Life and Death

The Senate passed, by a vote of 89 for, 9 against, a 700 billion dollar defense bill yesterday, giving the Trump administration more to spend on the military that it had asked for.  At the same time, that august body contemplates (and is within one or two votes of passing) a bill that would take away health care from millions.  Truly, we have a political system in love with death and remorseless in its attacks on life.

This from Tolstoy’s late essay (1900), “Thous Shalt Not Kill”:

“That nations should not be oppressed, and that there should be none of these useless wars, and that men may not be indignant with those who seem to cause these evils, and may not kill them–it seems that only one small thing is necessary.  It is necessary that men should understand things as they are, should call them by their right names, and should know that an army is an instrument for killing, and that the enrollment and management of an army–the very thing which kings, emperors, and presidents occupy themselves with so self-confidently–is a preparation for murder.”

If only it were a question of calling thing by their right names!  Not that I underestimate the will to obfuscation, the will that led us to rename the Department of War the Department of Defense.  I have a hard time describing–and dealing with–how dispirited I currently feel about the state of our nation and our world.  Must humans be worshipers of death?

Church vs. State

The current battles between the politicians in North Carolina (both those in our state legislature and those on the Board of Governors for the state-wide university system) remind me of nothing so much as the battles between church and state as portrayed in the film, Beckett.  Like the medieval church, the university, under the double banner of academic freedom and the right of professional expertise to self-governance, claims—and actually possesses—an autonomy that infuriates the statesmen.  The politicians (despite their hypocritical claims to abhor state power and over-reach) are determined to bring the university to heel.  It only exacerbates matters that universities generate a loyalty and affection among students and alums that politicians can only dream of attaining.

Put this way, the university is the Church.  And, certainly, the university has plenty of analogues with the Church, especially in the pretension to and, sometimes achievement of, the otherworldly.  Plenty of room for hypocrisy there—and undoubtedly no shortage of actual indulgence in that vice.

But I can’t help but view our power-grasping politicians through the lens of religion as well.  I have tried, mostly successfully, during my life and academic career to resist those narratives that posit a sickness deep in the American soul, that see our nation as doomed by a darkness, an original sin, that means it is impossible we will ever live up to our high-falutin’ ideals.  I don’t want to believe that racism explains all of the American past and the American present.  I do want to believe that the US has done a decent—albeit far from perfect—job of providing a good enough life for a higher percentage of its citizens than have most societies in human history.  But I cannot deny that the desire to believe these things may be making me blind to the uglier truth.

In any case, I read this in a Kipling story (“Watches of the Night”): “You may have noticed that many religious people are deeply suspicious.  They seem—for purely religious purposes, of course—to know more about iniquity than the unregenerate.  Perhaps they were specially bad before they became converted!  At any rate, in the imputation of things evil, and in putting the worst construction on things innocent, a certain type of good person may be trusted to surpass all others.”

Now, you could say that the evangelicals meet their match in this regard with the “America is rotten to the core” crew.  Fair enough.  But what I want to ponder is the desire to punish.  When I consider why these right-wingers hate the university—and consider the ways they express that hatred—what I see (among other factors, no doubt) is the desire to subject professors to “market discipline.”  It is not enough to see evil.  One must punish it.  And the chosen instrument for punishment is the market.  The right-wingers may be able to mouth all the virtues of the free market.  But what they really like is that it punishes people, that it causes pain to the reprobate.  How else to explain the need to hunt down the poorest and most vulnerable at every turn and make sure that they are suffering enough?  It’s almost as if the prosperous cannot enjoy their riches without also knowing that some are excluded from that enjoyment.

Of course, the price for that enjoyment is “hard work”—and the right (reminiscent of Kipling’s comments on “suspicion”) is obsessed with the notion that there are people out there who are avoiding “hard work,” who are living off the fat of government largesse.

The university looks like a free consequence zone.  Bad enough that students get to play on their parents’ and the state’s dime for four years.  But that professors get to do so for a lifetime is truly insufferable!  Teaching only two days a week!  Summer vacations!  Sabbaticals!  And with fancy titles and exaggerated respect.  There ought to be a law against it.

Destroying Public Education


Chris Newfield’s The Great Mistake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) is a passionate denunciation of the failure to preserve (over the past 20 years) the incredible system of public higher education created in this country between 1945 and 1970.  He places much of the blame on the acquiescence of top-level college administrators in the steady, slow drip of year and after year reductions in state subsidies. Death by a million cuts–without any strong push-back or effort to forge a constituency that would lobby against the cuts. As with our decaying bridges and power grid, we have witnessed a persistent refusal of our society to invest in the upkeep and growth of basic infrastructure.

