The New York Times asked me to write a little for them about geek culture and grievance. You can check it out here.
The great education journalist Dana Goldstein made this point some years back, but I can’t find the piece, and it bears rewriting: while a greater percentage of black and Hispanic students fail to meet educational performance standards in this country than their white counterparts, due to the demographics of the United States, a plurality of the students who struggle academically are white. This has rhetorical and policy implications.
Look at NAEP data, for example. The NAEP is the gold standard of American educational metrics. (Not coincidentally, it works on a stratified sampling model, not the census model typical of most state standardized testing regimes. But that’s a different post.) The sturdy racial achievement gap is present in recent NAEP scores, as it is in most metrics. (Although cf. the racial achievement gap compared to the income achievement gap over time.) Certainly, that percentage gap is important, and addressing educational inequalities requires paying attention to racial disparities.
But according to the most recent Children’s Defense Fund report on childhood inequality (PDF), “Of the 73.7 million children in the United States in 2012, 10.2 million —14 percent — were Black, while 38.9 million — 53 percent — were White and 17.6 million — 24 percent — were Hispanic.” That means that, if the NAEP findings are correct and their sampling is rigorous– and, again, NAEP’s sampling is the gold standard– then there are about 8,500,000 black students, about 13,500,000 Hispanic students, and about 18 million white students that are below proficient in math or reading. (Tons of NAEP info here to play with.)
There’s of course some sampling error here, and this is a crude type of analysis; we could chop these numbers up in a ton of more sophisticated ways. We’re extrapolating past 8th grade, which is sensible if a bit loose. I’m amenable to people disagreeing with these numbers on the margins. But in pure brute force terms, the reality is clear: given the still-large white majority, white kids are the largest single racial group contributing to poor educational performance. The percentage gaps are real and vexing, but you could bring every black and Hispanic child in America to proficiency tomorrow and you’d still have millions and millions of students below grade-level proficiency.
Why does it matter? Working in educational and pedagogical research, I interact with a lot of people who have a tendency to perceive and portray our country’s educational inequality as a matter of poor minority students underperforming everyone else. This isn’t an artifact of racism; on the contrary, it’s usually a consequence of an attempt at progressive realkeeping. Many researchers and journalist are deeply committed to ending America’s historic racial inequalities, they think that eliminating the education gap is a key aspect of that, so they want to devote their attention and resources to that problem. That’s a natural, principled stance, but in the frequent tendency to focus on educational problems as problems for people of color, we risk developing a distorted picture of these issues.
In part, the problem is that there’s a thin line between identifying particular demographic groups as in need of help and attention, and creating a stigma about those groups. Hispanic and black children need attention and help, but if you are relentless in associating these groups with educational failure, you risk creating a cultural expectation that educational failure is inherent to these groups. I’m particularly sensitive to the ways in which equating educational failure with black and Hispanic students contributes to cultural scapegoating that is not defensible, and to the “human biodiversity” race-and-IQ arguments I’m forever arguing against. We need to advocate for the special needs of black and Hispanic students without falling into the easy-but-false assumption that educational problems are black and Hispanic problems. To do so can too easily become another way in which our national problems are projected onto these vulnerable populations.
I also think that we need to pay attention to the millions of white children who are struggling in schools because they also suffer from systematic inequality and deserve our attention and help too. This worries some of my liberal friends; there seems to be this latent attitude that if we expand our sympathetic attention to white students as well, we will fail to adequately prioritize the needs of black and Hispanic students who additionally suffer the consequences of racism. To this I simply insist on our capacity to walk and chew gum at the same time; we are fully capable of recognizing the special burden students of color face, dedicate ourselves to helping to ease those burdens, while also recognizing the potent social and economic inequalities that deeply hurt white children as well. We can, and we have to.
