Monday, March 25, 2013

"Fascism," Chris Hedges and the Politics of the "Christian" Right

Today while racing to find a good book before the library's closing time, I came across a Chris Hedge's book entitled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. As those who have read my last post can guess, the gutsy title was not the only feature that caught my interest, seeing as the malicious effects of so-called "Christian" politics have been on my mind as of late.

Chris Hedges is a wonderful journalist whose acuity and principled reporting have long earned my respect. You can then imagine that the choice of the term "American fascism"  by a writer of such caliber was personally striking. Hedges is not one to mince words but he does not engage in vulgar sensationalism for the sake of a buck. What does he mean by "American fascism" and does whatever loom behind this most unequivocal of terms merit such fire?

Though I have great respect for Hedges, I have several fundamental qualms with his analysis. The purpose of the text, i.e. uncovering the deceitful and dangerous ideas proffered by the "Christian" Right, is important and timely. However, his interpretation of Christianity as an independent corpus of beliefs is deeply flawed in parts, especially where the Bible is concerned. And while much of his commentary on the "Christian" Right is prescient, it is also at times vague or wrought with hyperbole.

I have decided to post this critique of American Fascism because the mistakes Hedges makes are rooted in common misconceptions of  Christianity and the Bible. These misconceptions must be addressed if American society is to become more tolerant -- the very purpose of Hedges' exposition.

Hedges begins the book by outlining his own worldview. Growing up in an nontraditional Protestant family, he sees life's meaning as real but impenetrable. The Bible is treated essentially as a literary text whose power lies in its ability to render the chaos and complexity of existence in lucid strokes. Humans must muddle through life within a "morally neutral universe," we are told, punctuating insanity and despair with acts of love and compassion (8). We must hope for a better day when the mysteries of existence finally unravel and a harmonious unity is at long last achieved. "Faith supposes that we cannot know," since any fullness of conviction poses the danger of intolerance or an ether-like pride that numbs the intellect, distorting the world into a series of captious blacks and whites (9).

There is much to admire about this worldview, particularly its emphasis on humility and tolerance. However, Hedges' vision is riddled with contradictions, several of which must be addressed. As we will see, these contradictions are deeply significant because they have the inadvertent effect of internalizing some of the intolerant views and perplexities of the "Christian" Right, albeit from a very different angle. 

To begin, Hedges' understanding of the Bible appears to be self-defeating. He initially praises it as an artistic text of the first-order, its authors having "understood our weaknesses and strengths. They understood how we are often not the people we want to be or know we should be, how hard it is for us to articulate all this, and how life and creation can be as glorious and beautiful as it can be mysterious, evil and cruel" (7-8). Yet, before this, he asserts that thematically the Bible has "enough hatred, bigotry and lust for violence in the satisfy anyone bent on justifying cruelty and violence" (5).

These conflicting judgements reveal a profound interpretive tension which Hedges never satisfactorily resolves. His desire to view the Bible purely as an ingenious work on human nature and existential crisis clashes with the contemporaneously held notion that it is a manifesto to engage in licentious violence.Why is this the case?

Ironically, Hedges appears to succumb to the interpretive mistakes used by the "Christian" Right, in other words, the very group whose reading of the Bible he attacks with vigor. In one part, for example, he critiques the book of Revelation, whose apocalyptic imagery supposedly grants "sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian right" (6). What makes this so ironic is the fact that he previously challenges the tendency of the "Christian" Right to employ a mono-dimensional, or "literalist," interpretation of these scriptures; but in critiquing these scriptures he too adopts a literalist approach to the text.

If he had read the book of Revelation from a non-literalist standpoint, he would have realized that extremist interpretations of this text -- the interpretation which he unwittingly adopts -- depend on a shallow reading of the book, and one which conflicts with central biblical themes. It takes a very pointed and politically motivated reading of Revelation to construe it as a paean to violence. Such a superficial reading, as well as Hedges' dogged assertion that his is the singularly correct interpretation, precludes the possibility of allegorical depth, nuance and artistry. These are the very qualities that make a literary work worth reading and ostensibly the reason why Hedges earlier (and contradictorily) praises the Bible as the literary work par excellence.

To put this differently, Hedges delivers a damning rebuke to "Christian" Right over its tendency to assert a single interpretation of the Bible, especially one which justifies intolerance. Then, without a moment's hesitation, Hedges criticizes the Bible upon the assumption that his own interpretations are authoritative, that indeed Revelation can be interpreted only one way. His vision of the Bible as a complex tableau of the human experience is suddenly tossed out the window in exchange for one that sees it as an unambiguous entreaty to violence. In attacking extremists for their "literalist" interpretation of the Bible he adopts a literalist critique of the Bible himself. Its content is no longer seen as a compelling narrative about the human condition but, rather, anachronistically read in light of current political interests -- his own interests included. 

This ahistorical perspective is seen not only in Hedges' understanding of the Bible but American history more generally. One of his greatest concerns is over "logicide,"or the formation of an Orwellian language whose words are imbued with dangerously simplistic and irrational meanings (14). While the perversion of language to suit political ends is a worthwhile topic, he complicates the discussion by inserting his own slanted understanding of terms. Instead of recognizing the tenuous and negotiable nature of language, he projects an exclusive "rationalist" understanding of words which is divorced of nuance and complexity.