In North Carolina at the current moment, the animus against public higher education is not a matter of simple neglect or short-sighted stinginess.  There is an active push to dismantle the state system, an attack that ranges from undercutting student aid packages for less well-off students to interfering with core curricular programs to shutting down research institutes and centers.  None of this has the slightest economic rationale, since the universities are demonstrably the economic drivers in a state that has managed the transition away from its traditional industries—tobacco, textile, and furniture—to the “new” economy reasonably well.  (Poverty in the state is still a severe problem, but located precisely in the eastern and western regions that are furthest away from the universities.)  No, despite all their talk of economic rationales, the Republicans in the state legislature simply hate the universities, especially Chapel Hill, for everything that we stand for: the “liberal” values of free thought and diversity.

In one conversation this week, a fellow faculty member who (because of fund-raising responsibilities and by virtue of his academic discipline) interacts often with these powerful—and hostile—critics of the university, said that he can never figure out “their end game.”  After they cripple the university, what is the utopia they imagine?  What good will they have achieved?  They seem to be set on destruction for destruction’s sake.

I mentioned this conversation to another academic later in the week—and he offered a theory.  Your mileage may vary.  But I found his thoughts intriguing and, at least, semi-plausible.  Education is a billion dollar “industry” that remains frustratingly outside of normal profit-taking business.  Destroy public education and you create a whole new market for capitalism.  Think of it as equivalent to health-care.  We know that providing health care is a public good and a human necessity.  But keeping the provision of health care private means large profits for insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and various other players.  Now think about an education sector structured in similar ways.  Education is also a public good and a human necessity.  Piles of money to be made if it is privatized.

None of this requires a conspiracy theory.  Just the knee-jerk hostility to everything that is public among our free-market ideologues and the determined effort to erode all publicly provided services and goods.  Outsource it all—so that someone somewhere makes a profit, even as working conditions for those in the trenches get steadily worse and the actual beneficiary of services is left to fend for himself or herself.  A scary and depressing thought, precisely because it is a future too easy to imagine.

Unorthodox Reflections on Charlottesville

New York Times article, with video, of shot fired during the Charlottesville rally.

As everyone has commented, the right wing marchers in Charlottesville were heavily armed, thereby making a mockery of any notion of free speech in the public square.  Dahlia Lithwick in Slate has that angle nicely covered.

I want to focus in on the fact that, so far as I can discern, the only shot actually fired that day is the one captured in the video embedded in the New York Times article.  That’s a miracle.  Impressive, really.  All accounts suggest that was some fairly strenuous fighting going on.  Yet no one pulled the trigger, except that one guy, and he fired into the ground.

That’s relevant to my current obsession with the impediments to violence and, from the opposite side, with what incites violence.  All the evidence suggests (the best place to review this evidence is Randall Collins’s book, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory [Princeton Universioty Press, 2008]) that the impediments to violence are very strong.  Famously, studies done after World War II discovered that in most cases 75% of troops in combat never even fired their weapons.

My supposition is that people need to be authorized to commit violence–except in cases where they are responding directly to violence against them.  And even when authorized–as the World War II case shows–the reluctance to be violent is still a strong impediment.

Clearly, the right wingers don’t think of themselves as reluctant to use violence.  Maybe that’s bluster, and maybe that’s true.  Collins suggest that there are virtuosos of violence just as there are virtuosos in other endeavors.  But my suggestion is that even the virtuousos need to be given permission.  Violence always must justify itself against the assumption that it is wrong.  It must have a story to tell about why it was necessary.

So my thought is: the Charlottesville show of force was a message.  We are armed and we are ready to resort to force if you do certain things, i.e. take down Confederate monuments.  So one question is: what actually would move all these right-wing militias to the actual deployment of force.  They are clearly threatening force, but what would actually move them to use it.

This is also why, it seems to me, these militias are addicted to arcane, hair-splitting interpretations of the Constitution.  They need the law to be on their side to justify their resorting to force.  That is certainly how the two Bundy escapades worked.  They provided themselves with crackpot legal justification.

If we think back to the street fights in 1930s Germany, we have a case where violence from both sides was one instigator, but also where the state quite simply unleashed the thugs.  Similar instances (in Egypt for example or in China during the Cultural Revolution) can also be cited. The violence against blacks in the South was socially sanctioned from 1870 to 1965–and Kennedy’s reluctance to intervene in the early 1960s allowed Southerners to still count on the fact that local justice systems would wink at their violence while their social cohorts would approve of it.

