This post, containing links to my work, will stay pinned at the top of this blog.
Every year, I take a moment at Thanksgiving time to express my gratitude and list some of the good things that I have in my life. Today, I find myself spoiled for choice.
The past year has been one of profound professional success and personal satisfaction for me. I completed my PhD this past May. That marked the fulfillment of a lifelong goal of mine, maybe the most important to me to date. I wrote my dissertation in less than a year and finished my PhD in four. Dissertations are notoriously mockable documents, in the broader culture, but I was very happy with how mine came out. It was valuable, to me, and it’s inspired a lot of opportunity, including a project for a big thinktank that I hope to be able to share with you in the next month or so. I can’t tell you the personal satisfaction that comes with cracking open my bound copy and saying to myself, I made this, and it came out just the way I wanted it to. I have also had a piece approved for publication in one of my field’s big journals, one which reflects many of my abundant criticisms of that field, and I’m excited to have that forum. I’ve presented at some cool conferences and met a lot of really passionate, smart people. I’ve been invited to speak at a major gathering of academics, to express my views on the future of the university. It’s been a good year, academically.
It’s also been a year of failure on the job market, I have to add, though I had a number of very near misses. I still get to teach, right now, and I hold out hope. I’ve got a strong CV and a lot to offer a school that wants someone to teach and research in assessment, applied linguistics, or literacy education. I’m still pretty confident that I’ll get the job I want. But it’s the case that I’m not sure if I’ll ever get that opportunity. More and more, though, it’s clear that I can build a life of useful service to those larger projects even if I never do end up getting an academic job, and it remains true that, for me at least, going to grad school was the best decision I ever made.
The ability to survive outside of a permanent academic job has been facilitated by a great streak in professional writing. In the past year or so, I’ve been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, the New Republic website, the New York Times website, In These Times, Playboy, Vox, The Week, Full Stop Quarterly, and others. In just a few weeks, my piece on Louis Farrakhan and the future of black political organizing will appear in Harper’s Magazine. That piece is a labor of love representing several years of work; its venue, the magazine I’ve wanted to publish in for my entire adult life. I’ve just been given a column at the Observer, which fulfills a longstanding desire of mine to get a regular gig at a publication I respect. The money is pretty good, and the regularity of that paycheck will help a lot with the rent. I have a few other big projects that I can’t yet announce which I’m really excited about. Though nothing formal has come of it, I’ve written a book proposal, gotten some interest from literary agents and publishers, and started to seriously pursue getting a book published. All in all it’s been a great year for this part of my life. I’ve turned down more work this year than I have ever gotten before, and while there’s still not much money, I’m more financially stable than I have been in my adult life. And I’ve never written anything just for money, or compromised on principle in order to get published or paid. I’m incredibly grateful for it all.
And while another year older means another year of wear and tear on a bad back, a bigger amount of effort to stay in shape, deepening I-can-no-longer-pretend-they-aren’t wrinkles, and increasing irrelevancy to advertisers, it also means a greater sense of self-ownership and mental health. My management of my various medical issues is better than ever. And in a more general sense, I just leave myself alone in a way that I couldn’t have imagined even five years ago. I wouldn’t trade 34 for 24, not for a million dollars. I just let myself alone about stuff. I think back to how badly I’d beat myself up, for years — all of the pointless anxiety, the self-doubt, the insecurity, the self-loathing. I just gave it all up. What an exhausting waste of time. I read criticism, and pay attention to it, but I don’t care about empty personal attacks, and in the end I keep my own counsel on my own work and its value. It’s not a matter of self-esteem or self-confidence. It’s a matter of self-ownership.
More dear to me than anything, and the biggest source of personal happiness: after a terrible illness and a permanent disability, Miles is still with me, largely thanks to your generosity. That’s worth giving thanks for by itself.
In general, it’s been a remarkable year for me, one of happiness and good fortune. I’m a very privileged person, both in the political sense that term is now used most often and in the deeper, less clumsy sense. I am thankful for my beautiful family and all of my wonderful friends. I’m not sure how long my good luck will last, but I know that I’ll figure out the future no matter what, and I’m more confident than ever that I will be able to continue enjoying a life of intellectual stimulation, meaningful work, and intense relationships. I’m so lucky and grateful, and I hope you are too.
I continue to be in this position that people seem to find untenable: I think some parts of the ongoing student protests are good, and some are bad, and I praise the good parts, and criticize the bad parts. I also make an effort to separate the goals of these protests from the likelihood that they’ll succeed, because that’s the way politics works: real allies assess the chance that given movements are actually going to be able to achieve their goals. All of this seems like the most natural thing in the world — to sort good from bad — but both liberals and conservatives alike, these days, seem absolutely bent on all-or-nothing when it comes to this issue.
I feel compelled again to be the voice of pessimism. Look at the demands from the student group at Wesleyan, where I grew up, where I learned about both college and activism. Demand number three:
HIRING OF AN EQUITY ADVOCATE
The Equity advocate will work under the Office of Student Affairs to engage with students regarding equity within the confines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, culture, gender-identity, and physical or mental disability*.
