cornell, I met women from all kinds of unions and labor organizations, from all over the world: retail workers from NYC, telephone workers from Africa, forensic lab techs from Puerto Rico, make-up artists, auto workers, housekeepers, cafeteria staff, and a number of faculty members, many of them from CUNY's Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and from SUNY's UUP, both unions I also belong to. I quickly became known as the three-union woman, because I was the only contingent faculty member there (I think). It was a warm, fierce group, and I thank Marcia Newfield of CUNY's PSC for suggesting I go there.

Also on Facebook, I've been doing a lot of national organizing and this last summer, nearly became an oAdjunct working conditions postern-the-ground organizer for SEIU upstate, at the urgings of my new best friend, Teresa Mack-Piccone, Texan English Ph.D. extraordinaire, who's organizing for them out of Albany. I think 25 years ago I would have been all over that job like white on rice, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy for it now. So my organizing has been quieter and a little more subversive. For Campus Equity Week, I plastered my New Jersey campus with signs that said A is for Adjuncts: Our working conditions are Student Learning Conditions, and encouraged folks to post how many adjuncts shared their office or where in their department in very public places. I'd like to follow that up this semester with some agit prop theater in the commons, but I'm not teaching there this time around, so we'll see how that goes.

In the spring. Teresa invited me to give a conference paper with her at the Washington DC SEIU HQ, where I got to meet Joe Berry of COCAL, Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, and reconnect with the inimitable Anne Weidner of UUP. We dragged along one of the few vocal tenured allies I've met, Seth Kahn of West Chester U, someone else I met through Facebook, and again met some amazing people fighting to get decent working conditions for adjuncts across the country. I really have to give kudos to SEIU, which is one of the few labor unions in country that's actively organizing adjuncts. The Steelworkers in Pittsburgh were chosen by the adjuncts to represent them, and the same with the UAW in Michigan, but SEIU has gone into DC, Boston, LA and now into New York and actively organized adjucts in a campaign that has been met with as much hostility as any mineowner's, including the hiring of union busting law firms. There's a good use of tuition and endowment money.

And the conditions, make no mistake, are killing us. In September, what I still think of as my semi-hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran a story called "Death of an Adjunct," detailing the miserable conditions 25-year veteran French adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko died in after not being rehired. I don't know an adjunct who isn't terrified that this might be us. More than a few of us are graying (remember, academic careers often don't even start until you're in your 30s or 40s), many of us have chronic conditions, children with chronic conditions, or have been struck down by cancer or other illnesses without any health insurance. Thanks to ACA, that might change, but that doesn't absolve the institutions we work for from treating us with the dignity we deserve. If you can pay for administrators, who add very little to the intellectual reputation of the university, you can damn well pay for the people who make or break your reputation as an institution of learning. More on that in later posts.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that somehow I'm becoming the activist I always wanted to be. I have a cause (several, in fact) and have found my voice, and don't have any fear about using it out loud anymore. I don't have to hide my outrage, and I can use my writing as a way to accomplish something good in the world. This doesn't mean I've given up the creative part; far from in it. In fact, I stumbled into a great writing group and have managed a rewrite of the novel I've been working on forever, and I've been writing a lot of poetry. So this change I've been undergoing, from silent, not very good Christian person, to vocal, skeptical Buddhist fellow-traveller proceeds apace. I like where it's going.

Stay tuned for more about education and activism and education activism.




The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
from us.

No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys,  janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.

All that’s missing is the gods.


Day of Activism against NDAA

RadicalMoiThought you were safe from indefinite incarceration because of the Constitution?

Thought it was illegal to call in the army for domestic action?

Thought your goods and services were safe from seizure by the government if you were a law-abiding citizen?

Not anymore.

These are powers now vested in the president's office, not just in Obama's hands. Imagine someone like Dick Cheney with these powers. Think Fascism can't happen here? It already has.

Learn about it and and speak out. Before they use it to take your voice away.


Occupy Wall Street II—Agendas

ProtestorFolks in the media and elsewhere complain that OWS has no agenda, has no demands, has no solutions, but I think this is willfully naive and ingenuous. This is not like the 60s, where there were clear cut problems like discrimination and the Vietnam war. This is a failed system, a failed regime, that people are tired of being oppressed by, and if that sounds like pinko commie liberal rhetoric, so be it. There is so much wrong that we hardly know where to begin. Here's the list that I see, in no particular order:

  • Enormous wealth disparities between upper management and workers
  • Enormous wage disparities between people who actully produce goods and people who just move money around.
  • The concentration of liquid capital in the hands of too few people
  • Unconscionable tax inequity between the ultra wealthy and the rest of us
  • Lack of investment in the infrastructure by the people who make the most use of it, i.e., corporations (see tax inequiety, above)
  • Politicians who are unresponsive to constituents who cannot pay to have them re-elected, i.e., corruption
  • Raging injustice, as exemplified by Troy Davis, who is only one among hundreds, if not thousands
  • A gutting of our educational system by running schools and universities as though they were for-profit corporations or factories and learning was a "product"
  • The elevation of profit over the well-being of workers and the nation itself (or the world in general; globalization hasn't treated foreign workers kindly either)
  • The glorification of individualism to the point of psychosis (this covers everything from thinking the anonymity of the internet and the right to free speech give you the right to be an uncivil and hateful asshole to the inability to empathize with the plight of people who are not having the same luck in life that you are.) I blame some of this on the gutting of our educational system, where we used to learn to get along with each other.

And that's just my short list. These are systemic problems, social, political, and economic. How do you sum that up in a sign, or make into a list of demands, especially when the people to whom you would present that demand clearly do not give a good goddamn and haven't for the last 30 years? The only documents that would cover these issues were written in 1787 and 1789. They're called the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Maybe it's time for new ones.

Occupy Wall Street I—A Personal Story

Protestor I've been trying to get to these rallies for the last two weeks and can't seem to shake the cold I've gotten from getting up at 5:30 and getting home at 10:30 twice a week to work two jobs. So I thought I'd use my powers for good, and at least write about why I support them. Unlike a lot of people, I'm not really hurting, or don't consider myself one of the hurting, anyway, in part because I've made certain choices about my life that helped put me where I am. Unlike the so-called 53 Percenters, I realize that no matter how lucky or content I consider myself, this is not what the American Dream is supposed to be.

Despite this cold, I realize I don't have it that bad, so I'm not complaining. I could be doing this five days a week, or seven, like the English department secretary at NJCU, who works at Home Despot or some other big chain store on the weekends. I also don't have a lot of debt, and what I do have is less than five figures—less than most people pay for a car. My student loans were small and are paid off, despite the fact that I went to an expensive private school for my undergrad degree, where I accrued those debts. I had a teaching fellowship at the state school I went to, and I paid tuition there too (which seems unfair when I was also working for the university), but it was in-state tuition and I had no loans. I feel like I live pretty comfortably, but my standard of living is well below what my parents enjoyed, even though neither of them went to college and my dad was a blue-collar worker. I don't own a house or a car, don't even own my apartment. I've got next to nothing in the bank, and a very small retirement fund. Even so, I'm better off than many, and have a lot of freedom and time to myself.