Part of this problem is the assumption of a clean dichotomy between secular and religious spheres, an elite Western construction which has never fully pervaded the social order. The assumption that the 'right' usage of a terms is determined by what it "mean[s] in the secular world" erroneously assumes: one, that everyone in the secular world has arrived at an agreeable meaning for ambiguous terms like "liberty"; and two, that there is a distinct "secular world" to begin with (14).
Hedges seems to imply that terms such as "liberty" or "life" did not have religious connotations until of late, and this because of those in the "Christian" right. It seems safe to say, however, that as long as religious practitioners have lived in the U.S. their understanding of these words has been contoured by their religious viewpoints. Considering the fact that words like "wisdom" and "love" have existed for at least 1000s of years and a "rationalist" view of the world which attempts to exclude religious connotations is a modern development, it seems silly to say that the true meaning of these words has nothing to do with religious ideas. To say that religious people have historically chosen to not view language from the vantage-point of their religious beliefs, or to insinuate that this was even possible for religious people who were not aware of the potential for a distinction between the secular and holy, just does not make sense.

Contemporary "secular" connotations of word like "liberty" or "justice," for example, are generally linked to the synthetic ideal of the nation-state. Man-made borders, constitutional courts and the abstracted idea of a "nation," which are part and parcel of these terms, are all concepts which have only reached their present form in the past 100 year. And we still argue about their meanings. 

If Hedges simply scrutinized the ways in which certain terms are employed to incite violence or intolerance then his section on "logicide" would serve its purpose. By choosing to push his own slanted understanding of the proper definition of words and their origins, however, he introduces an unnecessary and complicating element to this task. In doing so, he synthetically demarcates the world into secular and religious spheres, and ahistorically excises religious inflections from language in past eras. These personal innovations prepare the grounds for the possibility of his own form of newspeak, one robbed of historical context, authenticity, plus the stifling of definitions' natural ebb and flow.

Hedges' reading of the Bible is also complicated by plain factual errors. During the introduction he writes that the four Gospels, or books of the Bible which directly deal with Jesus' life on earth, are "filled with factual contradictions" (3). He goes on to say that Luke, one of the four Gospels, supposedly "asserted that John [the Baptist] was already in prison" before Jesus' baptism, while the other Gospels claim that John himself baptized Jesus (ibid.). 

This reading of Luke is just wrong. Right after the section on John the Baptist's (who baptized people) life, Luke writes that "When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too" (from Luke 3:21). Contrary to Hedges' erroneous recollection, Luke explicitly recognizes that Jesus was baptized by John. Those whom Jesus was baptized with are the exact same people baptized by John and referred to in Luke 3:15. Plainly put, Luke recognizes Jesus' baptism by John. Hedges' reading of the Bible again proves to be highly selective.

More significant, however, is Hedges argument that the Gospels are flawed because they offer "differing accounts" of Jesus' life (3). This, according to Hedges, means that the accounts are contradictory and hence should not be taken too seriously. 

The idea that the Gospels should not be trusted because they do not address Jesus' life using the exact same subject matter is pretty ridiculous, seeing as the whole reason multiple accounts of his life are included is because they are different. (Can you imagine how frivolous four exactly identical, that is, rhetorically verbatim accounts of Jesus' life would be?) Each author was concerned with different aspects of Jesus' life, wrote with varying audiences in mind and had divergent writing styles. 

This does not mean their accounts are mutually antagonistic or do not support each other. Rather, the authors varied the content of their Gospels because each was written from a different perspective, capturing what they believed to be the important details of Jesus' life for their particular audience. Consequently, not all of these books contain the birth of Jesus or the exact same stories, for example. Yet when they do overlap, the content is substantively the same. 

If anything, what makes the Gospels interesting is the fact that there are no appreciable differences in content when they do overlap. Like a group of witnesses before a judge, their testimony varies but this does not mean it is inaccurate, merely different. One witness may recall the sound of event, the another the smell, and, still another, the weather. This does not mean their stories conflict with each other -- they just talk about different aspects of the same situation. The fact that these are the most salient discrepancies between the four Gospels that Hedges can find, and, what's more, that these differences were either misinterpreted by Hedges nor nonexistent, is incredible. If anything, it would seem to confirm the veracity of their accounts. 

The next major problem with Hedges' work is its equation of the "Christian" Right with "fascism." He writes that unless serious measures are taken to counter the rise of this divisive ideology it will engulf American society with catastrophic effect. In order to ensure the maintenance of a pluralistic and tolerant order he suggest direct action, citing Karl Popper who believed that if intolerant groups got out of hand "we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force" (1).

Hedges' fears over the potential of the "Christian" Right becoming a "fascist" force commanding the reigns of government policy are unnecessarily inflated. Such prognostications rely on the exclusion of important variables which make the rise of these extremists highly unlikely.

Most practicing Christians do not extend unquestioned fealty to demagogues like Pat Robertson who lead the "Christian" Right. In fact, a considerable number of Christians, myself included, believe these people are unscrupulous hacks whose messages are incompatible with the teachings of the Bible. If such figures sought to attain high office it is almost certain that they would be vociferously opposed by such Christians. When Pat Robertson tried to secure the Republican nomination for the presidential elections in 1988, for example, he fell flat on his face, garnishing less than ten percent of the votes during the Republican primaries. And this only concerned some Christians who were Republicans.