That, of course, is why Trump is so dangerous.  He hasn’t gone so far as to designate certain people enemies of the nation, but he hasn’t exactly embraced the equal right of everyone to be here (to put it mildly).  Still, he hasn’t openly endorsed violence, even as he has winked at it.  What he has done so far is enough justification for the outliers and loners, but not enough to swing the militias into concerted action.  In short, we have not seen any organized violence as of yet, although we have had these organized rallies that are built around the threat of violence.  If we reach a point where the courts refuse to prosecute, watch out.  (Just as the courts’ absurd interpretation of the 2nd amendment has given us people parading with assault rifles on our streets.)

Is there really something, some political event, that would push the militias into action? That possibility is certainly less remote than left-wing violence in the contemporary US.  But it still seems pretty remote to me.  The two Bundy stand-offs were the closest we’ve gotten there–and they never came close to being wide-spread movements.


Recent Events at UNC

After a series of baffling and upsetting events at my university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was moved to write the following letter to our campus newspaper.  I will, doubtless, have more to say on this subject going forward.

What’s Going On?

The University was handed a get out of jail free card by Governor Roy Cooper—and declined to use it.  WTF?

Even more baffling is the fact that we requested the card.  Spurred by a letter from Chapel Hill mayor Pam Hemminger, someone (I assume it was our Chancellor, Carol Folt, but do not know what transpired behind the scenes) managed a feat of unalloyed diplomatic brilliance: a letter to the governor co-signed by Margaret Spellings, president of the UNC system, Carol Folt, Lou Bissette, chair of the system’s Board of Governors, and Haywood Cochrane, chair of the UNC, Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.  That letter, citing safety concerns, asked for a ruling about excepting Silent Sam from the 2015 law forbidding the removal of historical monuments on public land.

The Governor responded swiftly and unambiguously, authorizing Silent Sam’s removal.  I fully expected to arrive on campus Tuesday morning and find that UNC, in a move echoing recent actions at the University of Texas, had removed the statue during the night.  Instead, the statue was surrounded by a double row of fences and a sign was posted stipulating proper behavior in its presence. And then the university, later in the day, turned its back on the ruling it requested, and stated it didn’t agree with the Governor’s interpretation of the law, even while agreeing that campus would be safer without the Confederate memorial.

The mind reels.  The chief Executive officer of the state tells you that a certain action is legitimate and lawful.  But you decide he might be wrong.  What could motivate such a decision?  Clearly, if the Governor gives you the go ahead, you are not going to be prosecuted by his branch’s attorney general if you proceed.  The legislature will, doubtless, be unhappy, but they have no prosecutorial powers.  True, the university could, I guess, be sued over the matter, and could suffer at the hands of a vindictive legislature somewhere down the line.  But should such possible ill effects over-rule immediate safety concerns, not to mention the poisonous message the statue sends every day?  I don’t think so.

Meanwhile, the administration is engaged in a petty squabble with the Campus Y over the posting of political banners.  The Chancellor’s initial communique in response to events in Charlottesville included an appended statement that declared an absolute right to free speech on this campus.  Yet now her administration is relying on invoking bureaucratic minutia to take down the Y’s signs.

Finally, as one last demonstration of a determination to act in mysterious and secretive ways, we get the announcement of a new provost.  The move took everyone on campus by surprise.  What’s worse: we get a new provost with a complete abrogation of any procedure for his appointment.  No naming of an interim, no formation of a search committee, no public meetings with finalists for the position, no consultation with any one on campus.

The Chancellor is acting like a tinpot autocrat.  On the one hand, afraid of her own shadow, she can’t act decisively when she is handed a green light by the Governor. On the other hand, she has isolated herself from the university community, interacting with us through statements that it takes a Talmudic scholar or a Kremlinologist to decipher, and embracing non-transparency.  What’s going on?  Damned if I know.

Here’s my message to Carol Folt.  We–the faculty, students, and staff—of this university are your partners in the educational mission of this great university.  We are not dangerous, unruly, and unpredictable subjects who need to be managed.  Stop being afraid of us and start working with us.



Notes to Self

From Robert Richardson’s “Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind” (University of California Press, 1986), pg. 194: “Whereas the Christian yearns to be redeemed, and the Dionysian to be possessed, the Apollonian yearns to know, to see clearly, to perceive.”  It is that urge for redemption and how to step outside of it that interests me.  William James is a Christian by this account but one, in fact, fascinated with possession if Varieties is taken into account.  I don’t know enough about Thoreau to know if Richardson is right about him and am not even sure that I can wrap my head around this Apollonian alternative.  But I definitely want to try to think about these different character types to consider their possibility and figure out how they shift one’s way of being in the world.