So why am I supporting the protesters at Occupy Wall Street? Because I'm both taking responsibility for my choices and acknowledging that lots of other people don't have that luxury, and/or didn't even make the choices I did and yet find themselves in much worse shape.

As I said on a sign I made for the rallies, I'm a 51-year-old single woman with no dependents (other than my nagging cat, whom I will not have to send to college) and a Master's Degree. I haven't had health insurance since I left school for more than a a few years at a time. I worked full time for a while out of grad school, and a couple of places where, despite my education, I was treated like both an idiot and a flunky, for barely a living wage. Every year, I used up all ten of my sick days in one shot with bronchitis, and spent my two weeks of vacation with my parents. I'd come out here to go to grad school at NYU, where I had no scholarship, so I had to pay for my exorbitant tuition by working full time. About halfway through the second master's degree I was working on in a new field, I realized that several things were going to happen: I would probably have to take out loans to get through the Ph.D., because I was having enough trouble doing the kind of work I knew I was capable of while working full time. The doctorate was going to cost me a fortune and there were no guarantees of a job when I was done. If I did get a job, it was likely to be in the middle of freakin' nowhere, and certainly not in New York City. I wanted to stay here more than I wanted to get a Ph.D., and I wanted to write more than I wanted to be an academic. I hadn't written anything but graduate school papers while I was working full time, and it was killing me. So I totally rethought and refashioned my whole life.

Annoy a ConservativeI left school, I quit my full time job, and I started temping and freelancing and working part time. In a lot of ways, my life improved drastically. I was happier, I didn't get sick, I did a lot of writing and started to get published. I had the luxury of taking poorly paid teaching jobs because I was doing other things too, and met some great people along the way, some of whom became life-long friends. In other ways, it was not so good. It was a good thing I didn't get sick or hurt, because health insurance eventually doubled from an affordable $245/month to something astronomically out of reach. Money was very tight, even though my folks helped out, and I learned to live pretty frugally. Even so, there were three years where I couldn't afford to pay the taxes I owed, and didn't file. I also got into some serious credit card debt. The low point was the infamous neck bone stew I made when I was down to my last couple of dollars and waiting for a client to pay me.

To make matters worse, at the time, even when I did get a paycheck, it took days to clear, and often I didn't actually know how much money I had in my account. In nine years of undergrad and graduate school, I'd never bounced a check. Now I did it with alarming frequency because my tally never matched the bank's: not Citibank's, Chase's, or Chemical's. That was because of banking regulations that allowed them to hold even local checks drawn on their own banks, for three days before releasing the funds, instead of making them available right away. Thankfully, that finally changed, but before that, I found a bank, HSBC, that didn't try to screw me with overdraft fees by playing with my balance. I've bounced only one check in the 12 years I've been with them.

I also finally found a great part-time job that I stayed at for just a little more than ten years before there was a mutual parting of the ways. I still had no health insurance, but my bosses treated me with respect and it gave me a lot of freedom and a little 401(k) that I put into a high risk fund to earn some quick dough while my very safe TIAA-CREF fund slowly built up through ultra safe investments. That 401(k) disappeared when the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed. I cashed in what was left—less than $2,000—because I needed it for living expenses. Since then, I've been freelancing and teaching again, which I love. But I discovered that in the ten years I'd been working part time and only occasionally freelancing, rates for editing and writing have not risen at all. Not even to reflect the cost of living or inflation. In fact, if you consider those two factors, they've actually decreased. There's a lot of work out there for freelance editors, but you should see the griping on the discussion board of the Editorial Freelancers Association.  It's not that we're unhappy about the amount of work, but we're really unhappy about what people want to pay us for our skills and years of experience, and the fact that so many of our clients, even big publishing companies, make us wait 30 to 90 days after submitting an invoice for a paycheck. Until recently, freelancers have had no union or organization to protect them, and why should we need one? Because too many employers want something for nothing.

That's not even my main source of income now, nor the one that concerns me most. My real complaint is the structure and disparity of pay in the post-secondary educational system. This is just one of many places where the capitalistic model has run amok. When I was in grad school in the early 80s, very little teaching was done by adjuncts. Community colleges were populated by teachers with master's degrees, and the PhDs taught at 4-year and graduate institutions. Now, there is such a glut of doctorates (thanks in part to the misleading advising of professors, who seem not to realize that the market isn't infinite), that community colleges regularly require a doctorate for new hires. Worse, as much as 60% of any department's classes are taught by adjuncts now, people with advanced degrees who are limited by policy from most of the rights and privileges of being an academic: no tenure, no job security, no opportunities for research support, and most importantly, no employment benefits. Oh, and did I mention the the wretched pay scale?

When I worAdjunctsked in industry, my skills as an editor and layout designer were billed out at between $60 and $90/hour. Obviously, I didn't make that much myself, but that's what I was worth. Most editorial work goes for about $35/hour, unless it's highly technical or science editing which is far better paid. When I first started teaching as an adjunct at a community college in New Jersey in the 90s, I was paid $1200 for a three-credit class running four months and meeting for 180 minutes a week, and that's not unusual. At one school I recently taught at, I was paid about $1800 for a four credit course that met for about the same number of minutes each week. That's just the gross pay, not the net. and that amounts to about $30/contact hour, the hours I'm actually in class—far less if you include the hours I work outside of class. Neither of those jobs provided me with an office where I could meet students or keep my books or even required me to keep office hours, much less paid me for them. But good teachers always have office hours, always make time to see their students. I can't tell you how much totally unpaid tutoring I've done.

At universities with unions, the pay is much better ($1200 a credit, rather than a class), and so are the working conditions. But I still have no access to affordable health insurance, no job security of any kind (imagine not knowing if your job was going to disappear every four months), and often, my schedule is so crazy that I spend four to six hours on the road just getting to the various places I teach. Needless to say, this makes going to faculty meetings or seminars or anything that might make me better teacher nearly impossible. Not to mention how it isolates you from the rest of the faculty. Just as an example, a couple of years ago I was teaching in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, not all on the same day, but the Staten Island and Bronx jobs were. That meant I left the Bronx in the morning, took a train and an express bus to Staten Island, where I also took a campus bus to my class, taught a three-hour class, had office hours, and took the bus, a ferry, and another train to the Bronx, taught another three-hour class, and took a bus home. If I didn't catch the right ferry, I was late for the Bronx class, so it was always stressful. And the commute was never less than two hours. Now, I have an hour and a half commute to New Jersey for a job that pays well, but not well enough for me not to have to teach somewhere else too, because I'm restricted to 6 credits or two classes. With three, I could actually make a good living.

The adjunct system is good for university endowments, and bad for its students and faculty. The constant searching for, hiring, and class observations of adjuncts, most of whom are transient doctoral students, takes time that department heads and committees could better spend on department administration. Adjuncts are less available to their students, and have less time to spend developing their courses or teaching methods. Many of them are untried as teachers, and don't have much supervision the way we did as teaching assistants at Michigan State. But by god we're cheap, and the administration likes that. In many places, we're as faceless and interchangeable as factory labor, without unions to protect us from lousy pay and long working hours.