Furthermore, the suggestion that direct force should be used to stop these crazies could not be more counterproductive. We should instead let them sneer and rattle their sabers to their hearts' content. When people see with their own eyes the warped political programs, take full whiff of the movement's sanctimonious stench, and pay witness to its leaders' inarticulate blustering the "Christian" Right will damn itself to political obscurity.

Using force to quell the movement could lead to violence, which would only serve to lionize the movement's leaders and grant the movement a sense of prophetic legitimacy. Since they see themselves as the vanguard of righteousness in an apocalyptic era, any persecution by the state would be interpreted by its members as confirmation of their eschatological vision. To forcefully suppress them would be to play into their hands; nothing could be more counterproductive.

What makes Hedges' vision particularly dangerous, however, is his division of the world into "those who embrace reason" and those ostensibly lost in the "mythical world of intuition" (36). This stern dichotomy is painfully ironic since he also recognizes that a distinctive mark of "fascism" is its tendency to divide the world into us v. them, with no possibility for mediation.

This is where his selective reading of history, concerns over the "logicide" of language, and touting of a loosely-defined "rationalist" framework for existence dangerously collide. It is also why he can swoon over the ideal of "tolerance" while advocating the forceful suppression of the "Christian" Right. Hedges' certitude is just as dangerous as the certitude of the "Christian" Right, and most forms of complete self-conviction for that matter.

If truly concerned about "logicide" (the simplification of language for political ends) then he should be wary over the possibility of himself turning "toleration" into a term which does not mean respect for differing views, but, rather, respect for the right "rationalist" view (whatever that means) to the brutal exclusion of all others.

And if worried about "logicide" he should equally be concerned about employing the term "fascism," which has come to mean anything and nothing at the same time. Hedges writes that he uses "fascism" in technical sense, implying that this frees him from the charge of engaging in intellectually impoverished histrionics. Yet he goes on to note that the criteria for fascism is so loose and contradictory that fascists can only be judged by their acts. If this is the case then "fascism" is most certainly a useless word and too susceptible to "logicide" for insertion in meaningful discourse.

The real problem, I would suggest, is not utter self-conviction but what this conviction is about. For a Christian to be convinced that there is a good God who wants to fix the world is not dangerous so long as this person acknowledges their flawed humanity. What makes the "Christian" Right nasty and Hedges' alternative vision self-defeating is the assertion of their ability to completely divine either "God's will" or the "rational" world.

If one realizes the fundamentally limited nature of their understanding then belief in God and the teachings of the Bible are compatible with tolerance. A person can believe that, contrary to Hedges' assertion, absolute good and evil do exist. However, they would also recognize that good and evil are practiced by all people, and, furthermore, that because of humankind's finite intellect it is difficult at times to make correct judgements between the two.

They would recognize that because of humankind's finite intellect we are unable to completely divine God's will. Their decision to not impose their interpretation of God's will on others would be conditioned by their understanding that there is a God, and thus their ability to make such judgements is foolishness when their finite intellect is compared to God's omniscience.

Above all, they would be have absolute self-conviction, but it would be a conviction to recognize their mistakes and learn from others. It would be a self-conviction that believes poverty, suffering and racism are clearly evil, and that people should not stand passively mute but address these issues. It would be an absolute self-conviction that recognizes the humanity of the "enemy" and the "friend," realizing that hatred and intolerance are the root enemies, and cannot be combated without working to elevate the humanity of the personal "enemy" trapped in hate's terrible logic.

In other words, it would be an absolute conviction to love and forgive tempered by an equal commitment to acknowledging one's own foolishness.

Everybody lives according to a set of convictions and some sort of framework for understanding this crazy world of ours. Even Chris Hedges' refutation of absolute conviction confirms this. While denigrating such convictions as holdovers from a less enlightened time he offers his own: a "tolerance" which reserves the right to suppress heterodoxy, and the necessity of a "rational" framework for existence -- whatever that means in an insane world.

The problem is not self-conviction but convictions which refuse to acknowledge the possibility to error, the humanness of our humanity. Belief in justice, love and truth are not bad, but when someone believes they have the god-like ability to completely distinguish all these qualities and impart judgement on them then their conviction is truly dangerous. Above all, a conviction of love can never be reconciled with a conviction of hate, especially hateful violence.

Giving into the temptation of force is a last surrender to the basest instinct when not done out of immediate self-defense. And speaking of "fascists" will not make the world a more peaceable and tolerant place, but can only serve to accentuate manmade chasms.

Let's acknowledge our silliness before we make an even greater mess of this beautiful, scarred world.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sex, Politics and Hope

"Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects they do not understand."
                                  - Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, p. 235

"Sex is currency," sings songwriter Jon Foreman. This simple, blunt truth is seldom noted in public. It has become the bread and butter of sales directors, advertising firms and marketing strategists. Open any newspaper, website or television channel of note and you are sure to find a scantily clad model promoting anything from beer and cosmetics to bathroom cleaner and oil changes. Sex truly has become "currency," the value of one's humanity reduced to a matter of dollars and cents. Anything can be sexy; anything can be saleable.