Look: this will never, ever work to meaningfully change Wesleyan. Never. Institutions cannot regulate themselves. And an equity officer, no matter how well-meaning that person may be, no matter how much input students have in picking them, no matter how much independence that office is granted, will always be a part of the institution. Always. That office will, as every administrative position necessarily must, work to defend the institution and to perpetuate the administrative class that governs it. It will function within the institution’s imprimatur. The equity advocate will be paid by Wesleyan. They will be colleagues with other Wesleyan administrators. They will go out for dinners with other administrators; they will go to administrative functions with the people they are meant to be keeping an eye on; they will go to parties at their homes. They will become part of the fabric of the institution. They will become an element of the very culture that they are meant to police. That’s not the result of some nefarious conspiracy, and it’s also not an artifact of the character of whoever fills that role. It is an inescapable aspect of the nature of administrative positions: they exist, and will always exist, to serve the institution. Always.
Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict. I can easily foresee the equity advocate functioning as a thorn in the side of faculty, deepening the already-existing divide on campuses between faculty and administration. After all, the list goes on to demand a formal system of student surveillance of professors, keeping an eye on them for microaggressions. I can see that sort of thing being very useful to any administration that is looking to keep professors in their place. But a meaningful force for change? No. A cushy private school administration position cannot be the force for change that these students are looking for. What it can do, though, is function as the kind of empty symbolic win that allows people to declare victory and go home, the kind that distracts from the lack of actual, structural change to institutions. It’s the kind of thing that the left falls for again and again, only to discover that somehow, the world is what it has been.
Now, the question is: are you an ally if you ignore these problems and just give these students the kind of golf claps they’re getting on social media? Or are you an ally if you tell them the uncomfortable truth?
“I had a kind of epiphany moment when, a year or so ago, when they organized grassroots Republicans, the first wave of the Tea Party… I was sitting in a hotel room, jumping between two channels on TV: one was Fox News. The other one was PBS. On Fox News, it was a live transmission of a Tea Party event in Texas, where a singer was singing a anti-Washington, anti-state expenditures song. On PBS, there was a documentary on the great leftist icon Pete Seeger. I was shocked at how the words — although the political meanings weren’t — were almost the same. Both were singing about we small, ordinary people, we are exploited, big bad guys, bankers in Washington, Wall Street and so on…. This is the tragedy. This is the tragedy at its purest.” – Slavoj Zizek, Democracy Now, 2013.
It is no doubt true that America’s mistakes in the Middle East, from the Iraq war to the recent bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, have helped to fan the flames.
Fanning the flames. Two recent events in a century-long history of bad behavior. Maybe we could look back a little bit further to see who, exactly, set the fire in question.
Why don’t we start in Iran. You might think that’s strange, given the origins of ISIS, but give it a bit. In 1953, the CIA deposed the democratically-elected, politically moderate prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, as a favor for the British, who were angry that Mossadegh had put an end to the flatly-exploitative conditions under which British Petroleum was extracting Iranian oil. In Mossadegh’s place, they helped re-install the Shah, a member of Iran’s vestigial monarchy and, as it happens, a brutal dictator whose secret police Savak tortured and murdered his political enemies. The repression and corruption directly created the conditions which allowed for the Ayatollah’s revolution, which swept into Tehran and ended the House of Pahlavi’s control for good. The Shah could not be brought to justice, given that we were still helping our old buddy out with his cancer treatment, and anger over our protection of this hideous dictator helped contribute to the hostage crisis in Tehran. Iran and the Ayatollah quickly became high-profile enemies for the people, government, and media of the United States.
Things were far more stable, and far more conducive to the interests of the United States, in Saudi Arabia, which is often (clumsily but more-or-less accurately) represented as a Sunni counterbalance to Shiite Iran. There, the ruling House of Saud had already established warm ties with the American government, which was only too happy to look past the Saudi government’s theocracy, corruption, and aristocratic system of governance, in exchange for consistent access to the world’s largest proven oil reserves and the stability of despotism. That corrupt theocracy reigns to this day, where it tortures dissidents, executes countless people for petty crimes, keeps women in a state of near-total subservience, and steals the country’s abundant mineral wealth to fund impossibly lavish lifestyles for the decadent princes. This decadence does not damper the Saudi enthusiasm for being the leading funder of Wahhabist extremism, an arch-conservative strain of Islam.
With the hostage crisis seen as a humiliating rebuke to a proud superpower, and with the Cold War amplifying this country’s desperation to always appear powerful, our leaders sought to punish the nascent Islamic regime in Tehran. The United States looked to a state that had been created by Western powers in the early 20th century, under the typical policy of establishing puppet governments to exert control over territory they could no longer directly occupy. In Iraq, an enterprising young dictator named Saddam Hussein seemed like an ideal vehicle through which to oppose Iranian interests. Hussein, an almost unimaginably corrupt and brutal ruler, was the head of the country’s Ba’ath party, which functioned as a kind of Sunni political domination of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Hussein’s fear of rising Shiite power, and his natural expansionistic nature, made him a perfect representative of American interests in the region, in the eyes of American leadership at the time. Naturally, we gave Hussein money, arms, and intelligence, which he used against Iran in one of the most brutal and endless wars of the 20th century. That he also used our help to brutalize his own people was well known within our government and considered an acceptable price of doing business. Among other things, the Iran-Iraq war helped empower hardliners within the Iranian political systems, as wars inevitably do. We also provided Hussein’s military with satellite imagery that was used to undertake the kind of chemical weapons attacks we now draw red lines over.
Meanwhile, the United States was fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union, itself a corrupt and destructive imperial power, had foolishly committed itself to the military defense of the country’s unpopular government, which was besieged by irregular troops referred to as the Mujahideen. These Islamic resistance fighters were backed by a diverse and complex set of international groups, including both Iran and, crucially, the United States, which provided billions of dollars worth of arms as well as training. The war went very poorly for the Soviets, and was one of the primary causes of the collapse of the USSR. It also helped to destroy the infrastructure and civil government of the country, which along with its notoriously rough terrain and great ethnic and tribal diversity, made Afghanistan a natural incubator for extremist religious groups. Naturally, some of the groups we funded were among the most violent and terrible you can imagine.
