Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

The Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time: Lessons from Chicago

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The Chicago Teachers’ Strike

by Afrah

The teachers’ strike in Chicago in in its fifth day at the time of this posting. The coverage has divided into roughly two parallel narratives. One decries the overreach of the teacher’s union, led by Karen Lewis. According to this viewpoint, it is a public relations disaster at best. In these economic hard times, the unions are pushing back against the elimination of automatic pay raises and other job protections. The teachers look like they are not willing to their part in sharing the sacrifices like other workers. The other story about the strike worries aloud about the state of the roughly 350,000 students in the public school system whose largely working class parents have to scramble to find accommodations for them during the strike. Both storylines are incomplete because they overlook important complexities. There are extraordinarily high stakes embedded in this strike because educational inequality is the civil rights struggle of our time. The Chicago teachers have drawn an important line in the sand in a fight for the future of public education.

First, the teachers’ strike  demonstrates that union power is alive and robust in the twenty first century. They have always been–and continue to be–a necessary counterweight to management’s interest. The idea that teachers are the enemy is a fallacy. My first and most enduring professional identity is that of a teacher. I began my career as a history teacher in 1999 at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a public high school in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. With over ten years experience in the New York school system as a teacher and administrator, I can attest to the necessity of unions to exercise its power to improve the bread and butter issues of working conditions, salaries, and tenure. I found it incredibly useful that I had the freedom to teach U.S. History courses to my students that principally included the voices of people of color, women, poor people, and folks of all sexual orientation in a critically engaging manner. Due to union protection, I taught a curriculum that challenged the great (white) man’s version of American history without fear of reprisal from my supervisors. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

September 14, 2012 at 15:21

A Real Palestinian Peace Movement

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by David

About 10 years ago, in May of 2002, as a college freshman, I wrote an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson titled “An Arab Peace Movement.” I wrote:

Palestinian peace advocates should do two things. First, they should organize. Second, they should protest suicide bombings in addition to the Israeli occupation.

A model for Arabs to follow is Peace Now, an organization founded by Israeli reserve officers in 1978. With branches in the U.S., Canada and Europe, it is the foremost Jewish peace organization. It organized massive protests throughout the 1980s and 1990s that influenced Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Even Israel’s Labor party under former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak eventually adopted many of its views. In response to the current conflict, Peace Now advocates a withdrawal from the occupied territories, a two-state solution and an end to violence.

There is no Arab or Muslim equivalent to Peace Now.

I actually think this article holds up pretty well. It’s true, there is plenty of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though still perhaps not enough. But that’s not the whole of it. Palestinians cannot simply adopt the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They need to advance the only pragmatic end goal: a peaceful, two-state solution.

Norman Finkelstein, defender of Israel?

This is the crucial point. Calls for a one-state solution are de facto calls for the destruction of Israel. Even Norman Finkelstein (Norman Finkelstein!), a critic of Israel so vociferous he makes Noam Chomsky look like a Likud party apparatchik, recognizes that the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement is simply a front for a group dedicated to Israel’s peaceful destruction.

As I wrote ten years ago:

Some non-violent anti-occupation Arab organizations do exist, including Addameer, LAW (a Palestinian human rights organization) and the Arab Association for Human Rights. But compared to Peace Now, these groups are tiny.

More importantly, Peace Now does not exist to oppose Hamas; it opposes the Israeli occupation. There is no broad-based Arab equivalent.

Today, in addition to Peace Now, there is also J-Street. There remains no Palestinian equivalent. If there are, I haven’t heard of them, and you probably haven’t either. Their voices are muted, and their members can meet in a phone booth. They need better PR. And they need a better message. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just preach non-violence, he told whites what they wanted to hear, namely, that his goal was peaceful integration, not separation.

In this instance, Palestinians must peacefully advocate the opposite goal. They must say: we recognize Israel, and we simply want our own state, and we will do anything peaceful to achieve that result.

As I concluded my article:

Peace comes through compromise, admission of guilt and self-criticism. Arab progressives need an organization like Peace Now. No such organization exists, and Arab voices of peace are reduced to whispers.

I’m proud of what I wrote 10 years ago. Things have gotten worse since then. But I don’t think the answers have changed. We still know the way forward, even though it seems even farther in the distance. But we still have to try to get there.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 9, 2012 at 13:13

Posted in activism, Israel, Palestine

A Tale of Two Cities: Students Protests in Columbus, Ohio and Montreal, Quebec

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by Julian 

Is student loan debt a ticking time bomb? At $870 billion dollars, the money owed on student loans in the United States now surpasses total credit balances. In Canada, the average student debt for a university graduate totals $27,000. Two million Canadians now owe around 20 billion dollars in student loans. Growing levels of student debt in both countries represents part of a larger phenomenon of governments passing off educational costs to individual students rather than funding them as part of the public good.

While part of an international trend, I’ve witnessed how much response to these tuition hikes can vary from place to place. In 2005, I moved from Montreal to Ohio to complete a master’s degree. Even then, tuition rates were rapidly expanding at Ohio’s state universities. The apathetic response to tuition hikes that I encountered among students amazed me.  The reason for my surprise was because at that exact same moment in my native Quebec, over 200, 000 students had gone on strike. They had done so because the provincial government had cut loans and bursaries. Even with these cuts (which were unsuccessful due to student mobilization), Quebec tuition would still have remained about half of what it was in Ohio.