Replacing regular tenured faculty with the cheap labor of adjuncts is the equivalent of outsourcing jobs overseas, or hiring illegals to pick your produce. But we're not talking about consumer products here. Education is not a consumer business, though we've led students to believe it is. "I pay this much tuition, I damn well better get good grades," many of them seem to think. They've been led to believe that the value in what they're getting is in their GPA, not in gaining skills or knowledge or learning how to think for themselves. In part, that's another issue, but it's one that has sprung out of the idea that the education is a business, not an art or a service. The product model of education is bankrupt and is bankrupting our future by making students believe that we can just "give" them an education, that they can just "buy" it, not that they have to work for it. Using adjuncts to replace tenured faculty exacerbates this attitude by offering them sometimes-shoddy teaching, and removing the opportunity for them to develop any kind of mentoring relationship with someone they may really feel they learn from. Many of the students I taught in the Bronx were deeply disappointed that I wasn't going to be there this semester to teach a required class I usually teach. One of them begged me to let her email me her paper for some help. How could I say no? I love working at that school because of them, but I can't afford to work there because, even with the maximum number of classes, I can't pay my bills each month.

Let me repeat that, because it's what's fundamentally wrong here: Even if I teach the maximum number of classes (3) I'm allowed, even with with a special dispensation for an extra class, and a class or two at another institution, I cannot pay my very modest bills, let alone save anything, or afford health insurance. Four to five classes are considered a full-time load. Even with that, I am barely getting by.

This is what the 99% are pissed about.

The social contract used to be that if you worked hard, got an education, and found a job, you could make a decent living. That is no longer true. You can work hard, get an education, find not one job, but two or three, and still live at the poverty level with no sense of security. Now, my choices to work part time instead of full time earlier in my life have given me less security for the future than most people, and that was my choice. I'm not complaining about that; I knew what I was doing when I did it. What is deeply wrong, however, is that so many of us must work extravagant hours well beyond the 40 hour work week to even keep your head above water. There is no getting ahead anymore, except for a very few. Costs have risen, wages have fallen, and the middle class seems to be paying for almost everything.

Taxes that should go to infrastructure go instead to the military industrial complex for unnecessary wars. And the people who use that infrastructure the most don't help pay for its upkeep. Sure, we all use in the infrastructure: roads, dams, railroads, telecom, electricity. But without that infrastructure, no business would even get off the ground, let alone grow to become a multimillion or -billion dollar enterprise. As I said in a conversation on Facebook, shipping companies, not cars, beat the roads and bridges to pieces . Bandwidth is eaten up by corporations, not private users (it's why they're trying to suppress streaming video--because it cuts into their usage). Corporations are the largest consumers of electricity (who leaves all those lights on in the skyscrapers?). Passenger trains make way for freight, which is what the majority of rail traffic is. Harbor facilities are almost exclusively for shipping and freight now, with a little bit of passenger traffic. Even airlines make more money from cargo than passengers. And who craps up the water? I'm not dumping any chemicals down my toilet, are you? The heaviest users need to pay the heaviest "fee," in taxes, for that usage. It makes their wealth possible.

Balance-the-budgetNot to mention that we, the workers—the teachers who educate them; the technicians who keep the equipment running; the people at the CAD station doing the specs and on the production line following them; the salespeople on the road; the marketers and graphic artists who provide the sales materials; the packagers, truck drivers, train engineers, and other shippers and delivery people; the HR people who keep employees happy and bargain for the best benefits; and the people who manage these people, are all doing the actual work. Without them, commerce grinds to a halt. We're not asking for anything more than our fair share of your success, 1%. We all helped make you what you are. This goes for the Masters of the Universe who do nothing more than move that capital around. Why do they earn so much for producing nothing tangible, especially when they have the power to wreck entire nations, and aren't afraid to do it? Capitalism is as much a group effort as Socialism; Socialism just distributes the rewards more equitably. What we have now looks more and more like feudalism.

And this isn't even touching on the corruption of our representatives by PAC money, or the safety net we all, as moral human beings, owe the weakest members of our society. Without a sense of obligation to one another, we are worse than animals. This is what bothers me about the so-called 53%, many of whom have the attitude that "I work hard and get by. The rest of you are just whiners." There is a shocking lack of empathy or foresight in that attitude. How stupid do you have to be to realize that if you're hit by a truck tomorrow and paralyzed from the waist down, your working days at your three jobs are over? Do you really want your alternatives to be begging in the street or a private charity poor house? None of us are immune to disaster or misfortune. Some of us, in fact, are born into it and have no power to change it for the first 18 years of our lives. The cold-hearted selfishness of this "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" attitude sickens me, and millions of others.

I've made choices in my life that leave me more vulnerable financially than many, and I'm willing to shoulder that responsibility. All I want is the opportunity to make a decent living at something I'm very good at doing. I don't want a handout, or even a hand up. All I want, all most of us want, is a fair shake for our own efforts.

Treating the University Like Just Another Corporation

ProtestorHere's what New Jersey's politicians and university presidents want to do with higher education in their state (from our union newsletter). Snide comments are entirely mine:

  • Salary freeze for all AFT [union] unit members for the next four years. (Because college professors are all earning such enormous salaries.)
  • Eliminate incremental salary increases after June 30, 2015. (And why should we got a cost of living increase just because Congress does?)
  • Eliminate tuition reimbursement for all employees. (Oh please. It's the only major perk we get.)
  • Eliminate career development for all employees. (Now, that makes so much sense! Why would you want your faculty to improve themselves?
  • Potentially eliminate or reduce the number of sabbatical leaves. (You slackers! Nobody else gets a year long paid vacation!)
  • Delete the clause requiring consistency in the quality of the benefits at no additional increase in cost to the employee.(You want something better? You pay for it, suckah.)
  • Increase the percent of faculty that management can hire on three, four and five year nonrenewable contracts from three to five percent. (Because they're so much cheaper than tenured faculty, of course.)
  • Eliminate the Union’s current right by contract to appoint one employee observer to each college/university-wide committee. (Why should you need to know what management is up to? Just trust us!)
  • Remove the Union’s right to challenge the removal of a chairperson or the appointment of an acting chairperson without a subsequent election. (Because why should department members know better than the management who should run their department?)
  • Increase the amount of money the local Union has to pay for its president’s release time.
  • Discourage librarian or professional staff from serving as Council or Local presidents.
  • Redefine the academic year as September 1 through June 30, requiring that faculty attend meetings and remain accessible to students and colleagues throughout that time period. (Because if we can't see you, you must not be working.)
  • Eliminate the requirement that the college/university President inform the Promotions Committee of the number of promotions available. (Make way for management's candidates! Stack that deck!)
  • Eliminate the obligation of the Presidents to provide the Promotion Committee reasons if there is disparity between the Committee’s recommendations and the president’s recommendations. (Father The President knows best!)
  • Reduce the amount of additional compensation provided to faculty working on external grants. (We don't care that you're bringing money into the University. Why should we pay you too when somebody else is?)
  • Eliminate the requirement for directors to hold periodic staff meetings that generally provide opportunity for professional staff input and discussion. (They're just staff. Who cares what they have to say?)
  • Compel professional staff to take vacation leave when the college/university implements a full or partial closure. (Tough luck if we have a hard winter. You'll get vacations next year.)
  • Impose a 6 month career limit on the use of Special Sick Leave. (Very humanitarian for a university.)
  • Remove clause that states a reasonable Special Sick Leave request shall not be denied.
  • Provide college/universities the right to reduce adjunct faculty pay rates during the duration of the Agreement. (Because, yanno, those adjuncts make so much already that they're obviously draining the university coffers, because they teach 60% of the classes. They should be grateful for the four jobs they're holding.)
  • Eliminate the ability for an employee to discuss potential grievances with his/her supervisor without filing a formal grievance. (There's a chilling effect for you.)
  • Eliminate the requirement that the administration send job announcements to the local before official posting. (We don't care how good you are, how loyal you've been, or how much you like it here.)
  • Rejected some of our most reasonable proposals related to reappointment rights, office space and compensation for cancellation of classes.