In 1990, our old pal Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, aided in part by the weaponry we had paid for. The United States and a coalition of supporting countries rose to stop Hussein’s advance, in an effort to protect the norm of countries not invading other countries and to protect the world’s access to Kuwait’s oil reserves. Hussein’s army was swiftly defeated, the United States exposed thousands of Iraqis and of its own troops to depleted uranium, and we pulled out, leaving the Ba’athist government of Hussein intact. This decision was explained by realist foreign policy bigwig Dick Cheney, who argued that a post-Saddam Iraq would face a crisis of government that could result in massive violence or civil war, and that the coalition did not have the resources or strategic plan in place to secure the peace in such conditions. In the years that followed, the United States further punished the regime with economic sanctions. Even under conservative estimates, these sanctions resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and further degraded Iraq’s economy and civil infrastructure, but did essentially nothing to loosen the regime’s hold on power.
One of the most important consequences of the Gulf War was the United States pouring troops into Saudi Arabia. Whether you are inclined to see this move as the consequence of a desire by the US to ensure stability in the post-Desert Storm Middle East, or as an effort to protect access to the world’s largest oil preserves, or you see the protection of access to oil as synonymous with establishing stability, we sent the troops. This move was considered a slap in the face to many conservative Muslims, as Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s most holy sites. In some Islamic traditions, the presence of heretics in the country is seen as an inherent insult to god and the prophet. This is particularly true of the aforementioned Wahhabis, a small but influential sect of arch-conservative Muslims. Wahhabism is particularly prominent among the Saudi Arabian elite, which helps explain its outsize influence. Among the wealthy Saudis who were incensed at the presence of large numbers of US troops in the country was a man named Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden came from a very wealthy family, which controlled one of the most profitable construction firms in the world. He was known to be unusually devout, even as a child, and after college he joined many other conservative Muslim students in traveling to Afghanistan to take part in the aforementioned war against the Soviets and their puppet government. Though it’s unclear how much actual fighting bin Laden took part in, his time in Afghanistan raised his profile, making him a hero to many mujahadeen and helping him to build a network of fellow travelers. With his money, his experience and training in the Afghan war, his contacts, and his religious zeal, bin Laden was ideally suited to become the mastermind of a radical terrorist network, and eventually, he did. Enraged by the Saudi government’s cozy relationship with the US government and the American troops in the holy land, bin Laden emigrated to the Sudan, where he built the terrorist network known as al Qaeda, including the now-infamous training camps. Under pressure from both the American and Saudi Arabian governments, Sudan finally expelled bin Laden in 1996, and he traveled back to Afghanistan. Conveniently for him, the Taliban was ascendant, and bin Laden found the country an ideal place to launch a religious war. The United States and other countries, for their part, indicted him on a series of charges, and tried unsuccessfully to expel him from Afghanistan to arrest him.
After a series of terrorist attacks, which resulted in retaliatory missile strikes by the United States– including one which leveled a Sudanese aspirin factory– bin Laden’s network launched easily the largest and most destructive terrorist attack in history, on September 11th, 2001.
These attacks inspired the United States to invade Afghanistan and remove the Taliban, leading to a decade-plus of occupation, state-building, and army-training, none of which has particularly worked. The corrupt US-backed Karzai government certainly didn’t help matters much, but it’s entirely unclear whether a Western-installed government could succeed in that state given the years and years of destruction of civic infrastructure and factionalization wrought by warring imperial powers. In any event, the future of Afghanistan and its current government remains very much in doubt, with a resurgent Taliban threatening to win back more territory. Additional American reactions to the 9/11 attacks included building a Kafkaesque permanent lawless internment camp at Guantanamo Bay where prisoners were held for over a decade without charges or trial, the regular disappearance of Muslims targets to foreign countries to facilitate torture, establishment of a vast network of illegal surveillance on both Americans and foreign citizens, and, curiously, the invasion of Iraq.
Curiously, because not a single one of the attackers on 9/11 was an Iraqi, and despite a long series of feints and misdirections by the George W. Bush administration, no evidence had been or has been found to show any meaningful link between the Hussein government and the attacks. But that case was made, as was the equally-evidence free assertion that Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and was intent on deploying them against the United States. The United States invaded and swiftly dispatched of Hussein’s army and government. In a move demonstrating the prescience and good sense the American foreign policy establishment is known for, the provisional government proceeded to launch a policy of de-Baathification and disbanded the army, essentially firing the civil servants that might have kept Iraqi infrastructure afloat and sending hundreds of thousands of angry men into the streets without employment or structure to their lives. Within a few short months, an anti-American insurgency had begun, and sectarian fighting between Iraq’s Shiite majority and its previously-ruling Sunni minority began in earnest. Iraq became one of the world’s most profoundly failed states, home to a horrific civil war, a Vichy government seen as inherently illegitimate by much of Iraq’s population, and a vast refugee crisis. In time, the combination of blows left Iraq close to total civic collapse. The ultimate costs of this invasion included a dollar cost to the United States in the trillions of dollars, the lives of several thousand American troops, the flight of millions of Iraqis, and the cost of the lives of some 600,000 Iraqi people or more.