I’m excited to say that I’ve been invited to join the team at Kairos, an online peer-reviewed academic journal, as their Communications Editor. I am really excited for the opportunity. I admire and enjoy Kairos because it works to expand the definition of what academic work can be, publishing podcasts, visual art, interactive texts, and more. I also admire it because it is open access, and I think the need to open access to academic work is one of the most direct and important tasks we face as academics today.
When Aaron Swartz died, he was the target of a vicious and aggressive prosecution, owing to the fact that he had downloaded many articles from the academic journal archive JSTOR. This prosecution was ridiculous on many levels, but few more enraging than the fact that these articles were written for no direct monetary compensation by academics who felt they were contributing to the public good. The academic publishing cartel depends on the labor of professors and researchers who are paid by other institutions, very often public entities, and sucks millions and millions of dollars from our colleges and universities. Meanwhile, they systematically prevent access to the public. I have a very large network of academics that I am friends and acquaintances with. I bring up this subject constantly. In conversation with hundreds and hundreds of academics, I have never– never– met one that does not believe in the principle of open access to academic research.
The cost of hosting and developing the websites on which academic work can be provided to the public is not zero. But then, since colleges and universities already pay millions of dollars to for-profit entities for journal access, surely we can begin to withdraw from that hideously expensive edifice and devote funds to hosting publicly available academic research online. We need only make up our minds and create a coalition. There is no reason, in the 21st century, that we can’t make academic research universally accessible.
The work of a single journal, of course, makes little difference. But I believe that Kairos can be part of a broad movement towards open access academic publishing, so long as we as academics choose to value work that is published in freely accessible, online spaces. The academy faces many problems, some of which frequently seem intractable. But this problem is clearly, thoroughly solvable. We can move to a norm of universal free access to academic research, and someday, we will.
One of the hallmarks of a repressive state, particularly in the twentieth century, is the use of blackmail against gays and lesbians in order to get them to collaborate and inform on their friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and other potential or actual dissidents. The Stasi was notorious for turning gays and lesbians into collaborators (see pp. 567ff); one of the key figures in Timothy Garton Ash’s The File—Schuldt—is just such an informant. So pervasive was the use of this type of blackmail during the Cold War that it also figured prominently on the US side: one of the main justifications proffered for drumming out gays and lesbians from the federal government during the McCarthy era was that they were susceptible to being blackmailed by the Soviets. Though no one ever found a single instance of that.
One of the most frustrating arguments in the post-Edward Snowden world is the argument that you should have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. This is wrongheaded for any number of reasons, but sexual practice is a perfect example. This is because many people enjoy sexual practices that a) are perfectly moral, consensual, and legal, but b) we have no interest in sharing with the public. Clearly, in this instance, part of what we need to do is to continue to chip away at the edifice of homophobia, and I am willing to admit that this is a particularly acute problem in the Muslim world. But defeating homophobia will not lead to a world where we all want to share all of our private sexual practices with other. Indeed, it’s my intuitive feeling that many people enjoy private sexual moments in part because they are taking part in practices that they don’t feel need to be shared with the wider world, in contrast with a society that has become so public in so many ways.
I always thought the best book about totalitarianism wasn’t 1984, but A Tale of Two Cities. And in that book, the most constant, important symbol is the eye– the omnipresent eye. Being free means being free to do things that you don’t want other people to know about. It has to.
Jon Chait and Will Wilkinson got together on some sweet, Democrat-defending neoliberalism, going after poor old Tom Frank with the whole “you don’t know the complicated maths!” routine. Chait, of course, is the Andrew Cuomo of the hippie punching press, holding the Mickey Kaus Endowed Chair of Fake Liberalism and spending most of his time raging that anyone to the left of Zell Miller has a national forum at all. He writes for New York magazine, but he would fit in better if it was called Albany. Chait is the ultimate endorser of Teh Politics, the leader of the club of a political philosophy that takes as its central precept that nothing ever, ever changes in politics, ever, unless those remorseless and all-powerful Republicans decide to colonize another planet like the Borg. Thus any political project that isn’t manifested by a bill currently sitting on the President’s desk ready for signature is never worth starting. Which is useful to comfortable centrist white dudes with lifelong tenure among the Very Serious set.