These demands place far too much power for the shape of the university into the hands of the (deeply paternalistic and very corporate) administration. Even more than a corporation, colleges and universities are their workers. Without us, there is no university. And the work that we do is not like middle management's or other white collar work that can just be trimmed back and streamlined. Why do we have to keep saying that it's not just hours spent in the classroom that make us professionals? If you can't afford to pay us, raises taxes on the people who benefitted from our work and made it big. Damn few of them got there without our help.

Be Subversive! Read!

LibrarianG It's Banned Books Week (Sept. 24th-Oct. 1st), again, and it's hard to believe that in a country based on free speech, we should even have such a thing. But we do. And this is why librarians have always been my heroes. Nobody protects our right to read whatever we want, no matter what age we are, more strenuously than librarians (independent booksellers are a close second). When, after 9/11, the FBI decided they wanted to see what books some people in America were checking out of the library, Connecticut librarians not only said, "no freakin' way," they filed a lawsuit to challenge that part of the Patriot Act—and won.

Banning books is a form of thought control, and thought control is an attempt to make people conform to one particular idea of social behavior. Seems obvious, right? Of course, when these protests are made, the protesters have hardly ever read the book in question in full, if at all. Someone has said this book is "obscene" or "subversive" or "anti-American" or "dangerous," and they've jumped on the bandwagon. What makes a book "dangerous"? Anything that challenges the status quo, whether it has to do with religion, sexual orientation, or political thought. So why do some people in the Land of the Free think they have the right to decide what I can read? How is that not "anti-American" in itself?

As an example of the kinds of books that are frequently challenged, there's this list of 46 of of the books on the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 novels of the 20th Century that have been banned or challenged at one time or another. Here's the list:

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald ALA_BBW_Poster_2010_sm
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
53. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
55. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
57. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
64. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
66. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
73. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
74. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
75. Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence
80. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
84. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
88. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
97. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike 

If books hold up a mirror to our society, some of us must not like what we see. But even if we don't, there's no sense killing the messenger.

Challenges to kids books are particularly galling to me. My parents never censored anything I read, though they would sometimes caution me that a book I'd chosen might be "too old" for me, and I might not like it, or might not "get" it. Sometimes they were right, but sometimes I wound up loving something they didn't think I would. Mom sometimes despaired of my love of comics, but basically, if I had a book or magazine in my hands, that was okay with them. I even read my dad's Playboys. And yeah, there was some good journalism in them. Seriously. Because my reading wasn't censored, guess who became the font of information on sex and reproduction and birth control for my friends in junior high and high school (and sometimes even college)? Not unusual for kids to get that information from each other, except that the information I had was actually accurate, not rumor.

According to the ALA, there were:

  • 1,536 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
  • 1,231 challenges due to “offensive language”;
  • 977 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
  • 553 challenges due to “violence”
  • 370 challenges due to “homosexuality”; and

Further, 121 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 304 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”

With kids, the fear at the heart of banning some books is that your children might somehow be harmed by being exposed to ideas about sex, gender, nonconformity, death, suicide, drugs, or actual cuss words. That's right: real, live cuss words. I'm sure they've never heard those before in movies, on TV, on the playground or at home. I'm insulted on behalf of children that parents like these think their kids are that dumb, or that mentally fragile, that they think their kids are incapable of telling fact from fiction, or have never let their pure minds wonder about sex, death, drugs or what life is all about. Honestly, grownups are so stupid sometimes.


Ten Years Later—Light and Shadow

9-11Moi So it's ten years ago today, as the media has been pounding home to us for at least a month. I know everyone has been thinking about it though, regardless of the media. Decades seem to have a special significance for us. Me, I'm avoiding all the commemorations like the plague. Not because I'm indifferent, but because this still bothers me a lot more than I thought it would, ten years later, and I don't like sobbing in public with strangers. So I'll stay home and write about it, instead.

Rubble-public domain-Michael RiegerIn the early days just after Ten Years Ago, the first thing I would do in the morning is open the curtains wide and pull up the shades to let in the light. The weather was glorious: mild and sunny and dry and the breeze carried the smell of burning electrical systems and worse things over the river and into my top floor apartment. My windows faced east and west then, so I couldn't see the smoke, but that didn't keep it out of my apartment. Ten years later, I wonder how many toxins I absorbed then, and how much of other people's DNA ended up in my lungs. Not enough to make me sick, like many of the people who worked at the site without respirators or even masks afterwards, but enough to make me, all of us who breathed that in, funerary vessels.

Letting in the light seemed so important to me that I was almost frantic to do so every morning. I think I knew even then we were heading for some dark times. Bush and Cheney et al were still unknown quantities, but the bumbled reaction and instant jingoism didn't bode well. Already there were stories of people beating up anyone who looked like they might be Muslim. I'd read enough history by then to know that the first thing people do in this kind of situation is look for scapegoats and someone to blame. And the more people to blame, the better. So hating Muslims was suddenly "in." All those windows in the Towers shattering suddenly sounded like a Kristallnacht for Muslims.

When I called my folks and let them know I was all right, my dad answered in a voice I seldom heard him use, unless he was telling unhappy war stories, the ones that didn't involve bars and Herman Caretta, his drinking buddy. I think he'd seen the handbasket arrive, too. Mom felt sure this was a preview of the Apocalypse and I had to be ready for it. I remember yelling at her, "You can't prepare for anything like this!" And you can't. Even if you know, rationally, that it might happen, that doesn't prepare you for the emotional response to it. Nothing can. It's purely visceral, glandular, the reactions of the lizard brain.

All you can do is search for the light, afterwards.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of darkness. Not just the knee-jerk bigotry, but an unscrupulous grab for unprecedented power by a few people in the government and trampled civil liberties: warrantless wiretapping, an attempt to get booksellers and librarians to spy on their customers and patrons, the other dangerous absurdities of the grossly misnamed Patriot Act, and worse. Guantanamo Bay. Extraordinary rendition. Water-boarding. Flouting the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. sliding slowly into Fascism and hate. The invasion of a whole nation in a hunt for one man. Not to mention blind support for an ill-conceived war undertaken under false pretenses. That we started. We started a war.