In time, the violence died down. The proximate causes of this slowdown included the fact that a significant percentage of the potential combatants had already been killed and that many of the sites of the greatest violence had already been effectively ethnically cleansed. But many within the United States government and media insisted that the violence had ceased because of “The Surge,” an increase in the number of American troops in the country and, crucially, a program of mass bribery of potential combatants, a program in which millions of dollars and thousands of guns were pumped into the coffers of unaccountable and unstable factions that felt no particular loyalty to the recently-invented Iraqi government. This had the essential effect of further undermining the ostensible democratic nature of the Iraqi state and shipping more arms into a country already filled with ordnance, much of it that had initially been earmarked for the Iraqi army but which found itself into other hands by mysterious means.
Simultaneously, Nouri Al-Maliki, the corrupt leader of the American-established Iraqi government, undertook a program of retribution and exclusion against the Sunnis, depriving them of access to the government, army, and much else of Iraqi civil society. This has frequently been represented as an example of Al-Maliki’s unique immorality, but it’s worth saying that this is an essentially inevitable aspect of “humanitarian intervention”; retribution against losing groups is a consequence of even the most well-intentioned intervention. Whatever the case, Al-Maliki’s actions further enraged thousands of Iraqi Sunnis who were already angered by their loss of control of the country. This anger helped push more Iraqis into what remained of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had come to be largely confined to the deserts of Iraq’s western border — a border that had recently become unsettled.
Things had been stable in Syria for some time, if we can understand the meaning of “stable” to include a brutal dictatorship and the violent proxy control of a neighboring country. The House of Assad had reigned in Syria for decades, benefitting from the close support of the Soviet and Russian governments. This support was necessary, as under colonialism France had intentionally stoked ethnic and religious divisions between the country’s many internal factions. The United States government had played the role of benefactor for some time, but after a few too many CIA-backed coup attempts, undertaken with the intention of more directly controlling Syria’s government, the country fell under the Soviet sphere of influence. The Assads were able to utilize these sectarian divisions to help keep control of the country; Syria’s sizable Alawite and Christian minorities have long feared reprisals from the Sunni majority should the Assad government fall. That event became far more likely in 2011, with the Arab Spring.
In the context of mass regional protests, many of them rallying against US-backed dictators, Syrian protests erupted throughout the country. The Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, responded with a typically heavy hand, deploying his military against unarmed demonstrators and ramping up the use of torture and execution of his political enemies. In time, the protests bloomed into a full-out civil war. It is common now for American commentators to insist that there was a period in which this resistance was free of Islamic extremism, and that had we only been willing to intervene on their behalf then, we might now be looking at a democratic Syria. This strikes me as precisely the kind of Pollyanna outcome that exists only in the world of the hypothetical, a world where violence always leads unerringly to positive outcomes. Regardless, the civil war became an impossibly bloody conflict, sending millions of refugees fleeing the area. The number of factions and actors involved was and is impossibly complex. Among them was a number of vicious Islamist forces, intent on establishing a fundamentalist Wahhabi state in Syria. One of these was what we know refer to as ISIS.
Battle-hardened Sunni Iraqis, many of them formerly part of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, became the Iraqi wing of this movement. In time, the border between Syria and Iraq became meaningless, under the control of ISIS. The group started to advance in northern Iraq, taking vast swaths of territory with minimal resistance from the Iraqi army. This is not surprising; that force was never likely to stand up to significant opposition, given that the country they were defending was and is seen in many parts of Iraq as illegitimate. In time, ISIS took over sufficient territory, and claimed to have established a new caliphate. They also undertook a series of very public and brutal acts of terrorism, such as the repeated beheading of Westerners and suicide bombings. These acts have been broadcast widely on social media, a favored tool of the organization. The Syrian quagmire has only deepened, with the United States and other NATO powers now in the uncomfortable position of being committed to both the end of the Assad regime and to attacking the most significant threat to his rule.
At present, ISIS is under a series of air assaults from not just the United States but France and Russian and Turkey. Increasingly, however, a growing chorus in the United States calls for ground troops, under the theory that any action which previously broke a place must surely be capable of fixing it as well. Wealthy Saudis, many of them likely connected to the government there, continue to pour money into the Islamic State, yet another in a litany of bad behaviors we excuse from one of the most casually destructive regimes in the world, a regime that we support like few others. ISIS’s terrorist attacks have grown in violence and audacity, including, of course, this week’s terrible attack on Paris. Some will no doubt represent my position as absolving ISIS of responsibility for its crimes. That is not how causality works and it’s not how morality works. There is no excuse for ISIS’s actions, and in total the group is a force for almost cartoonish evil in the world, like a fever dream of the most awful corruption of Islam imaginable. I am simply insisting on pointing out that our horrific behavior has a hand in the horrific behavior we decry now.
I have not, obviously, mentioned many aspects of American foreign policy in the greater Muslim world — in Lebanon, in Israel and Palestine, in Libya, in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Bahrain, and elsewhere. These involve support for all kinds of brutal regimes, intentional destabilization of governments, funding and arming of extremist groups, killing of civilians, and all manner of other bad behavior.