Yet, at its root, the use of sex in advertising is cruel not simply because it slyly renders a world in which humans are deprived of personal qualities, turning sex into a stoic, even mechanical 'transaction,' but because these advertisements cynically exploit the most powerful and distinctly human of forces: hope.

Gnawing doubts, disillusionment and, simply put, the desire for a better life are projected onto these advertisements. Models' knowing looks and mirthful gaits act as a scintillating mirage, assuring the viewer that contentment is just, almost, within reach.

To put it another way, these advertisements and, within this context, sex itself function as potent symbols. They are sufficiently nebulous as to appeal to a whole array of longings and fears, while appearing sufficiently brazen and sharp as to recommend themselves as the solution. In this way, both model and voyeur prostitute themselves to whatever promises to be the most compelling solution, the climactic resolution to a tiresome and internally waged war of attrition. 

For others, these advertisements are poisonous to hope. The ideal embodied in the perfectly-poised model with their lithe figure and carefully-etched smile seems too far out of reach. When juxtaposed with their own sullied self-image the contrast appears too formidable to ever be reconciled, causing the beholder to despair as they spiral downwards to ever darker depths.

In short, advertisements, and those which employ sex in particular, manipulate the most powerful and human of experiences, hope, for their own end. Emotive symbols are minutely studied before being deployed for maximum effect, their targets being the very aspirations, desires and angst common to humankind. Yet, during this process the very mindset and values of all who are involved inevitably shift, even as they attempt to fulfill the desires and expectations which drew them towards the mirage's promise in the first place.

Even so, the symbols maintain their fatal attraction. And this is their great genius: even as the targets (desires) move the symbols manage to keep their siren-like appeal, retaining their lustrous veneer by staying ever within reach while never grasped. Their pointed ambiguity allows them to be all things to all people and, just as spectacularly, realign in accordance with each person's changing fantasies and whims -- even while contributing to their despair.

When taking into regard the destructive effects of this process one must ask, 'when a person is willing to manipulate hope, what aren't they willing to do?' Hence Coca-Cola has historically had no qualms against marketing its products in third-world countries, using deceptive advertising that talks up its supposed health benefits to credulous poor people. That these people may choose to purchase Coca-Cola over healthful foods for their children because of advertised nutritive benefits is of no concern to the image-makers, so long as they get their fill.

Much the same can be said of lottery cards. 'But they are just games,' you may say, ' plus only those who are stupid see them otherwise.' But what about the 'stupid,' especially if the 'stupid' happen to be innumerate poor people on a fixed-income with dependent children? Ever dollar blown up in smoke on a lottery card may very well mean an empty stomach and gnawing hunger pains for those children who, for no fault of their own, find themselves living amidst the blight of hunger and penury.

The lottery card is perhaps the starkest example of how hope can be exploited. Even if the 'stupid' poor person knows the odds, the possibility of deliverance from want and the general ignominy of poverty can prove all too powerful a force. After all, what do they have to lose? The lottery's allure, in this light, is not only powerful but its logic inescapable.

Those who run the lottery may claim that it "does good things" but this is little more than a grotesque form of self-delusion. The entire enterprise is premised on the manipulation of hope, encourages gambling addictions and lacks any intrinsic economic value. When one takes into consideration the incalculable human suffering caused the lottery system, its "good things" appear as little more than trite acts of penance for cardinal sins.

It is important to note, however, that hope is not only manipulated by those who are trying to sell soda or lottery tickets. The ways in which politicians draw on the hopes of the wretched is perhaps the most cynical; it is certainly the most perfected.

Republicans preach 'family values,' a moniker so all-encompassing as to mean absolutely nothing, before attempting to eviscerate healthcare legislation that could actually give families a modicum of security upon which to subsist. They speak about 'shared sacrifice' during periods of economic crisis, while stashing assets abroad and attempting to prolong tax-cuts for the most affluent members of society. Then, with stentorian resonance, they rail against supposed dangers outside while relentlessly working to maintain a porous and woefully under-regulated weapons market at home.

But let us not be mistaken, the differences between the Republicans and Democrats are relative and negotiable. Democrats wax about 'peace' and vilify the warmongering of Bush while assiduously working to maintain lethal drone operations worldwide. They too speak about 'shared sacrifice' during times of economic uncertainty before bailing out the crooks who created the mess in the first place. Lastly, when allusions are made to the old and, as of yet, unfulfilled promise to shut down the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, the public is met with a wall of steely silence.

In politics as in advertisements, very rarely has there been "Hope" that "we can believe in."

Hope is something that is distinctly human. People alone are capable of looking at the world and not only seeing it how it is, but how they would like it to be. It is because of hope that we experience ecstasy and abandon when our dreams are fulfilled, and despair when dreams are deferred or our hopes undercut. 

To live is to hope.  

Because hope is part of the essence of being human, it is foolish to live without taking note of exactly what our hopes and dreams are. For hopes and dreams are never neutral but actively influenced by external forces, even ones with their own agendas. The hopes which are truly worthy are also never neutral. If they were then they would resign themselves to the status quo; in short, they would not be hopes. Thus to hope is something fundamentally subversive -- and totally human.