Ten years later, we finally got the great thinker behind the act. And the terrorists have decided they'd like to mark the anniversary with another attack, so there are armed soldiers and police everywhere. But the "War on Terror" has become a permanent fixture, with no end in sight. The new normal. This all seems strangely familiar to a child who grew up in the 60s with a father working for the military.

What's missing this time around seems to be the outrage. At first, fear kept many of us going along with the government, doing exactly what Benjamin Franklin warned against when he said, "They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Cops and firemen and Cantor Fitzgerald didn't die so the government could take away our rights to free speech, protest, assembly, and privacy. Why are we not more angry about that? Dissent is not treason or unpatriotic. Lack of dissent is. Blind patriotism is the tool of dictators.

Not only did our civil rights come under attack so a small group of ideologues could expand their powers, but those same ideologues outright lied to New Yorkers about the health risks of the aftermath. I was working at an environmental consulting firm (who later wrote the environmental impact statement for the rebuilding of the Towers), and by then I knew enough about what goes into buildings to know that air couldn't possibly be safe to breathe. The first thing our company did was hand out the respirators and masks we had to workers down at the Pile. The buildings were full of asbestos and dioxin. Even the concrete particulates in the dust was dangerous in such concentration. Here's how Scott Simon describes the air down there in his report for NPR:

The air downtown: thick, stinging, gritty, and filled with fragments of life still floating from the world as it was shortly before 9 a.m. on 9/11. Atomized smithereens of bricks, glass and steel, office papers, coffee cup lids, half-bagels with a schmear, Yankee hats, wedding bands, sugar packets, shoes and human slivers in a stinging, silvery vapor that made you cough and cry.

New documents are still surfacing that show the federal response to monitoring was disingenuous at best, and completely false at worst. You can search the original documents here, thanks to Pro Publica. Mother Jones points out that,

Within days of the twin towers' collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York's Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Better to keep up a good image and hurt your own people than admit that the terrorists really fucked us over. This is something that dictatorships often do: they, like the Wizard of Oz, want to make the rest of the world think that they're infallible and all-powerful and they've got everything under control, even in a disaster. China and North Korea both do this on a regular basis. There, I suspect it's more about losing face as leaders than here, where it is an attempt to whitewash incompetency (cf. Hurricane Katrina). Before analyses could even be completed, Christie Whitman, then head of the EPA, was telling us the air was fine. Hard to backtrack later and say, "Whoops, we were wrong. You all inhaled a significant amount of toxins, carcinogens, and biological debris."

And we're still, despite having ushered in a new, more liberal president, illegally kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and in some cases, barring from returning home American citizens. You thought extraordinary rendition ended? Now we have "rendition lite." It's still American citizens being detained on foreign soil without access to lawyers, which ought to scare you. Because if our government can imprison any American citizen without cause, they can imprison all of us, for any reason, or none at all. You, too, can be "disappeared."

So is there any light?

There's always light. One of the most beautiful things that happened during 9/11 was the outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world. We've large spent that goodwill now, but it was fantastic while it lasted. Also beautiful, and somehow more heartening, was the way New Yorkers responded to each other: with compassion and kindness, with hard work and an overwhelming generosity. It didn't last at that initial intensity, as such things don't, but I think it made others look at us differently, and I think it made New Yorkers see each other a little differently. When the rest of the country was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan, the anti-war voice was loud here. We'd had a brief taste of what war was like and wanted none of it for anyone else, even our enemies. We wanted justice, not the slaughter of more innocents. I won't say it made us kinder or gentler—as a guy I conversed with on the bus Friday said, "We're not cold, we're busy." We're always going to be busy because that's what the city's like. But we're a little more forgiving, I think. A little calmer. And a little more proud of ourselves.

One thing that New York does, by and large, is get along. We've had some stupid moments over the last ten years, like the completely artificial brouhaha kicked up about the Ground Zero mosque that isn't a mosque or even on Ground Zero. (And I want to say to some of the victims' families: it is not always about you. This was a national tragedy, not just your personal tragedy. You don't have sole rights to framing it or interpreting it. Nobody does.) One of my first conscious reactions to the attack was to join the Southern Poverty Law Center's organization, Teaching Tolerance, which I continue to support. And a couple of years after the attacks, I moved from my largely Puerto Rican block in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a neighborhood in the Bronx that's full of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Afghans. Not by design; it just happened that way. But I'm glad it did. Some are Hindu, but most are Muslims. There are women wearing the full black burqa and girls in just the hijab, and men in the long tunics and pants as well as western dress. There's an African Muslim center a couple of blocks away, near the synagogue and on the same street as the Baptist church. They're unfailingly nice people. But I see some wariness in their eyes that saddens me too, and makes videos like this necessary:

I don't know if 9/11 and the attacks elsewhere in the world have made us more aware of our foreign policy. I think it definitely made us feel less invulnerable, and that's never a bad thing. Invicibility leads to arrogance, and there's enough of that in the world. On the other hand, maybe our resilience, our insistence on plugging along with participatory democracy, as imperfect as it is, on continuing to voice our displeasure at our elected officials in the face of the drift toward fascism has given new urgency and heart to others. I'm excited by the Arab Spring. The hard work is still ahead, but so much of it was accomplished non-violently that that gives me hope too. It's a little light in the darkness too, when people start to take their governance into their own hands, and start thinking about human rights. There are going to be huge bumps in the road, maybe even some detours, but they've started on the journey to a more perfect union. We need to rethink the road we're on, too.

In the end, what it all boils down to is Kurt Vonnegut's words: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." None of this shit would ever have happened if we were all kind to each other. If we learned nothing else from this event, it should be the need for unconditional love and compassion.

On today of all days, people, love your neighbors. And your enemies.

Memorial Day and Me

RadicalMoi I have an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day and Veterans Day. On the one hand, my dad, Louis, was a WWII vet who made a career of the armed forces. He joined the Army Air Corps, was a belly gunner in a bomber for a while, and served in the Berlin Airlift. He stayed in the service until the early 60s, then worked as a civilian mechanic for the Air Force for another 20 years until he retired. He was proud of his service, but he got out purposefully when Vietnam started heating up. I think he saw the writing on the wall and had had enough of fighting, much as he enjoyed the camaraderie and fixing airplanes.

Most the of the stories he told about the war were drinking stories, how he and Herman Kareta (whose last name I'm spelling phonetically) went out on the town and barely avoided the MPs, or didn't, quite. But every now and then, he'd let something slip that showed it hadn't been one big pub crawl: he and his buddies giving their rations away to the hungry kids in Berlin; watching a fellow belly gunner's remains being hosed out of the turret after an engagement. Sometimes it was stray remarks in response to the news, like wondering how Lt. Calley could look himself in the face in the morning. And he had a clear idea of why he'd joined up to fight Nazis, even though his family was German-Hungarian, and he spoke German. Like most first generation immigrants, he was fiercely loyal to the country he'd been born in, and an assimilationist. When my mother, a Jehovah's Witness, was browbeaten by nurses or doctors about taking blood transfusions, he stood by her and supported her decision, even when it meant he might be raising a newborn by himself or lose his wife to cancer. "That's what I fought for," he said, "the right to freedom of religion." When we opened the prison at Guantanamo Bay and started stuffing it full of "enemy combatants" and then torturing them for information, he was just as sure that that wasn't what he'd fought for. The trampling of civil rights infuriated him and he was willing to go to the wall to protect them.