It seems increasingly likely to me that bin Laden will get what he wanted: a regional war in the Middle East. Attacks like those in Paris have the intention of pulling NATO powers deeper and deeper into conflict. This is a bad idea for the actual ISIS organization; but it’s a fine way to pursue the larger aims of men like bin Laden. Essential to this plan is the understanding that the United States and its allies don’t have to actually lose a war in order to be crippled by such an action. The fighting would likely be longer and harder than Americans realize, but I don’t doubt that eventually, NATO forces would win. But foreign soldiers in the area would present an inviting target for every extremist for thousands of miles, and the war would serve as a recruiting tool for many more. And if the immediate war ended, next would come the peacekeeping. This is a task that we have demonstrated again and again to be incapable of undertaking effectively, and to attempt to police the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands would be a monumental task. That continuing question of what would happen with the Syrian civil war would only complicate this already fraught scenario. The loss of life, the vast expense, the inability to define victory, the poor likelihood of building a stable government, all of it strikes me as a quagmire of the worst kind. Yet I don’t doubt that we may be heading in that direction.
I don’t doubt it because we are addicted to intervening. The central faith appears to be this: the next intervention is always the one that will fix things. The history of the United States in the Muslim world is the history of bad decisions that lead inexorably to more bad decisions. And yet this history, as I’ve presented it to you, will no doubt be considered by some to be a paranoiac conspiracy theory, despite how little of the factual information is disputed by any serious source. The alternative to our typical behavior — to stop imagining that the next intervention will be the last intervention, to simply refuse to intervene, based on the endless history of destructive and inhumane interventions in the past — is always represented as the opinion of a fringe. Even now, many in the American political conversation insist that we should have been more aggressive in the last days of our occupation in Iraq, that this would have forestalled current problems, despite our country’s natural exhaustion with war and the refusal of the Iraqi government to comply. Always: there was some bloodshed that we should have taken part in the past, and there is some new bloodshed that we have no choice but to take part in now. And maybe that next entanglement will be the one that finally fatally sickens the American empire.
So, you know, all in all, Mr. Younk, I think we’ve done quite a bit more than fan some flames. And I think as we ponder what to do about another spate of unimaginable violence, the kind to make you give it all up to despair, I think it’s useful to remember our history, the history that makes us easily the greatest source of destruction and instability of the past 70 years.
An emailer to the Atlantic‘s notes section, self-described as “a graduate student in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university,” writes:
The idea, to put it simply, is that the way we represent people, places, and things is as important—if not more important—than reality itself.
In fact, reality is actually itself shaped by the way it is represented. Thus, making use of clichés and stereotypes, using a word that contains certain connotations, or even simply speaking at all without the proper qualifications (primarily based on gender/race/class identity) may not just be questions of taste but, instead, potentially grave acts of violence.
Some may remember that in the 1990s, this formed the basis for a broad debate in academia over the merits of what was generally referred to as “postmodernism.” This debate is pretty much over, partially due to the turnover of older professors trained in materialist methodologies retiring and being replaced by younger scholars who enthusiastically embrace the priorities of the “cultural turn.”
This is a frustrating attitude. Not because it criticizes a reality I agree with, but because it does not describe a reality I recognize. The fact of the matter is, there are all kinds of things happening in the liberal arts and social sciences that have nothing to do with the cultural turn, and all you have to do is be bothered to look for them. But because there are so many people invested in pretending that there is nothing but the cultural turn and “postmodernism,” whatever that even means, they don’t get discussed. The humanities today are defined in the public imagination by a terribly limiting definition of the actual working getting done, despite the fact that much of what is happening is precisely what sighing commentators say they want. This email epitomizes that position.
I happens that I have recently completed my doctorate in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university. Not just the humanities, but an English department. Surely, that must be the darkest pit of the “authoritarian turn” in the liberal arts, right? A place where nothing but wooly postmodernism and viciously-enforced identity politics reigns.
No. Quite the contrary, in fact. Within Purdue’s English department, you have people who, like me, are primarily quantitative researchers. I spent my last several years there working in assessment theory, spending a healthy amount of my time taking graduate statistics courses and learning the ins and outs of algorithmic approaches to language research. This learning was not only not resisted by my faculty or department, but was widely and enthusiastically supported. My friend Xun, one of the most brilliant quantitative minds I’ve ever interacted with, spent his career as an English PhD student at Purdue almost exclusively working in testing theory, psychometrics, and statistics. He’s since gone on to a great job in another Big Ten school. My friend Ploy is working on her dissertation now, having pursued a similar path. Many other students in the department pursue some engagement with quantification, mixing it with more traditional English methodologies, learning skills that they may have to apply in their research or their administrative service in the future. Though I have occasionally received skepticism from people in my broader field about this work, I in fact find that the overwhelming response has been positive and receptive.
Quantitative work remains a niche in English, of course, and probably should; we don’t want to try to save the humanities by making them something else than the humanities. But there are dozens of paths to pursue that are neither numbers-based nor emblematic of the cultural turn. We have many students studying rhetoric here, examining the arts of persuasion, looking at ways in which motivated arguers persuade or fail to persuade an audience. We have experts in composition, who study how better to teach within, administer, and assess university writing programs. We have people studying technical communication, working with scientists and engineers and programmers on how to relay complex technical ideas to an untrained audience. We have scholars devoted to business writing, who work with students on how to understand the complex and subtle communicative codes of the workplace. Our building houses the Indigenous and Endangered Languages Lab, where thousands of hours of audio of endangered or extinct languages has been collected and analyzed, some of it the last remaining record of these languages in the whole world. We have people working in visual rhetoric, asking how design cues make various kinds of texts more readable, more stylish, and more persuasive. We’ve got people looking at how reading text on computers, tablets, and phones alters the reading experience. My friend Kyle is looking at disasters as the product of breakdowns in written communication, studying how incidents like the Challenger explosion could have been prevented with more effective written communication. Another friend is examining decades worth of trial transcripts concerning expert witnesses to see how expertise is defined in a courtroom and how that definition influences legal outcomes.