The notion that all political projects that weren’t started by the Congressional White Caucus are doomed is belied by the entire history of a) American politics, b) America, and c) politics, but that’s of little concern to Chait. Chait so long ago slipped into pure self-parody that he now seems to think that unearned condescension is not only all that’s required to win a political argument but that it’s the universal grammar of all human language. I really don’t think the man is capable of considering someone else’s political position without Googling “how do I make my writing more smirky?” He writes the way Brainy Smurf talks.
Now, where someone like Wilkinson, whose politics have never been part of a meaningful mass movement (unlike, say, Thomas Frank), gets off looking down his nose at the supposed political impossibility of Frank’s preferences, I don’t know. In any event, Wilkinson has a moment of clarity when he writes, “the party that succeeds in pulling the median in its direction gets more of what it wants and is forced to concede less of what it doesn’t. This, I think, is the kernel of truth nestled inside Mr Frank’s fulmination.” This is not a kernel of truth; it is the only meaningful truth. Politics is a fulcrum. The center is defined by extremes. Conservatives have won overwhelmingly in the last half century or more– certainly including in the Obama era– not because of overwhelming demographic advantage (which they don’t have) but because they have ruthlessly and with great discipline moved the center, since the Goldwater days. That’s how you get a Chicago liberal constitutional law scholar community organizer President who gloats about cutting food stamps as a way to prove his seriousness and drones Muslim kids like it’s going out of style. (Jon Chait just suddenly got aroused without knowing why.) Move to the right to win the House? They’ll just move with you, the way they have for the last twenty-odd years. They are so much better at moving to the right than you’ll ever be, Democrats. Clinton’s triangulation looked good for about, oh, 18 months before Gingrich showed him what tacking right actually means.
Things in politics change, but they change through demand. I give you the opening section of Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm:
… the American right had been rendered a political footnote–perhaps for good.
The wise men weighed in. Reston of the Times: “He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.” Rovere of the New Yorker: “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” “By every test we have,” declared James McGregor Burns, one of the nation’s most esteemed scholars of the presidency, “this is as surely a liberal epoch as the 19th century was a political one.
The rest, of course, is history. Conservatives won. And they won not despite losses like the Goldwater campaign, but precisely because of them: because they are and have been entirely willing to lose individual elections if it means dragging the fight to the right, and in doing so setting the middle in such a way that even when Democrats win, they lose. Every time some Tea Party candidate defeats an establishment Republican and loses an election, the national media laughs. But the center will have been established, and future Republicans will know that they must move to the right to ward off such primary challenges, and eventually they’ll win, in large measure because terrified Democrats will refuse to make any meaningful attempts to define their party or what it is for. And so when Democrats ride an unprecedented electoral wave, inspired by the most incompetent and corrupt administration in a hundred years, and invest incredible political capital to barely scratch out a legislative win for their health care plan, that health care plan is the one written by Heritage. That’s how conservatives win.
Conservatives do not allow their politicians to say “we can’t push for that, because of Teh Politics.” They make demands, and they enforce those demands through the primary process, and that in turns changes the politics. Democrats preemptively declare defeat on all things, and the Jon Chaits carry their water.
Now for Chait this is all fine– he doesn’t want things to change. Congressional Republicans for Chait serve the exact same function that New York Republican legislators serve for Cuomo: they are a permanent excuse for stasis. Hey, man. Those Republicans. What are you going to do? And so just as is true for Cuomo, there is no responsibility for Chait to ever fight for anything at all. He has the permanent, powerful, built-in excuse for why we’re not going to make any progress, and so he can concentrate on doing what he really loves, which is telling snide jokes about radical leftists, which in his mind includes, like, Tom Daschle. I imagine that Chait would feel total panic if, for a moment, he spied a genuine left-wing political opportunity. But then, he’s paid not to.