Sorting through what is false and true, however, is an arduous process which requires honesty and humility. To question the values around which our lives are constructed is never easy but necessary if we are to live true life -- life to the full. It is to sort through the propaganda, self-serving rationalizations and alluring lies which hold us back from hopes worth believing in. 


Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Crisis of Education: How Thought Became a Commodity for Purchase

What is education? The ways in which the word "education" is tossed about these days generally have the effect of exuding a sense of absolute certainty in regards to what education means, while employing a logic that is at once contradictory and mystifying. Education, we are told, is the great equalizer and the great divider. In some contexts it is the foremost means of discovering a person's potential, while in others it is an unnecessary extravagance useful only to those at the helm of society. It is a process of edification and it is a product for consumption; it is a natural right and it is a tool for forging "human capital" like so much steel.

In short, pundits, politicians and an equally perplexed public wax and wane over education, each in turn when we are not shouting over each others' heads. Amidst the cacophony of PTA pledges, disembodied statistics and editorial ink, deeper contradictions which underlie these competing notions of education are scarcely examined. We huff and puff about a "crisis" of education without even asking the question, what is education?

This question may sound a bit too academic. It's not. For better or worse, the average person spends a good many years in school pursuing that lofty yet amorphous ideal vaguely referred to as "education." Billions of dollars are spent and not spent on it, and some even profess to place their hopes for the future on it. Arriving at a suitably useful definition for "education" is thus eminently practical and, in truth, an undertaking we avoid at our own risk.

To arrive at a more useful understanding of education this post examines what I believe education most certainly is not. The critical reader may now be asking, how can such an elliptical approach sort through the confusion without adding to it? My response to this justly wary observation is simple: much of the current clamor is predicated, knowingly or otherwise, on assumptions that serve a political purpose. It is only by weeding out the political motivations which contribute to the confusion that we may hope to address the question of education with unclouded eyes.

First of all, education does not mean tests and, in truth, tests are probably one of the greatest impediments to real learning.

To decipher the meaning of this current mainstay of "education" I will ask, what is a test? In one respect, the answer is quite simple: a test is an act of measurement or assessment undertaken to learn what one does not already know. The unstated and generally assimilated assumption of tests is that teachers do not know how well their students are learning and, consequently, must "test" them to find out.

Like a scientist assessing the properties of a concoction in their laboratory, the teacher is supposed to assay the minds of their pupils in order to learn as to what degree their students have digested the curriculum. And like the scientist, a certain set of measurements and statistics are employed to assess the overall quality of the subject. The student is thus reduced from a human being of inordinate complexity to a number on a piece of paper, monitored while seated in a prescribed row of desks, and ranked by their ability to meet the demands of a prescribed set of criteria.

Succinctly stated, the process is not all that different from observing the behavior of lab mice in a maze or a series of  chemical reactions in a "test"-tube.

Needless to say, students are not lab mice or distilled substances made for laboratory use, yet this is how they are treated. In fact, by such processes (should we say chemical?) the very extent to which they have "received" an education is collected into a series of cleanly demarcated numbers and symbols.

The assumption that teachers do not know if their students are learning and hence need to be "tested" is an alarming one, upon reflection. It means either, one, the current education system does not operate in a way in which teachers know how well their students are performing unless a test is conducted; or two, teachers may know how well students are performing but are forced by the system to conduct tests which are ultimately superfluous and a waste of time.

When it comes to intellectual and social development, test-based systems of education suffer from deeply engrained impediments to the genuine cultivation of these lofty goals. All too often, test results become an end unto themselves, as teachers, students, and schools are pressured to attain the right numbers in order to retain funding or prestige. This is, of course, rather ironic seeing as tests are technically supposed to assess the extent to which students handle the curriculum, not act as the curriculum itself. In other words, education is put on its head; a representation of learning is mistaken for the act of learning itself.

In all truth, it would make much more sense to promote a system of education in which teachers know how their students are fairing during the lessons themselves. Maintaining a system in which teachers do not know how their pupils are learning unless a test is prepared, or in which teachers are forced to administer tests when they already know how well their pupils are performing is plain silly.

Yet if this is the case, why do tests remain the obligatory, even unquestioned basis upon which education is conducted?

My suggestion is that tests are an outmoded, albeit politically useful, holdover from past educational philosophies whose original purposes remain unquestioned if simply because they are not perceived. Of these original goals, the two most significant are an elite desire for control and the retrenchment of a class-based social order.

Historically speaking, the most notorious test-based system of education is probably that of imperial China, whose rigorous civil service examinations were the foremost means by which one gained entrance into the upper-crust of Chinese society. Aspiring scholars could literally spend their entire lives attempting to gain the top degree by way of these exams, some of which lasted several successive days and nights. Inspired by the Chinese, Westerners eventually assimilated the practice of test-taking into their own institutions of learning, a legacy which endures to this day.

It is important to note, however, that the Chinese test system was designed with several political purposes in mind, the first of which being the desire to create a capable pool of bureaucrats who were loyal to the imperial household. An elite's status was utterly contingent on their fealty to the emperor: the privileged positions made available by successful performance in the exams were all government posts, and the curricula was meant to instill unwavering allegiance to the status quo. To successfully navigate the exams required an encyclopedic knowledge of the Confucian canon, a prescribed set of works which articulated a consensus of values and ideals that had to be internalized before one was accepted into the ranks of the cognoscenti.