On the other hand, I've been a believer in non-violence all my life. The men in the religion I grew up with went to prison rather than be forced to kill other people. I admired that conviction and the willingness to pay the price for it. During Vietnam, I had cousins who  worked as hospital orderlies at the order of the courts for resisting the draft. One of the elders in my congregation had spent time in prison for refusing to support in any way the same war my dad fought in. "Thou shalt not kill" was not a negotiable order, and it never seemed like a first choice for resolving political differences to me. Violence makes people fearful, and fear makes people act without empathy or compassion. And war is a great method of social control, as Orwell makes so evident in 1984.

But as I've gotten older, my pacifist position has acquired a lot of gray areas. I'm not sure that something like non-violent resistance would have worked with  the Nazis. Non-violence is great for effecting social change, for toppling tyrannical regimes, but not so much for stopping empire-makers with serious weapons. I still think our invasions of Vietnam and Iraq were wrong. I think we were foolish to get involved in the morass that is Afghanistan, though the alternative seems to be a failed state on par with Somalia. I'm divided about our intervention in Libya. If I could believe it was purely for the sake of the civilians who are being shelled by Qadaffi, I'd feel better about it, but there's oil involved and always is in the Middle East.

I don't much like even the idea of a standing army, and certainly not of a draft on par with what Israel now has and we used to. But if you're poor, the armed forces can be a great way to learn a skill and pull yourself up out of poverty, especially in peace time. But because of that, in war time, the casualties tend to be the working poor and minorities, too. And most wars now tend to be about money, somebody else's money, usually.

But fighting, as my dad did, to stop invading aggressors in land-grabs, to fight for principles you believe in—free speech, a free press, an equal chance for everyone, the inherent values of human life—that seems worth it. Dad certainly felt it was, and I'm grateful he and others did. But I'm bitterly opposed to the current wars we're in, and I wish people would stop signing up for these conflicts. I wish the rich people and the movers and shakers would stop expecting poor people to fight for their bank accounts, and I wish even those who just wish to serve their country would wise up and realize patriotism has nothing to do with supporting a corrupt government. Because sending people off to die in Iraq and Afghanistan is no better than organized crime sending its "soldiers" to hit another mob. Lives aren't dollars for businessmen to spend in pursuit of their bottom line.

So on this Memorial Day, thanks to Dad and his contemporaries and sympathy for the people fighting yet another commercial war devoid of principles. Get out while you can.



It's the End of the World as We Know It . . . And I Feel Fine. Sorta.

MissedChurchEvilDrm The hoopla this week about the May 21st Apocalypse (capital A) has shown me that you can take the girl outta the religion but ya can't take the religion outta the girl. Or at least outta her hindbrain. Having been a more than 20-year member of what I realize in retrospect is an apocalyptic religion, I've found it hard to shake those nasty little "but what if they're right?" voices every time I hear a doomsday prophecy.I spent so many years living with the idea that the World (not the planet, but the current systems of governments and societies) was going to one day cease to exist in a cataclysmic event, I still get a little frisson of terror whenever I hear mad prophets. Like the doctrine of hell (which was not part of our belief system), the Apocalypse is just another way to keep your followers towing the line and donating, and the core of that success is fear: fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of making the wrong choices.

The tragedy of living like this is that it stunts your life. People who leave my former religion (and other similar ones) are often embittered not just by their experiences, but by what they've missed. The emphasis in these religions, more than mainstream ones, is always on the world to come, whether it's heaven or a New World Order of some kind here on earth. You're told that your life here and now is just biding time, that you shouldn't invest too much in it, or make big plans, or try to get rich, or have any sort of ambition that doesn't involve serving God. If you do have desires outside that narrow focus, you're accused of being "worldly," i.e., heathen and ungodly, or just plain wicked. Serving God almost invariably involves not having a lot of money, or a good job, or a nice home. As a consequence, members spend a lot of time policing each other for their materialism and focus. But without ambition of some kind, without a desire to improve yourself, one's life remains stagnant and stunted, in more ways than one.

15-Leonhardt-popup-v3 For instance, according to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, Jehovah's Witnesses are among the poorest and the least-educated of religious groups. There's a reason for this. College attendance has, until lately, been actively discouraged. It's been seen as the quickest way to get your children to leave the faith, and there's some truth in that. A good college education gives people analytical abilities and exposes them to new sources of information. It's hard to swallow the party line hook, line, and sinker when you start asking questions. Absolute faith (though not spirituality) relies on unquestioning belief as well as the desire to belong. I'm not saying anything new here, but one of the ways to get people to not question your doctrine is to make them afraid of losing something precious, like their lives, their friends, their community. This is what apocalyptic dogma is all about. And fear is a really effective brainwashing tool, no matter how well-educated and analytical you are.

So most of the people I grew up with who were JWs got married young, didn't go to college, wound up working blue-collar jobs for not much money. But I went off to college, thanks to my mom's firm belief in education for women and the necessity of women's economic independence. For this, both of us were vilified as bad influences. Bad enough my mom was married to an unbeliever (though fellow traveler). Worse that she planned to send me off into the world, instead of making sure I ended up barefoot and pregnant, volunteering 20 hours a week to the door-to-door ministry. But I couldn't see myself staying in Northern Michigan for the rest of my life, and I had no desire to get married and have babies, and even less to proselytize. I was too intellectually hungry, and ironically enough, five hours of Bible study a week helped make me that way; that was were I got my first tastes of history and literary criticism, where I learned the rudiments of close reading, and the wondrous complexity of creation. So off I went to college, where I did, indeed, gradually "fall away" from the religion I'd been raised in, as I learned more about history, science, and biblical studies. But the fear of the Apocalypse, of making the wrong choices, never left me.

 When I was a kid, I used to love reading post-apocalyptic novels. One of my favorites was A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, published the year I was born. If you haven't read it, it's worth the effort, not so much for the view of life after nuclear war as for the big picture Miller paints of the cycles of history, the rise and fall of civilizations, and how religion creates its doctrines and saints. That long view is one of the ideas that influenced my interest in history, and the long view of its cycles I've always found so fascinating. In addition, I gobbled up Frank Herbert's The White Plague, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and a lot of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Need I mention Blade Runner? This was sparked by the same impulse that makes people watch monster movies; everybody likes a good scare. Most of these apocalypses were death by nuclear war or natural disaster, not fire from heaven or the manifestation of God's power on earth, so they weren't frightening in the same way. What I was really fascinated by was the way society began to pick itself up and put itself together again afterwards, and what the critical mass of people to do this was. There were only 3 million JWs then; was that enough to repopulate the earth and maintain civilization? Or were we going to crash back into the Dark Ages? That seemed more and more likely the longer I ran the numbers and studied history. And that grew less and less attractive too.