But I’m not sure what’s in it for Wilkinson. He’s recently gotten kind of wishy washy about the whole politics deal, seeming to go back and forth between “maybe I’ll write arch neoliberal brow furrowers about liberals that are ideologically convenient for The Economist” and “maybe I’ll draw another doodle of Henry Rollins.” I like Wilkinson and some of his work, but this is boring stuff, and of no particular use for his own project. How does he get to his groovy, open-borders minarchism by aligning with Jon Chait in seeing nothing but political impossibility around him? I don’t have a clue.
I love this, by the way: “Ezra Klein is an incisive analyst with an extraordinarily detailed grasp of policy and a crisp, bland prose style.” Do you think Wilkinson’s opinion of Klein is connected to the technocratic neoliberal nerdbro style they share? I’m thinking yes! Klein’s greatest strength, beyond modelling eyeglasses, is his recognition that being without principles will always be seen, in Washington, as the highest principle of them all. He is fond of saying that he has no ideology, only empiricism, which is like saying you never get wet because you live underwater. But to the degree that he is associated with a certain Saturday-morning-cartoon moderate liberalism based on NBER data and good vibes, it’s fair to ask: how’s all of that going for him, Will? How’s it going for all of us?
Update: One country, two major political parties, two broad ideological orientations. One side has responded to unprecedented electoral defeat by embracing its passionate base, pulling the center towards that base, treating ideological extremity as healthy and beneficial, and politically punishing members of the party that fail to support the ideological project. The other side has responded to unprecedented electoral defeat by insulting its passionate base, chasing the center as it moves towards the other party, treating ideological extremity as inherently shameful and destructive, and politically punishing members of the party that dare to support the ideological project. The former has had tremendous political success, despite the fact that it was obvious to all serious people, at one point, that the country was against them. The latter tries the same thing again and again and again and is always surprised when it fails to achieve its policy aims.
American politics is Republicans saying “I’m the true conservative” and Democrats saying “Don’t worry, I’m not a liberal.” If you think that the former’s success is written in the stars rather than thanks to that basic political strategy, you’re writing yourself out of politics and calling it maturity.
The recent scandals involving NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, for me, have revealed again this central contradiction in contemporary left-of-center thought. We have broad consensus on the left wing that we imprison too many people in America and that our police forces, in general, are overly aggressive and overly protected from punishment when they are guilty of abuse or corruption. And yet there’s also a constant impatience with any advocacy of due process, the presumption of innocence, or rights of the accused. I encounter this personally most when I am looking at Facebook or comments on websites like Gawker. People that I know to be self-identified as left-wing, or online groups that tend to be left-wing like the commenters at Gawker, are nonetheless convinced that every celebrity defendant is guilty, before the process has been given the chance to play out. Yet that due process is one of the only checks we have against the aggressive policing that, after Ferguson, we are trying to fix.
I’m even seeing progressive people putting scare quotes around “due process,” like it isn’t really a thing, or as if it isn’t an essential feature of any functioning democracy, or as if it isn’t threatened by our police state. I find this baffling.
The more sophisticated versions of this insist that rights of due process or the presumption of innocence apply only to the actual legal apparatus and that there is no obligation, moral or rhetorical, to respecting the process or maintaining skepticism about accusations. As I said regarding free speech, this is totally unworkable in actual, practical application. The notion that, for example, the NFL should mete out a harsh punishment on Adrian Peterson before he and his lawyers have had the opportunity to rebut the state’s claims just seems crazy to me. The idea that employers have no obligation to allow due process to work its course just seems contrary to a free society of laws. In a world where you have to eat to live and have to work to eat, saying that there is no expectation to due process in the workplace means that there is no expectation to due process at all. And empowering bosses to fire or punish workers at their whim seems entirely contradictory to basic left-wing commitments.