On a separate note.  Bruce Robbins has a great response to Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2015) in a recent issue of PMLA.  I read it on line so don’t have exact info.  Robbins talks about how the insistence that questions of “power” be addressed by criticism is most often a way, albeit often a clumsy one, to raise the issue of injustice.  To pay heed to power differentials and to “the ruses of power” (to use a favorite phrase of Judith Butler’s) is to attend to what justice demands and how the world falls short of those demands.

Seems to me that this point is relevant to thinking about violence.  First, injustice is often sustained by violence.  Certainly, the prevalent tendency to expand definitions of violence out beyond direct physical assaults is often motivated by the effort to delineate more subtle forms of coercion that are connected to maintaining various inequalities.  Second, however, is the opposite point that violence is used by the state in the name of justice, in the restraint and punishment of criminals.  And somewhat analogously, violence is also deployed by the revolutionary in the name of justice.  The revolutionary says that the violence that maintains injustice can only be overturned by violence.  Anything else is meek submission.

Leverage, Round Two

To summarize: a movement needs to generate mass disobedience to an objectionable governmental practice or law–and win the approval of non-movement members in the process.  For the civil rights movement, that meant refusing to abide by the practices and legal statutes that were segregation de facto and de jure.  The mass disobedience found that sweet spot where, finally, the government lost its will to uphold those practices and laws.  Yes, it took some time.  But, finally, the spectacle of arresting people who were just trying to be treated equally was no longer supportable.

For the anti-war movement, it was draft resistance.  Not as clear that public opinion was won over to the side of the resisters, but draft law came close to being unenforceable and the easy way out was to create the “all volunteer” army.  That move, of course, was the government’s way of sidestepping the larger issue of the anti-war movement: citizens’ ability to stop the government from waging war.  That ability has not been gained, while ending the draft took away a crucial leverage spot and made anti-war movements much more difficult to sustain.

Pretty obviously, protesting–and rectifying–discrimination is harder.  In the cases of segregation and the draft there is a law to disobey.  But in the case of discrimination, you are trying to get the government to enforce the law against your opponents.  Now the government and the legal system needs to be your adversary, and is not your antagonist.  That greatly limits the stage, doesn’t provide for dramatic confrontations, or mass disobedience.  Prodding the government to action is a tough one–and, I am starting to think, the real source of my perplexity about what forms effective action today could take.

That would seem to go in spades for a constitutional crisis.  Since the 2000 election, with the follow-ups of the illegal Iraq War and torture, and now the shenanigans of the Trump administration, we have seemingly discovered that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to call the government to account.  If the “system” worked in calling the Nixon administration to account for its crimes, that still suggested that only the government could successfully curb the government. And since 2000 there is no evidence of the government having the wherewithal to call itself to account.

I read the other day someone talking about how the people would take to the streets if Trump fired the special prosecutor or pardoned himself and his family.  But it is unclear how taking to the streets would have any impact.  The pessimist in me says that as long as daily life was not disrupted, the republic would tolerate massive malfeasance.  One, because the issues–the rule of law etc.–are so arcane, and two, because it doesn’t feel like it hits people where they live.

Oddly enough, Trump’s crimes are sort of victimless; they damage our democracy, perhaps irreparably, but they don’t seem to harm anyone in particular.  I was wondering about this in terms of “standing.”  Could I sue (and who would I sue) for damages because my vote was rendered meaningless through election fraud?  Would I be granted “standing” to bring such a suit?  And what would be the remedy if I won such a case?  It is unimaginable that there would be a “do-over” of the election?  And yet, what else could be suitable recompense?

I wish I had something better to offer.  A successful movement has to get a large number of people to consider themselves as members of a wronged collective.  Post-2008, the unemployed and the defrauded quite conspicuously failed to make that leap.  Somehow losing your job or losing your home was experienced as an individual misfortune, not something that tied you to many others with whom you should unite to protest against your lot.  And, again, that would have been a case of trying to get the government to do something, rather than protesting against or disobeying a government action.

As long as normal life is mostly left in peace, we seem to be left with the ballot box.  But not only have Republicans worked hard to shelter themselves from democracy (through gerrymandering, voter suppression and the like), but politicians have more reasons than ever to listen to the powerful few as opposed to the powerless many.

North Carolina’s Moral Mondays seem to prove this point.  They have been sustained over an admirably long time–and seem to have had no impact at all except to harden the hearts of our Scrooge-like state legislators.

All of this might mean that party politics is really the only game in town.  Leftists need to engineer a take-over of the Democratic party akin the the take-over of the Republican party by its right-wing.  Only the primary threat makes politicians answerable to voters when the general election districts are gerrymandered.