In sum, the historical development of test-taking is rooted not so much in the desire to understand the degree to which a student comprehends their lessons, but in the desire to create an uncritical elite whose identity is completely subsumed in that of the state. It is also worth noting that the concept of the examination is explicitly elitist. Far from acting as a great equalizer, education under these terms is conceived as a tool for manufacturing an elite and reinforcing class fissures, if not creating them.

Thus the very origins and enduring structure of tests were envisaged as fundamentally divisive. Equally alarming, tests were designed to stifle critical thought, only permitting originality within prescribed boundaries and forums.

And while the Chinese civil service examinations functioned as a process of elite formation, other models of education have been designed as a process of plebeian formation.

With the rise of industrialization in the mid-19th century, social theorists like Joseph Lancaster developed schools designed to instill discipline and an unthinking acceptance of authority, which were seen as the requisite attributes of a proper industrial workforce. Under the Lancaster model, students were subject to continual surveillance and every minute of their day was schematically ordered according to a rigid schedule. School uniforms, crisp rows of benches, and "student monitors" were all created with the intent of manufacturing a labor force  imbued with Prussian discipline.

When one hears politicians and pundits ramble on about the need for "alternative" forms of education for those who have more "modest" aims in life, i.e. work in manufacturing, agricultural labor, etc., the legacy of the Lancaster model should give ample cause for pause.

While it is true that the type of technical training one receives necessarily differs according to occupation, it is also true that the promotion of so-called "alternative" schools is all too often a way to give up on students who simply have a harder time with their studies or who the education system itself has failed. The use of the term "alternative" is revealing. It evinces a blunt refusal to accept the reality that the current practice of education may have itself failed the student by instead suggesting that these students require an "alternative" to normal education. The narrative of what constitutes normal education remains unquestioned; these students are conveniently assumed to lie outside of it.

The term "alternative" also implies that the employment envisaged for these students is itself "alternative," or somehow of lesser importance or value than jobs usually associated with normal secondary schooling. By way of such rationalizations the practice of education as usual remains unquestioned; its dissonance remains unresolved and ever avoided.

Lastly, by suggesting that these students need or want an "alternative" education, these "experts" assume that they somehow understand the aspirations of these students. Perhaps these "experts" entertain the pretension of knowing these students' most personal of desires because they believe such "alternative" students are too stupid to know what is good for them. The students' voices are never acknowledged, apparently and conveniently confirming the "experts'" ability to intuit their hopes and intellect. 

Such elitist attitudes are only one dimension of the elitism and poverty of thought that shapes education today.

Standardized tests, just like the Chinese civil service examinations, function as powerful tools of entrenching barriers between the haves and have-nots. Government-mandated tests, district funding through local property taxes -- a structural disadvantage for less affluent areas, and curricula shaped by corporate-political interests instead of the unadorned truth, all have the effect of stifling creative thought and reinforcing the class divide.

Consider the ways in which education is often referred to and these elitist implications will be made clearer. A college education, for example, is generally phrased in terms like, "I received a college education." Thinking of education as a commodity, especially in regards to college education, invests the idea of higher education with distinctly elitist overtones. For if education is a commodity, something bought or received, then it is surely a luxury item.

As the cost of college tuition soars to ever dizzying heights, it is simply preposterous to claim that a university education is anything but a means of fracturing society into more and deeper class lines. Those of make their way to the top of the ladder then enjoy the leisure time and comfort within which they can assume to know the aspirations and dreams of those "alternative" peoples beneath them, or, rather, on whose backs they sit.

It is also economically insane to believe that current means to funding higher education are sustainable. In the past two decades college tuition has increased over four-hundred percent, far faster than any other commodity -- or luxury good for that matter. Selling off student debt in the form of securities has now become a business, literally reaping profits from the financial straits of children.

And let's not beat around the bush, the chief means of funding universities, even the so-called "public" ones, is through taking money from children. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, colleges collude with each other in deciding how much student aid they will dole out before raising tuition costs respectively. In other words, they are legalized cartels. Only a fool can believe that this is a sustainable model for financing higher education; and only a fool can believe that the presidents and other six-figure salaried administrators of these schools are engaged in public service. They are really engaged in the embezzlement of public funds. But then again, when it comes to a necessary "commodity" like education, this is as easy as stealing money from children -- because it is.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to note what is going on now in my neck of the wood, the University of Oregon. The University is trying to create a special board which would give it greater discretion over how it raises and allocates funding. Through this board the administrators, who perennially display wanton disregard for the wishes of faculty and students, would gain even greater autonomy from the state.  They may even complete the privatization of the University.

This would be disastrous. Privatizing schools always makes expenses even more prohibitive and would subject the school to the caprices of bondholders. (The entire education system in Chile shut down in recent years because privatization had been unsustainable.) Before the GI Bill of Rights led to an influx of veterans into the public university system after WWII, the majority of college students were privileged youth who attended private colleges. This was because colleges were self-consciously elite institutions and designed to keep out mere commoners (like you and me). Private institutions were livid because they lost their aura of exclusivity.