Take the creator of Cards Against Humanity, Max Temkin. He has been repeatedly referred to as an “accused rapist.” This appellation, clearly, could have a devastating effect on his life. Many would say that he has no right to any presumption of innocence outside of a courtroom. But he’s never been formally charged with anything. As far as I can tell, the only accusation that has been made against him was second-hand and in a Facebook post. If there’s no criminal case against him, how can he defend himself and shed that stigma? Is there literally nothing he can do to restore his reputation? Conor Oberst was also in a situation where his reputation was being destroyed outside of the court system. He responded by suing his accuser, as this seemed to be the only way to actually confront the accusation. He was vilified for doing so– how dare he sue a rape accuser? But these are the self-same people who insist that the only place we have any obligation to due process is in the court system. How can these opinions possibly be balanced in a way that isn’t a nightmare for those falsely accused? Oberst was later totally exonerated, but not before many people had already convicted him in their own minds. And that kind of conviction in the court of public opinion can have devastating social and economic consequences.
Indeed, this line of thinking is so intense that merely expressing doubt or a lack of information will get you labeled a rape denialist online. I know, I’ve been there. Those who doubted the veracity of the Oberst accuser’s story were called rape deniers or rape enablers or worse. And yet they were factually correct. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for people to recognize that we can a) believe that false rape accusations are rare, b) believe that sexual assaults go under-reported and under-prosecuted, but c) that false accusations do happen, rare though they certainly are and d) that for this very reason we require a system of due process. And a healthy recognition that we don’t know everything about every accusation. The notion that believing such things is inherently to dismiss or diminish rape is totally bizarre to me. Indeed: situations like the Oberst accusation, and the immediate rush to judgment by the collective will of the internet, strike me as directly undermining the effort to reduce rape and prosecute rapists.
Yes, it seems to me as well as to others that Adrian Peterson is guilty of a crime. But I know enough to know that I don’t know everything. I also know that rushes to judgment and media prosecutions have a horrible track record in civil society. I also know that presuming that everyone accused in high-profile crimes is guilty cannot help but contribute to prosecutorial overreach and police aggression. Those things go together, as they surely did in the Central Park Five case, where the absolute certainty of average people that the Five were guilty directly contributed to a politicized prosecution, and thus to injustice. More than anything, the rush to assume that we know who is good and who is bad based on our limited information seems again to be part of a juvenile vision of politics, a notion of left-wing practice as a matter of good smart people who know everything and the dumb evil people who wreck everything. That’s not a mature or workable long-term philosophy for social change, and I think the zeal with which we publicly prosecute the accused necessarily contributes to an aggressive and destructive justice system.
Update: “The difference between the Central Park Five and Michael Brown, and the NFL players you’re talking about here, is that the former are poor and lack social capital, and the latter are rich celebrities. What we want is to remove the privileges that prevent such people from facing the consequences of their actions.”
Me too! But that has to come about through challenging the general economic privilege we bestow on the rich, not by making it easier to prosecute crimes in general. Precisely because it’s very unlikely that this will make it harder on the rich, and more likely to make it harder on the poor. I worry about procedure because principle and procedure matters, yes. But also because the consequences of threats to due process and the presumption of innocence will overwhelmingly be borne by those in our culture who lack social capital. I fear that undermining the commitment to due process in these high-profile but small-in-number cases will filter down to the poor people who are typically the target of our judicial process and police.
Perhaps no instinct in American foreign policy debate is more destructive than the tendency to think that the world’s various conflicts always involve good sides and bad sides. This 25-minute Frontline documentary on Boko Haram, and the horrific excesses of the Nigerian government in hunting them, makes plain that the Manichean philosophy of foreign policy cannot withstand scrutiny. I highly encourage you to read it.
A.O. Scott wrote a smart, long, deep piece about the death of adulthood in art and culture in contemporary times. He’s right about most stuff, though very, very safe about everything. It has of course inspired and will inspire a vast number of Hot Takes. Some will praise him. Some of them will be part of the invincible genre of “entitled fans of pop culture cry and whine about their bogus self-conception of being oppressed.” Most will lament with Scott in the general while contributing to the phenomena he mourns in the specific. I am here to cut through the noise for you and speak to you like an adult.