2012 We Were WarnedAs I became more conscious and aware of the world around me, disasters didn't seem so interesting and the people I came in contact with didn't seem so horrible, for all their worldliness. And, I discovered, there were some amoral assholes inside my church too. The Apocalypse began to seem more horrible, more arbitrary, more malicious. My taste for post-apocalyptic fiction finally bottomed out with the AIDS crisis. The idea that a loving God would visit that kind of horror on decent people who didn't worship Him in this particular way became more and more abhorrent to me. That was not what I wanted in a god. After a while, I wasn't even sure I wanted a god at all. They seemed to be more of a pain in the ass than not. Now, when I watch the previews for something like the movie 2012, images of the wholesale slaughter of what Douglas Adams called "mostly harmless" people don't give me a cheap thrill, they nauseate me. But it still scares the crap out of me. There's nothing rational about it; it's completely visceral, a conditioned response. And that, I totally resent.

There are too many real problems in the real world that need to be fixed or at least mitigated for me to waste time being afraid of an imaginary disaster. I resent the way this dogma blinds people to the disasters that are going on around them right now and makes them think only God can fix these things, the way it strips away responsibility for crapping in our own back yard, the way it fosters learned helplessness. We've got a genuine apocalypse looming, one that's of our own making—climate change—that the same people who spout off about the Rapture are happy to ignore. Well, I got news for you folks, and it ain't Good News: nobody's going to save you or any of us when this natural disaster happens. Start scaring your people with the real thing. We need all the help we can get. Turn some of that money and effort into education and influence for saving the world we've got now, not waiting for someone else to destroy it.

The Road to Hell

RadicalMoi Many years ago before I'd left college, I read an article about the "Me" generation, questioning what kind of world this newly affluent, comfortable, coddled, self-centered group of people would make in the coming years. I'm at the tail-end of the Boomer generation and missed most of the stuff I would have liked to participate in: anti-war protests, Woodstock, feminist marches, in part because of my age, and in part because of who I was then. But I was lucky to grow up with the benefits of a generation who though that government should have more of a role in our lives than just providing for the protecton of the country. I went to good public schools. I benefitted from new highways built in our rural area, and the streetlights that came with it. I had decent food, safe medicines, buses to take me to school. We never needed it, but some of my friends made use of welfare programs that kept food on the table and clothes on their backs in one of the poorest counties in Michigan, one that had no industry and few jobs that weren't tied to farming or tourism. But as more of my generation joined politicis, there was a constant tug of war between those who felt some social responsibility toward their fellow humans, and those who just wanted to get everything they could for themselves. It's not entirely a clear-cut division along party lines but it's definitely a liberal-conservative split.

The current budget slashing is just an extreme example of it. And so much of it seems penny-wise and pound foolish. Out go funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides not just abortions (a small fraction of their service costs), but family planning which helps keep people from having too many kids that they can't support. Out goes funding for public broadcasting, which supports a number of educational programs for children that commercial TV wouldn't touch, giving them a boost up the ladder to help them succeed in school. Stripping the FCC of power to regulate the airwaves assures that only those who can pay for internet access will get it, leaving a huge number of rural and urban poor out of the greatest communication and information revolution in human history, and giving other countries a huge education advantage. South Korea has more people with broadband internet access than we do. This is not really a war about ideology. Or rather, it's a war about a different kind of ideology than we commonly think it is. Sad to say, it's really a war between compassion and privilege.

Say No to Government in Medicare I'm not even talking about the haves vs. the have-nots. A lot of the folks who are screaming bloody murder against what they call big government, are not particularly well-off themselves. Some of them are middle class folks who got screwed by Wall Street and are turning their anger on the government. Some of them are the working poor who feel that "other people" (read: minorities) are getting more of their share than they should be. But most of them feel put-upon in some way, and feel they're being taxed to death for things they don't use, or that the government is somehow interfering in their lives for no good reason. And yet many of them fail to realize they are recipients of that same government's investments in infrastructure (things as basic as sidewalks and highways) and the bare bones safety net of programs like Medicare. When you see protesters carrying signs against Big Government that say "Keep Govt. Out of my Medicare" the cognitive dissonance just boggles. Who do they think provides it in the first place? There's not some privately owned or publicly traded insurance company called Medicare.

There are very few people still alive who remember what it was like without any safety net at all, before Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and various welfare programs existed, or before government took a hand in regulating the safety of food, drugs, dangerous manufacturing industries, and enforced building codes, before unions helped guarantee a decent living wage for workers. If you want to see what that's like, spend some time in China, which is now undergoing its own early industrial period similar to the age of the Robber Barons here.

For example, take a look at coal mining, one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. According to the Dept. of Labor, a total of 71 miners died last year in the U.S.

In 2010, 19 coal miners in addition to the 29 who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine were killed in mining accidents. Twenty-three miners in the metal and nonmetal mining industry also died in mining accidents – 45 percent were contractors. Not including the Upper Big Branch-related deaths, it appears that more than half of the 42 additional miners died in accidents involving violations of the Rules to Live By standards.

1907, the year the Bureau of Mines was created, saw the deaths of 362 miners in one disaster alone. By contrast, in 2008, 3,215 miners died in Chinese coal mine disasters alone (down from 5,986 in 2005), not including other mining disasters. China has a huge number of small coal mines, many illegal and under the radar, but even their large official mines do not have the safety regulations ours do. Our government decided that mine owners did not have their workers' best interests at heart and stepped in to regulate safety codes. Whenever those rules are disregarded, people die. That's one of the benefits of so-called Big Government. That's why we elect people: to represent our interests where we're powerless to do so.

Take away the govenrment's ability to regulate, to fund where market forces would not, to provide a safety net for the poor and powerless, and you would live in the country of snake-oil salesmen, company towns, disease epidemics, and grinding poverty, a country without decent highways, police, fire fighters, or health care for anyone who could not pay.We've experienced that in the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl, in the Pinkerton strikes, in the years of labor organizing. Why would we want to go back to that? Are the people crying for the end of Big Government merely short-sighted or more selfish than even the Robber Barons?

What saddens me about this turn of events in American history is the utter lack of compassion it demonstrates. We've put such a high price on independence and self-reliance that we fail to see our obligations to each other and our interconnectedness. Social institutions that provide services for the poor have always been with us, whether private, religious, or governmental. Behind those institutions are people who are well-aware that not everyone is as lucky, capable, or healthy as they are, people who are privileged by class, income, intelligence, or race to be able to make it on their own. But with 45% of the wealth in this country concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population, do any of us really think private funding is going to pick up the slack? I don't see anyone stepping up to help cover health care costs for those who can't afford it. Oh, in individual cases, yes, but no one is stepping up to offer affordable health insurance for the 45 million of us who are unable to afford its currently exorbitant rates. I see new cell phone towers going up but not much in areas that don't have enough customers to recoup the cost. This is what government does: builds infrastructure and funds programs that are not all about the bottom line.