We also have plenty of people doing the traditional humanistic work that critics so often say they want. We have people studying literature and the arts for their aesthetic value and meaning, undertaking historical analysis and close reading of precisely the kind that the people mourning the good old days ask for. We have people workshopping novels and poetry. We have plenty of people looking at the work of the old dead white guys, if that’s what this is really about. And, yes, we do have people looking at the world through a lens of critical race theory and feminism. Many. I don’t see that as a problem. In fact, much of this work is profoundly generative and necessary. Like all disciplines, these fields contain both better and worse, but the basic notion that we should consider the role of race and gender and similar issues in society seems beyond obvious to me. I do think, and have said, that my own subfield’s manic embrace of cultural studies has led to many negative consequences, and that we need to re-broaden our subjects and our methods. I do recognize that the urge to politicize everything can be overpowering. But plenty of people are doing other kinds of work, and if people like myself continue to advocate for the need for balance and diversity in our approach, that condition will continue.
And it’s worth saying: even in the world of theory, the kind of postmodern nothing-is-realism that typical complaints caricature is hopelessly out of fashion. People are at least a couple turns of the generational cycle away from there now. I’m out of touch with that world, but it’s worth saying at least that the world of theory has been through a robust rejection of the linguistic turn that the emailer skewers. You sometimes see this referred to as the “new materialism”: the insistence by theorists, so often derided as rejecting reality entirely, that we have to pay attention to the structure of the world as its experienced by most people and to have an accounting for that structure that enables us to do ethical work. Donna Haraway, one of the key architects of the new materialism, once put the challenge this way: “to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects… and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness.” That sounds like a project worth embracing to me. Yes, Haraway insists that knowledge claims are radically contingent — that our understanding of the world is necessarily situated in a context which limits our understanding and shapes how we describe it. But she also insists that we can’t make progress without being no nonsense in developing accounts for how the real world works. Karen Barad, another new materialist whose doctorate is not in English but particle physics, titled a profoundly influential article on these themes “Getting Real.”
Why do these stories not get told? I’m not sure why this anonymous email critic isn’t aware of the vast world of non-cultural studies work going on in the humanities. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say he (and it’s probably a he) is one of the academy’s legion of disgruntled types who believes himself to be an undiscovered genius whose work is ignored because of a powerful political conspiracy. But in general, why do the many critics of the modern humanities, like Steven Pinker, still describe English departments the way they looked in the 1980s? Because though they say they dislike that condition, they are comfortable with that narrative; it is easy to ridicule and easy to dismiss. Much of the media has a party line, when it comes to the academy, and emails like the one at the top pretty much epitomize it: that the liberal arts are universally about left-wing pomo nonsense. Actually bothering to look and see if that’s true is harder than simply getting all of the anti-academic pageviews they’ve specialized in. You see, reform requires actual investment. It requires work. You actually have to care enough to dig in and get your hands dirty and see both the good and the bad. Far more fun, and far easier, just to wave your hand and deride without bothering to look.
Speaking of reform. A follow-up emailer writes in to the Atlantic:
The position that the student takes, which I believe to be well-founded and fair, cannot really be taken with one’s name attached to it, especially if the speaker is a graduate student.
This is an interesting position. I myself have criticized the cultural turn, by name, in print, when I was nothing else but a graduate student. I have done so at conferences, on my own website here, in my own department, and in mailing lists that include some of the most influential and connected scholars in my field. I have tried to be as public in my arguments for reform as I can be, under the theory that this is necessary to invoke the public to make real change. I don’t have tenure. In fact I don’t even have a long-term job; I’m currently teaching semester to semester as a limited term lecturer. Could there be some career repercussions for publicly questioning the current state of my field? Sure, I guess. But that’s adult life; you say what you think is right and you sign your name to it and accept the consequences. If these emailers want to be part of a reform effort, then they need to have the integrity to say so, publicly, by name. If you’re not brave enough to speak your criticisms publicly, then you don’t deserve to consider yourself an agent of change. And if they’d bother to look beyond the very narrow confines of a certain vision of the research elite, I think they’d find they have a lot of allies doing tons of vital work.
And we better get ready for it.
It’s looking more and more like these recent campus protests are going to bloom into a real, widespread movement. That’s a wonderful development. We need to be proactive in defending this nascent movement, and we need to be completely honest with ourselves about the inevitable backlash and retrenchment. I actually am not too worried about the administrations at most universities; I think that many of them are realizing that the students have real power, that the students and the faculty are the university, and that they can’t ignore these demands forever. No, my real fear is state politics and state universities. I have no doubt that some state legislatures and governors will use this issue as a way to push their typical narrative about the university and call for further defunding of our public institutions. Indeed, as Dave Weigel reports, national GOP leaders are already going there. I’m very afraid that, because conservatism so dominates state politics in the US, we’re going to see a lot of these bodies come down hard on campuses with effective protests.
So if like me you’re sympathetic to these protests, I think you’ve got to start to lay the groundwork and fight for representation for these students in these bodies. If you live in Missouri and you support the protesters, you need to start calling and emailing your state legislators now. If you support the protesters, you need to start calling and emailing the (Democrat) governor now. You’ve got to make these demands. And people in other states have to be prepared for the fights that are likely ahead. Because everything I know about 21st century America tells me that the empire is going to strike back, and hard, and it will use the bodies it most strictly controls to do so.