1. Pop culture such as comic book movies, sci-fi, pop music, and genre TV shows has become the most powerful force in the history of human culture. There has never been a cultural force of greater economic power, artistic hegemony, media ubiquity, or social enforcement than today’s pop confections. Never. In any civilization or period of human history. Ever. Base determines superstructure. But as far as superstructure goes, this is as powerful as it gets.
2. There is no such thing as high culture. There probably never was but even if there was it died long, long ago. Outside of your fantasies, there is no group of intellectual elitists looking down their noses at the music or TV you like. Such people do not exist. When you imagine them you are being Homer at college, raging against that grouchy dean.
3. There is no conceit in current intellectual life more demonstrably false or more ubiquitous than the notion that lovers of pop culture, genre fiction, or similar “low culture” are an oppressed and denigrated minority. This is not only true, it is the absolute opposite of the truth. If you are a typical Game of Thrones/Harry Potter/Beyonce loving pop culture lover, you are part of the most spoiled, entitled, serviced, and coddled cultural group in the history of human culture. Ever.
4. In fact, the opposite of the conventional tale is the case: those who like any kind of art or media that has not been blessed to receive the bullshit, self-serving mantel of “pop culture” are subject to a never-ending stream of disdain, dismissal, and abuse. To believe that different types of cultural products should exist, and that some of these should create artistic pleasures based on work, ambiguity, or difficulty, is to be immediately and permanently labeled a snob, an empty signifier that exists simply to provide people with a convenient label to apply to those whose artistic tastes are different than their own. If you like any kind of artwork that does not leave its pleasures totally and utterly accessible at all times and to all people with no expectation that consuming art should involve effort, you will be lectured to by the aggrieved. You will get yelled at by the AV Club and Vulture and Slate, by Steve Hyden and Andy Greenwald and the rest of the crew at Bill Simmons’s Geographical Center of the American Middlebrow, in the New York Times and the New Yorker and every other sundry magazine, blog, site, app, Tumblr, Twittr, Tindr, Grindr, newsletter, listerv, forum, message board, image board, room & board, surfboard and broadsheet that humanity produces. They will deny that what you like is good, deny that you really like it, and invent all sorts of nefarious reasons that you say you like the thing you say you like. They will question not just your right to like what you like but undermine the very notion that someone else could have an aesthetic sense that is different from theirs.
5. The proximate cause of this instinct is an economically broken society in which the society of abundance and security we were promised by national mythology has turned out to be an intricate machine through which the number of winners is steadily reduced and the rewards for those still within that number are steadily increased, leaving us with permanent precarity, an inability to face the desperate need for total economic revolution, and subsequent aggression about the consumptive and aesthetic choices that we feebly use to fill the holes in our heart where our satisfaction, feelings of meaningful work, and sense of life security and fulfillment are supposed to go. Nobody, in a functional society, could really care that much about whether Jim Parsons deserves another Emmy.
6. Everyone who writes any kind of response to Scott’s piece that even minimally agrees with it will feel compelled to lard that response with genuflection and reassurance to the aggressive nerds who police our artistic discourse like prison camp screws, searching everywhere they can think of to find the disrespect they believe is simultaneously their burden to bear and the confirmation that they are part of a great and powerful master race that will rise with the completion of their very own Hero’s Journey story arc, which they imagine to lull themselves to sleep at night on their Boba Fett comforters, which we are forbidden from ever making fun of because then we are guilty of commiting a cultural Kristallnacht in the eyes of said nerds, and they own the executives who own pop culture and the writers who write about it.
7. Pop pleasures do not require defending. It’s like feeling compelled to defend respiration.
8. They’ll keep building the notion of the High Culture Elitist Monster in their minds forever, no matter how palpably unreal it is, because they have so thoroughly entangled the pleasures of art with the soothing novacane of invented victimhood. It’s not that you feel the pleasure and feel the guilt. It’s that the pleasure isn’t pleasurable if you don’t get to pretend that it’s guilty. You throw money at a vast multinational corporation and they give you sugar and you still get to keep the subversive thrill.