I'm all for austerity measures, and I'm willing to bite the bullet myself, but when you are already in the lower brackets of income, there's not much bullet left to bite. Austerity for the rich is not austerity for the poor. And when you ask the poor and the middle class to bear the brunt of the tax burden AND the austerity measures, you are risking exactly what's happening in the Middle East right now. People who are unemployed, unable to pay their bills, unable to put food on the table, afford a place to live or send their kids to school have nothing to lose, and the rich have everything. Spreading the wealth around via taxation and government sponsored social programs keeps everybody happy. If the rich are not going to help support the society in which they live, and from which they benefit, they deserve neither its privileges nor its protection, and certainly not its accolades.

That 1% of the wealthy are happy to make money off of the rest of us, but they don't give back much. This is not to say that all the wealthy are, by definition, greedy bastards. But it's interesting that FDR, one of our most socially conscious presidents, was considered "a traitor to his class" and that the Kennedys are so much more the exception than the rule. Even Andrew Carnegie must be ashamed of the current crop of super-rich. And the anti-government fools are happy to help them.

It's not your party that matters. It's not your religion. It's not how much money you have or don't have. It's how much empathy you have for the people around you: your next door neighbor, the people on your block, in your town, in your city, whether you know them personally or not. The new motto of this country seems to be "I"ve got mine. Fuck the rest of you." And that's just sad.

Sticks and Stones

Depressed Moi Sticks and stones/may break your bones/but [words] will never hurt you.

The news is pretty grim this week, after the shootings in Arizona, and there's a lot of rhetoric about rhetoric floating around as well, some of it on the left just as vituperative as on the right. It looks like the shooter was mentally unbalanced, but when can that not be said about any shooter of fellow humans? It takes a certain insanity to want to end another person's life for any other reason than self-defense (and I wonder if that impulse isn't just to get the person attacking you to stop, any way you can, rather than a conscious, specifically you-or-me life-and-death choice). Assassination, however, which is what this was, is particularly cold and calculating and abhorrent, even when mixed up with mental illness.

Palin Graffito The big question on everyone's mind is how much the current poisonous atmosphere of hate and recrimination and vitriol (a favorite word to fling around) contributed to the mindset of the shooter. He seemed to be fixated on Congresswoman Giffords, and the other casualties occurred mostly because he had more rounds in his gun. His own ramblings were, as has been pointed out, "straight out of the Right-Wing Insanity Handbook," as William Pitt says on Truthout, above. Loughner seems enamored of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas, but whether the crosshairs posted by Sarah Palin or her "don't retreat, reload" (half-)witticism influenced him to pull the trigger will be impossible to determine.

Motive is always murky, even when the actor is not mentally disturbed. Do any of us truly know why we do what we do? What things in our lives make us act the way we do? It's just handy but standard procedure to blame our parents, blame society, blame our siblings, blame our neighbors, but none of us, except the truly mentally incapacitated, can escape personal responsibility. How much Loughner's capacity is diminished hasn't yet been determined, so his amount of personal responsibility can't yet be apportioned.

But those of us who aren't of diminished mental capacity, who function just fine in the world, who get up every morning and go to work, take care of our kids, pay the mortgage, vote, complain about the government, volunteer, and think of ourselves as decent human beings, what kind of responsibility do we bear for others violence? When does a nation become . . . a mob?

It's very hard not to hate someone who threatens your way of life and your cherished personal beliefs, and hate is a catalyst for anger. The knee-jerk reaction is usually along the lines of "what the fuck is wrong with you? Are you crazy? You idiot!" We're defending our territory and some of that territory is very personal: health care, the apportionment of wealth, education, our personal pet hobbyhorses. I get a little crazed when people try to tell me vaccines are the cause of autism and a product of a government conspiracy, because I'd really rather not see the spread of things like small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza kill or maim or even sicken anybody. It scares me on a visceral level, and that's never a good place from which to begin a reasonable discussion. Religious discussions tend to get heated for the same reason: the outcome, in believers' minds has to do with nothing less than life and death, not to mention the afterlife. When we are threatened on such a basic level, rationality and civility take a back seat.

But it's disingenuous to say that language that uses violence as a metaphor cannot be taken seriously. For Palin to claim “We know violence isn’t the answer. . . . When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our votes,” is worse than disingenuous, it's ignorant. Never mind that we don't know, really, who she means by that pronoun "we" and neither can she. One need only look at history for examples of how "coded" and seemingly innocent remarks  like the "second amendment solutions" and symbolic crosshairs can turn to violence. Anybody remember Thomas Becket?

Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, when one of the major issues (as it continued to be through the reign of Henry VIII), was the power and rights of the Church in England. Becket claimed the papacy's primacy in trying clerics for anything up to and including murder; Henry, busily reforming England's legal structure, claimed that right for his civil courts. Though appointed by Henry, Becket's conscience dictated that his loyalties and best interests resided with the papacy. Henry found this rather annoying, to say the least.

Whether Henry actually made that peevish, offhand remark from his sickbed—"Will no one rid me of this turbulent (or "troublesome" or "meddlesome") priest?"—or whether it was a taunting annoyance with his own courtiers, as Becket's contemporary biographer (and witness to the assassination) claims (""What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"), it led to the murder of a political figure struggling with Henry for the power of the kingdom. We'll never know if Henry made those remarks in a moment of frustration or calculatedly, knowing his word was law and that someone would take the hint and "get rid" of Becket for him. The point is, the words were said, and acted upon. When you let words loose in the world, whether spoken or written, in a place where others have access to them, you have lost control of not just their interpretation, but of their consequences.

In this country, we have the right to say whatever we like, if it's not like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. I posit that saying we should resort to "second amendment solutions" and similar rhetoric is the moral equivalent to that standard. Words like this are not just inflammatory but incendiary. In a country with slipshod regulation of guns, that's criminal behavior, too. There is such an offense as incitement. And while I believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to give the populace the means to protect itself from and, if necessary, rise up against a tyrannical government, picking off its representatives because you don't like what they say is not the best solution. I don't think we're in need of an armed insurrection. And that's not what this, or any other assassination we've experienced as a nation is.

We often exaggeratedly say "I could just kill X," or "So and so would be better off dead." because they frustrate or enrage us, and we know we don't really mean it. But sometimes, just for a moment, or maybe longer, we do. Worse, sometimes, somebody else thinks we mean it, and agrees, and has the means and will to make it so, and what we've said may be their tipping point or jusitification. Sometimes, that offhand remark is not much different than "get him!" That make us at the very least complicit, if not outright culpable.

Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

Street art by Eddie Colla. HT to Towleroad and Dennis Kleinsmith on Facebook.

Remembering Nick Bucci on World AIDS Day


That spring, a cold one, not enough
years later,
the trees bloomed on St. Mark's
like reborn, slumming angels,
petals blowing in drifts
like the snow we never had that winter,
like the year before
         and the year before
and the year you died
when I could not see them
for what they were.

Your ashes, long scattered,
carried by soles and skin and air
through the five boroughs, Times Square,
the summer fire updrafts of L.A.,
ride the high atmospheric winds
across the world on new wings
or form the core of raindrops, ice crystals, cloud.

Outside: a warm October drizzle,
the leaves
just tinged with color, impossible
to think that it would ever snow
that you would ever become
just a memory,
a film of dust, rain-streaked.

© Lee Kottner 2010