The recent student protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri have provoked many fundamental questions about our universities and our political values, and rightly so. Students have demanded formal recognition and reform from university administrators, arguing that our campuses are still filled with racial inequality and discrimination. A powerful backlash has brewed, with many claiming that these protests function as an assault on free speech rights on campus. The issues of racial equality and free expression on campus are fundamental to our conceptions of higher education, and we need to address them carefully. But these situations should also compel those of us on the left to consider the relationship between our goals and our tactics. Too often, the American left sacrifices the potential for meaningful victory at the altar of our political purity, allowing us to maintain our righteous posture but preventing us from achieving real change. If we truly honor the cause of these protesters, we must prioritize tactics that are likely to result in building a mass movement, rather than those that merely speak to the converted.
Consider the relationship of these protests to free speech. At both campuses, an unfortunate meme has developed that the struggle for racial equality stands in antagonism to free speech rights. At Yale, students called for the resignation of an administrator following an email they deemed insensitive. At MU, students were accused of threatening members of the press, preventing them from doing their work. Both of these situations are complex, and neither group of protesters deserves to be tarred with censorship accusations. But the accusations stuck, and in the world of political organizing, perception matters even if when that perception is not entirely fair.
How best to respond to these claims? In the heat of political organizing, in a polarized political landscape, I understand why the protesters and some of their allies in the press might argue affirmatively against the principles of free speech on campus. After all, when it seems like the entire mainstream media is casting your efforts as antagonistic to free expression, it would be easy to accept that this conflict is real, and to adopt a bunker mentality in which you defend against criticisms stemming from a civil liberties perspective by denying the importance of those liberties. And, unfortunately, there is in fact a strain of the academic left that does see freedom of speech as an outdated artifact of white supremacy, which I have encountered in both my academic and political life. I recognize why student protesters might feel moved to adopt an anti-free speech stance.
But if this attitude is understandable, it’s also unfortunate, and not merely in the sense of political principle. That attitude is also contrary to their pragmatic goals. In order to effectively fight racism, these passionate student protesters will have to win over converts to their cause. That’s not an invocation of an abstract political principle; it’s a simple statement of the practicality of power. Because the white majority controls most of this country’s institutions, anti-racist activists must rally masses to their cause, to utilize people power. They must gain the support of those who are not already convinced of their message, whether or not that expectation is fair. And free speech is very, very popular in American life. By arguing as if the student protests are in fact antagonistic to free speech, supportive journalists and writers surely stoke the passions of those who already agree with the protesters. But they do little to help the cause of creating new allies, in a country that embraces the principle of free expression with almost religious fervor.
The message should not be that these students are protesting against free speech, but that their protests represent free speech at its best, and that isolated incidents that seem to reflect a resistance to free expression do not reflect the true character of this movement. To respond defensively by lashing out against the concept of free speech is to violate a core principle of political strategy: never play into your opponent’s frame! Why should these protest movements accept the negative stereotype that their critics have made of them? Instead, protesters and their allies in the media should turn the accusation back around at these critics. We should insist that, by failing to prevent the harassment and exclusion of students of color, college administrators have in fact inadequately defended the basic rights of these students, most certainly including the right to free expression. We should also insist that, by raising their voices in protest, these students are in fact embracing the principle of free expression in its truest sense.
Some will continue to insist that the fight for racial equality should trump the right to free speech. This strikes me as a terrible political miscalculation, and a fight the protesters can’t win. As is so often the case with the left, the conflict is between what appears righteous to the already-convinced and what is actually most likely to result in real change. We have to ask ourselves this basic question: are we more interested in being right, or more interested in changing the world? I’m afraid a lifetime spent in left-wing politics teaches me that the answer to this question is not always clear.
Right now I just think there’s this fundamental problem where so many people who identify themselves as being part of the broad left define their coalition based on linguistic cues, cultural overlap, and social circles. The job of politics, at its most basic, is finding common cause with people who aren’t like you. But current incentives seem to point in the opposite direction — surveying the people who are just like you and trying to come up with ways in which that social connection is actually a political connection.
As usual, I blame the internet, which I’m more and more convinced is one of the worst things to ever happen to the left. It encourages people to collapse any distinction between their work life, their social life, and their political life. “Hey, that person who tweets about the TV shows I like also dislikes injustice,” which over time becomes “I can identify an ally by the TV shows they like.” The fact that you can mine a Rihanna video for political content becomes, in that vague internety way, the sense that people who don’t see political content in Rihanna’s music aren’t on your side. The fact that you are part of the tiny sliver of humanity that lives in very small geographical and social enclaves in a handful of coastal cities and can identify some such thing as the “litbro” doesn’t change the fact that 99.9% of the people who use the term “bro” would find the conflation of that term with a love for literature totally, utterly confusing. But since those enclaves are vastly overrepresented in digital media, so is the concept of the litbro, which then becomes another means through which potential allies are alienated by the obscurity and insiderism of left discourse. With no one particularly intending it to be so, left discourse becomes indistinguishable from a social discourse that is exclusive rather than inclusive.
There are over 315 million people in America. How many have heard of the BernieBro? 5,000? 10,000? How many words have been written about the phenomenon despite that fact?