9. The only part of adulthood that really matters is the part where when you finally grow up, if you ever really do, it’s because you recognize that there’s other people in the world and that they matter and their needs matter and you need to set aside your self-obsession for long enough to recognize that other people’s needs are often more pressing or important than yours and to act accordingly. Every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy exists to tell you that you are the only human being in the universe.
10. None of this would ever exist if the right people weren’t getting paid.
11. Beyonce is boring.
Update: 12. Tony Scott’s problem is that he refuses to actually consider real-world virtues that come with maturity and adulthood. Like, even a little bit. For all its tweedy NYT weight-shifting, there’s no point where Scott actually bothers to look at factors like 9. here. He’s too concerned about not appearing to be a man of the people. Which is Scott’s singular, existential failing as a critic: he has the instincts and chops of someone willing to criticize the public taste, but not the heart for it. He’s too interested in being beloved to be provocative, so he settles for that NYT Sunday magazine approximation, “thought provoking.” It’s a shame.
You can’t see ideology because you live in it; you are the fish who wonders what water could be.
We’re going to war again. We’re going to war in Iraq again. And we’re going with no better idea of how to win or when to get out or what victory could mean than the last time. The media is beating the drum again. And the same set of characters– the exact same people– who were so terribly wrong last time are going on TV to be wrong again. People like me, just like last time, are not listened to at all. It’s funny. You hear people like Peter Beinart say things like “the age of intervention is over,” and you wonder what world they live in. Nothing has changed. Every disaster, every failure, every civilian lying dead in the sand. And nothing’s changed. Things are exactly the same.
Views like mine, in the world of American foreign policy, are considered extreme. This is because I believe that peace is preferable to war, that the last half-century of American warmaking has in the main been a series of disasters, and that this country’s political class has become so bent on war in the face of any and all challenges that those we call doves are just quieter hawks. I can envision no plausible scenario in which this country stops its endless projection of military force. Not in my lifetime. I suppose I hope only that people in the media will someday be honest and say: we are bent on war, and our media is bent on war, and there is no such thing as an anti-war voice in our politics or media, and we will go to war again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again.
We might “win,” this time. We will certainly destroy ISIS if we set our minds to it. And we will leave behind another failed state, whether after a year or ten, and then that failed state will do what failed states do, and we will go back again. But every time a little weaker, a little more vulnerable, until someday at last, the next war is the one that leads to our own destruction.
Before wars comes warmongering — old white men, stentorian, at peace, aggressive, self-confident, committed, serious, unconcerned, righteous, sure. And then after wars, little old ladies wash the bodies.
I could go into a whole song and dance about all my own biases and self-interest here, but I’ll just go ahead and say simply that I’ve given up on the hope that our media, particularly our digital media, will ever be anything but unremittingly hostile to our higher education system. It’s one of the clearest and most powerful biases in our media today. It’s almost the mirror image of the pro-Apple distortion that makes our media into essentially an unpaid wing of Apple’s advertising department. The traditional right-wing media’s hatred of academics is of course baked right into their ideology. But that hatred is also common to the technocratic neoliberals who run our media, and who are unaware of the way in which their ideology colors that vast majority of what we read. This is added to natural resentments from journalists about who gets to make knowledge and whether knowledge is best made fast or slow. The result is something like today’s digital media, where you’ve got endless fear mongering about college crowding the pages of our most prominent “general interest” publications.