This is to say, private institutions are and always have been conceived as elitist. The benefit of public universities is that their mission is the education of the people, not a coterie of privileged families with their own political agendas and tastes. A public university is our university -- it is literally for, of, and owned by the people, not special interests.

When wage-slave drivers like Phil Knight say that they will donate more money if the University of Oregon divorces itself from the state they are literally saying that they will only donate money if they own it, not us. For someone like Knight to claim that he feels his money will not be spent effectively unless he owns the University is flat out meretricious. Seeing as Knight recently managed to bludgeon the state government into granting Nike an indefinite tax holiday I find it rather doubtful that he would have a hard time making sure his donations were spent in a manner that accords with his wishes by the university.

What Knight and those like him want is not a greater say in how their donations are allocated but total control of the school itself. To put it differently, they want to determine school policy without have the consult the pesky wishes of, well, everyone else. That means me and you. Protestations suggesting otherwise are merely part of a smoke and mirrors routine to hide the fact that what they want, and believe to be their prerogative, is total control. Thus is the inebriation that comes with power, even if that means power accumulated by coming up with the design for the world's worst running shoe.

So what is education? Contrary to the materialistic predilections of most commentators, education is a life-long process of learning and discovery. Ideally it should have nothing to do with the amount of money you have but, instead, an insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn. Framing education as a good to be bought is, in truth, intellectually stultifying since such implies that after this commodity is bought one does not need to think any longer. They have already become an "educated person."

What intellectual drivel!

Even and especially today, the ways in which education is pursued is entirely counterproductive. It is only by acknowledging the discriminatory barriers firmly entrenched and, in fact, sedulously reinforced by powerful interests that this horrible yet sublime system may be further refined. This will require serious rethinking in regards to the way education is financed, who gets to call the shots, and how education is to understood, more generally.

 In all cases, it requires encouraging both students and teachers in their noble pursuit, and making sure that we do not leave the education debate up to those who simply cannot begin understand our aspirations and dreams.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Radical Economics and the Terror of Language

"We have got to admit that our business system and our businessmen have produced a fantastic fairyland of well-being." 
                  - Lemuel Boulware, Harvard University (11 June 1949)

Economics is an peculiar art with a semi-mystical language of its own, penetrable only to those initiated into this secret fraternity. Every now and again, especially during a lean season, a select assemblage of this usually anonymous fellowship will make a public appearance. Reading from a list of undecipherable figures and facts, their stony but certain faces are meant to assure us that everything is under control. While the substance of their message is invariably cluttered with the impenetrable verbiage of their craft, the emotional response that it is meant to elicit is as simple as it is unambiguous, 'do not worry, we are at the reins.' A minor tightening of a screw here and buttressing of the wall there will get the economy back on the road to recovery, we are told. The overall integrity of this byzantine machine has been wisely, even brilliantly saved. Trust us, we are the experts. 

Very seldom, if ever, do these wizards of finance admit, not to mention, concede the possibility that somewhere along the way their calculations may have gone wrong. Most oftentimes, after the dust subsides they emerge appearing triumphant, as if to say 'the problem would have been so much worse if we weren't there to fix it.' In one fell swoop they manage to elide all the inside trading, predatory lending schemes, and high-stakes gambling that preceded the crisis and, in fact, caused it. Cocky, aloof, and ever immaculate in their custom-tailored suits, they make a final public appearance before returning to the opulent anonymity from which they -- and the crisis -- began.

To place the well-being of an entire society in the sullied hands of these power-brokers (or should we say power-wreckers?) and the political class that plays accomplice to their schemes is crazy. 

Yet, while unraveling the specific ways in which this elite group subverts the social order is an important undertaking, more instructive is an examinations of the deficiencies of the economic order that underpins and, in reality, makes such antisocial behavior inevitable. Since we are dealing with the question of words and their meanings it is worth scrutinizing a few words which are indispensable to the economic lexicon, and whose problematic assumptions are seldom discerned. 

Preeminent among these words is that of "interest." Amongst economists, "interest" is used to describe the fee paid by a borrower to their creditor for the money or asset borrowed.

Its apparently straightforward usage belies the malevolent assumptions that compose it. Instead of taking an "interest" in the well-being of the borrower, who may very well be in dire straits, the lender's sole "interest" is said to lie in the money that can be made out of the arrangement, i.e., the "interest." The "interest" that the creditor has in the borrower's well-being is thus framed completely in terms of the borrower's ability to cough up the money, not in the actual personage of the borrower or their dependents. 

And in terms of economic productivity the lender is not concerned about the way in which this transaction strengthens or weakens business, but merely whether or not the business in which the money is invested will enable them to receive their "interest." The business may ultimately go broke but this is supposed to be of no "interest" to the borrower so long as he or she gets their "interest" in the end -- according to the science of economics, their only "interest."

This same tension is encountered in the oft-heard phrase "rational self-interest," a notion peculiar to economics which purports that by focusing entirely on one's own well-being society will benefit as a whole. By focusing on "profit-maximizing" strategies or the decisions that "benefit" one's self the most, others will supposedly reaps the benefits as well.