Establishment power controls our institutions, and thus wins by not losing. The left needs to make active change, and it needs to do so in spite of inherent and structural disadvantages. The moneyed have money; the powerful have power. The left only has people power. And so our coalition can’t be subject to the artificial constraints that the emphasis on social culture and language create. You can’t take on inequality and injustice with a coalition of people who use the same slang, listen to the same music, and post the same emojis that you do. That will never be sufficient. And so we have to rebuild the distinction between solidarity and friendship. We have to stop acting like cultural consumption and the use of slang are meaningful indicators of political connection. We have to stop judging people for their social foibles and dressing it up as political critique. You have to be willing to sacrifice your carefully curated social performance and be willing to work with people who are not like you.
So here’s a thing that’s happening at Yale. I stress: it’s really happening. It’s not a conservative media invention. It’s verified. Yale students are calling for the resignation or firing of Erika Christakis, Associate Master of Silliman College, and her husband, Master of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis, over an email about potentially offensive Halloween costumes. Here is what has so inflamed Yale undergraduates:
“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
That’s sufficient to get people screaming for your firing, nowadays. Note that what Christiakis is talking about — students becoming complicit in the hierarchies of the neoliberal university by constantly invoking the power of administrators — is precisely what I was warning about in my New York Times Magazine piece… and that the students have responded by epitomizing that tendency.
As I’ve said before, there’s a confusing and frustrating divide on these issues for me. One part of my life, the part that engages with the broader political conversation, is filled with well-meaning liberal and left people who say “oh, there’s no illiberal attitudes among college students — that’s all a conspiracy by the conservative media.” These people, generally, are not on campus. Meanwhile, my extensive connections in the academy, and my continuing friendships with many people who are involved in the world of campus organizing, report that this tendency is true — and often justify it, arguing that this illiberalism is in fact a necessary aspect of achieving social justice. It’s disorienting and frustrating to get arguments of denial in one part of my life and arguments of justification in another.
Even worse, though, is a common response I hear: OK, yes, there are college students who display illiberal attitudes and aren’t very committed to free speech. But they’re just college students, and they’ll grow out of it, and who cares what a bunch of 19 year olds think, anyway? I find this very frustrating as well. Teaching college students is the only job I’ve ever really wanted. It’s uncool to talk about having a calling, but I have one, and it’s to be a college educator. And that means that it’s my job to take college students seriously. To take their intellectual and political commitments seriously. I would be abdicating my responsibility to them if I just dismissed these passionate political protests as a fad, a transitory phase that they’ll get over someday. I’m not sure that’s true. But even if it is true, right now, these young people are filled with a profound sense of moral and political responsibility. My own life was enriched by college educators who took my intellectual and political commitments seriously, who never treated them as juvenile, temporary, or unimportant. I can’t fail to provide students with the same respect today.
There’s been a steady drumbeat of these stories lately. (See, for example, this effort to ban the film Stonewall from campus at Colorado College.) It’s time to stop pretending that these are isolated, random incidents. We can debate what’s healthy and what’s not, what’s liberal and what’s not, what “safety” should mean on campus and what it shouldn’t. But before we do anything else, we have to be willing to say that something is happening, and that it’s not some figment of the conservative imagination.
To begin with, I have repeatedly and publicly said that I won’t vote for Bernie Sanders due to his stances on Israel, immigration, and guns. Despite this, I am daily asked to answer for the conduct of Bernie Sanders supporters. It’s pretty strange.
It’s also strange that our political class continues to think that the way people argue on social media is still more important, substantively and politically, than the economy, foreign policy, social issues, or the environment. That is really, really strange.
It’s also strange that I am represented in this piece as among those who minimizes the degree to which Hillary Clinton has been the victim of sexism. Clinton has been a victim of sexism her entire political career. Not just any sexism, either, but a particularly virulent, nasty, personal, and unfair strain of sexism. It’s gross and it sucks and I hate it. I just don’t think hating that sexism means I should support a woman whose record and values are totally contrary to my beliefs. You’d think Rebecca Traister would know that, because I said so a couple weeks ago. To Rebecca Traister. I can’t open up the contents of my psyche to prove to anyone that I believe that Clinton has suffered from consistent, powerful, and ugly anti-woman bias. I can only tell you that I believe it and you’ll have to decide for yourself if you think I’m telling the truth.
What’s not strange is that, as a socialist, I would not support Hillary Clinton, who is to the right of Richard Nixon. That’s about the opposite of strange. I’m anti-war; Clinton not only supported and voted for the Iraq war, she has been among the most hawkish politicians in American politics in the last decade. I oppose the influence of the financial sector on our political system; Hillary was the Senator from Wall Street during her tenure and remains a favorite of the ruling class. I’m a critic of Israel and its occupation of Palestine; Clinton just wrote a love letter to Benjamin Netanyahu. I think the mass imprisonment of the past several decades has been an incredible moral crisis for this country; Clinton called the 1994 crime bill that accelerated this trend “a very well thought out crime bill that is both smart and tough.” I oppose the welfare reform bill that cast millions into deeper poverty; Clinton defended that bill for years and years after its passage, and referred to welfare recipients as “deadbeats.” I’m in favor of universal socially redistributive policies like free college tuition for all; Clinton prefers means testing, which I see as inherently regressive. Trust me: I could go on.
And, seriously, you guys: this is Primary Hillary Clinton. This is Hillary Clinton defending her left flank. Do you think that this is who she’s still going to be, when she’s fighting off Marco Rubio in Ohio? You think she’s going to go to Florida and shout “Black Lives Matter” when she’s trying to get a bunch of retiree senior citizens to help her wrap up those electoral votes? Is that what you guys think?
So, you know, my not voting for Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem so weird to me. Having to constantly insist that I don’t support her because of her clear record of believing and doing things that are totally contrary to my beliefs, that seems pretty weird.