“Bias” is a term that many are trying to challenge lately, and I’m fully on board with that. I don’t want journalists to adopt the View From Nowhere on college. I have a powerful bias regarding our higher education system for obvious reasons. But I would like it if some of the self-important greybeards in the media would examine the quality of their reporting on this issue, and I think it would be worthwhile for some publications to try and find people who aren’t so relentless in their pursuit of the most hysterical takes on college possible. Not to pursue some false ideal of objective journalism, but to better recognize that there are lots of interested parties who are trying to get rich off of the college crisis industry, and whose interests are essentially never given a critical examination. Graeme Wood’s piece on Minerva is bad journalism not because it reaches conclusions that I don’t like but because it is so relentlessly credulous towards its subject. There is no time within that long piece in which Wood meets what I would call an even minimal level of appropriate skepticism towards the revolutionary changes that a (for-profit, self-interested, clearly working him) company tells him are coming. That despite the fact that claims of revolutionary change for education through technology are ubiquitous and inevitably utter failures. Where is Wood’s history? It’s discarded in his rush to find a particular conclusion. And this is the problem with the bias I’m talking about: not that it violates some bogus ideal of perfect journalistic neutrality, but that it blinds journalists to the evidence that cuts against the cult of Disruptively Innovating Innovative Innovators Creatively Destroying college. You don’t have to endorse the View From Nowhere to ask journalists to do their jobs and apply appropriate skepticism towards a Silicon Valley vision of education that floats on an ocean of unsupported assumptions and empty buzzwords.
For my dissertation, I’ve written a chapter about the crisis narrative in higher education. I trace it from the Truman administration to the present day, showing how the narrative simply changes to meet current national worries: in the 40s, it’s fear that colleges have inadequate capacity to enroll all the new students returning from war; in the 50s, it’s competing with the Russians for military technologies; in the 60s, it’s the Space Race; in the 70s, it’s recovering from the chaos and protests of the 60s; in the 80s, it’s competing with the Japanese and West Germans; in the 90s, it’s alternatively trying to undo age-old inequality and injustice in our colleges and fighting against “political correctness run amok.” And then it’s globalization, and China, and 9/11, and inevitably, the internet. The narrative of crisis never, ever changes. It simply adapts to suit the needs of current political parties, and more, for the privateers who exploit the media’s panic reflex in order to wring more dollars out of our investment in higher ed. Looking over the sweep of my primary historical sources, I often asked myself why nobody ever seemed to notice that this notion of a new crisis was perpetual. How many times can the usual suspects ring the same alarm bell, claiming crisis, but changing their justification? Time and again, the American university system met its various challenges. Never perfectly, often too slowly, but consistently. Why does this never seep into the media’s narrative? Probably for the same reason the crisis narrative gets sold again and again: because the right people get paid.
My basic thesis about American elite culture right now is that pretty much everybody who isn’t employed on Wall Street or in tech feels shitty and scared about their professional lives. For perfectly understandable reasons. And that insecurity is uncomfortable, so it inevitably becomes weaponized, projected out onto what everyone else is doing. This has resulted in the Chumps genre, where a particular job or major or calling gets ridiculed as impractical. That way, you get to distract yourself from your own unhappiness and fear for awhile. Those industries that are most commonly described as serving higher callings and greater ideals than simple financial remuneration, which includes the arts, media and journalism, and higher education, are those most likely to receive mockery. But we are all chumps now, and what’s required is not sniping at each other and our desires for meaningful work but to challenge the basic economic policy of this country, which is oriented towards enriching the already rich against all other priorities. We can’t wage that battle if our media is busy carrying water for the masters of the universe by blaming college for its failure to maintain a healthy labor market entirely on its own, a job it was never designed to do.
I have a list of complaints about the modern research university as long as your arm. I don’t know what college will look like a hundred years from now. But I do know that the idea that it’s going to look precisely how some Silicon Valley plutocrat wants it to look is propaganda, and it is incredible how much ink our media spills in spreading that propaganda. And if we can’t have solidarity, let’s at least have variety. Editors of the world: we are already drowning in Hot Takes about how college is in crisis. Those pieces choke the servers of Slate and The Atlantic and The New Republic, published by the dozens every week. Maybe try a new angle. You know, just for fun.
Alternatively, you can just make fun of what I’m saying.