However embellished with glitzy graphs and theoretical flourishes, the dogma of "rational self-interest" essentially amounts to the notion that selfishness is good for the world, conspicuously overlooking the truth that most of the world's problems were created because of selfish behavior. A devotee to this confounded logic may counter that if all individuals act according to this axiom then the sum of their interactions would result in a beneficial end. Yet, to expect all people to follow this precept is an entirely unrealistic expectation (and thank God for that). 

More tellingly, this theodicy neglects to factor in the huge power differential between the poor and the rich, lending the effect that this difference does not even exist. This erasure is doubly insidious, as it not only denies the existence of poverty but makes the exploitation of this suffering a cardinal value, applauding those who create it. Even if everyone enjoyed the same measure of power and acted according to this less than glorious standard the expectation that some sort of benevolent "equilibrium" would magically be reached seems less than "scientific," to say the least.

As people around the globe continue to extricate themselves from the wreckage of the Great Recession it is incumbent that all people reexamine the theological constructs that underlie the modern economic order. Washington has shown that it is perfectly happy to continue deluding itself with the belief that the cracks in this "fantastic fairyland of well-being" are not there. 

Over one-half century ago Lemuel Boulware pioneered the field of human-relations, most notably during his tenure with General Electric. He believed that most people were simply too stupid to understand sound economic practice and, consequently, needed to have it drilled into their heads by saturating the media with business-friendly propaganda and work-place controls. In particular, Boulware was concerned about rising interest in alternative forms of economics, since many Americans were questioning the failed policies that had resulted in the Great Depression, a wound still fresh in the nation's memory.

Oblivious to the faults of the economic order that he cherished as a "fairyland of well-being," Boulware instigated what became a decades-long corporate campaign to control the minds of the American public. Drawing on his salesman sensibilities, he suggested that "there is just no sense in having the slightest hesitancy in taking on the selling of whatever our study teaches us to be the sound, and honest, and good, and richly rewarding economic program that's really the one for all of us here in America." In other words, the business elite were literally going to market their idea of economic orthodoxy to the public in a manner no less relentless than that of the most dogged salesman. 

The 2007 meltdown once again awoke the public from the unquestioning stupor into which they had fallen, an ignorance that was assiduously cultivated by corporate largesse over the past decades even while income inequality reached unprecedented levels. We are now at a pivotal point in history akin to that in which Boulware proposed his vision for society, which to him meant a docile and unthinking workforce. Right now principled people can either choose to reject the tortured logic upon which the morally bankrupt economic order is premised or choose again be deceived by the snake-oil salesman pitch of those from Wall Street and Washington.

Examining the inherently destructive ideas that underlie the present economic lexicon is a powerful means of reevaluation that can only encourage constructive engagement with the economic problems we currently face. For if we do not discern the selfish and self-justifying notions that imbue modern economics then these notions can only be perpetuated. 

"Gross profit" must understood to be not simply "gross" but grotesque when it is accumulated on the backs of sweatshop workers and the labor of children. 

"Negative externalities," or the negative side-effects of economic activities must be understood to be considerations that are eminently important rather than as something "external," and thus implicitly irrelevant to the big picture. The degradation of the environment and increased human conflict due to the production of armaments are but two weighty examples.

The orthodox mantra of "scarcity" which assumes that a perpetual lack of resources drives economic problems is equally hollow. As the United States throws away one-half the food it produces and pursues a deliberate policy of starving countries of aid unless they integrate themselves into Pax Americana, the idea of scarcity seems antiquated if not simply mendacious. Wall Street can bemoan "scarcity" all day long, but when consultants from Goldman Sachs talk about it they are in actuality referring to the wreckage they cause by taking from everybody else. The problem is not "scarcity," it is greed. 

Lastly the idea that the Great Recession had to occur at all needs to be questioned. No major famine, natural disaster, or unforeseen disease decimated the nation's productive capacity or the skills of its workers. What did occur was far more prosaic and far more imbecilic. 

After toying with other people's money the professional gamblers on Wall Street and Washington encountered imaginary numbers on a screen that told them an imaginary problem had been encountered. Because the imaginary flow of paper, which signified an imaginary value, had not taken the proper imaginary course, they decided that we were now in a crisis. Because of this imaginary crisis, real people were evicted out of real homes, and real people lost real jobs which made real products for what is rightly called the real economy (finally, an economics term that bears a simulacrum to reality).

Thus the imaginary crisis became a real one. Then the government decided to "bail-out" the gamblers, an ironic term seeing as their crimes should have landed them in jail, while the other people got "evicted," a sterile phrase that belies the violence inherent in being torn from one's home. 

In short, the crisis was a man-made conflict and, in response, the government's policies were premised on the same fatuous logic that had created the crisis in first place. This man-made crisis was quite literally created and justified with fantastical words that concealed a terrible logic underneath, nothing more. 

The language of economics is riddled with contradictions, circumlocutions, and the "fairyland" promises of snake oil salesmen. Independent-thinking economists, policymakers, and civilians must strive towards an economics of equality, social justice, and simple human decency. Solutions need not be guided by a logic that defies it (logic). Before this happens the disembodied principles common to contemporary economic discourse must be subordinated to the reality of the Great Recession, even as millions struggle to keep their heads above water amidst its poisonous flotsam. 

It is only by paying attention to the sublimity and terror of language that we can hope to not be fooled again.