Today, the gap between the student movements in Ohio and Quebec seem just as stark.  In Ohio, average costs for state residents at the main campuses of four-year universities stands at $ 9,600 a year (a 56% increase over the past decade). Ohio State, which has increased annuals charges by 72% over the past decade to $13, 081, even warns its prospective students that they should expect to pay an additional 5% to 10%  every year that they attend. Three weeks ago, around 100 Ohio State students marched in protest.  In contrast, three days ago in Montreal, tens of thousands of students showed up for a demonstration that spanned over 50 city blocks. They were protesting the Liberal government’s plans to raise annual in-province tuition fees from $2,500 to $4,100 over the next five years. Since mid-February, more than 300,000 students have stopped attending classes to challenge this policy.

Montreal demonstration against tuition fees , March 22, 2012

Although many believe that college education is an investment into one’s future—which individual students should play a substantial role in paying back themselves—upon closer inspection the arguments for state tuition increases don’t sound very convincing. Increased fees deter financially disadvantaged students from applying to university, lead to worrisome debt loads for anyone whose family isn’t already well off, and neglect the obscene growth in administrative salaries at college and universities in recent years (which actually do waste money). They also tend to encourage the view that higher education is nothing but a commodity designed for individual advancement, rather than a system that promotes the common good through its original research and teaching.

In cases such as Quebec’s, the tuition increases also represent a drop in the bucket when compared with overall spending on higher education. The tuition hikes seem designed less to pay for needed expenses than to encourage the principle that individuals—rather than society as a whole—should bear the financial burden every time they use a government service. That is, in the name of austerity, they should get used to more regressive taxation.

As the size of student protests in Ohio and Quebec demonstrate, student culture matters in shaping responses to tuition increases. While the Canadian media has relentlessly reminded its readers that Quebecers pay less in tuition than anyone in Canada, they have neglected to highlight to that they also pay considerably higher income taxes in part because they expect more social equality. Since the late 1960s, Quebec students have launched a number of successful petition drives, strikes, occupations, and mass demonstrations that have helped keep costs down. This commitment to student solidarity helps explain why Quebec’s student debt load is by the far the lowest out of all of Canada. In Ohio, on the other hand, not only do you find a political culture that places less of a premium on social equality, but you also have a complex system of higher education that makes organizing protests much more difficult.

Culture and institutions, of course, are malleable. Many in Quebec support increased tuition fees. Its student movement may very well fail to stop the current government’s agenda (as was recently the case in London). At the same time, they might help inspire others. My own, admittedly utopian, hope is that the activism in Quebec encourages students in places like Ohio (just as the negligible tuition fees in places like Norway and the Netherlands have motivated many in Quebec). As universities around the world consider abandoning their missions of serving the common good for the promise of neo-liberal economic efficiencies, the response should ideally be international as well. Indeed, many in the Occupy Movement have turned crushing levels of student debt into an organizing issue.  While I like seeing 100, 000 people marching against tuition increases in Montreal (or London), it would be a great thing to see in Columbus, Ohio too.

Written by Julian Nemeth

March 27, 2012 at 00:19

Historicizing “Violence”: Thoughts on the Hedges/Graeber Debate

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By Peter

There has been a running debate, started by Chris Hedges, over the proper tactics of street protests and the role of violence in the Occupy Movement. Hedges, who was one of the first writers with an audience to support Occupy Wall Street, attacked Black Bloc, which he mistakenly seems to have identified as a cohesive movement, rather than a tactic. Black Bloc occurs when protesters dress the same (normally in black hoodies), move in a pack, and, often, provoke confrontation with the cops by smashing windows, overturning garbage cans, etc… By dressing the same, they make it far more difficult for police to single out individuals. Coming on the heels of the Oakland protests, Hedges called the Black Bloc, a “cancer” on the movement, who provoke unnecessary repression by the state, distract from the message, and practice a sort of negative politics of aggression, in which confrontation and the symbolism of militancy takes the place of organizing and coalition building.

In reply, David Graeber, one of the grandfathers of OWS, defended the Black Bloc. He corrected some of Hedges’ factual inaccuracies, but resorted to a fairly hysterical response to Hedges’ (admittedly unnecessarily provocative) language, accusing Hedges of using a rhetoric that “historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another,” and arguing that Hedges would be read as a call to violence against Black Bloc. (I, at least, sure didn’t read Hedges’ article as a call for genocide). More reasonably he pointed out that the police almost always resort to violence and that the media almost always blame this violence on protesters, whether or not the Black Bloc is involved. State repression will happen no matter what that kid in the black hoodie does. Finally he argued that the mythologies that have developed around supposedly non-violent movements have obscured how often they involved violent activities, most often of a far more deadly sort.

Masked Political Protesters Violently Destroying Property

As a historian of the abolitionist movement I was struck by how timeless this debates is. Few issues tore the anti-slavery movement apart as much as the question of violence: should fugitives use violence to defend themselves? should abolitionist victims of mob attacks (like Elijah Lovejoy) violently defend themselves? Should insurrection be encouraged? Some, like William Lloyd Garrison (a pacifist and Christian anarchist), maintained that non-violence was both moral and practical in the long run (by getting the conscience of the North on their side). Others, Frederick Douglass being the most notable, but also Theodore Parker, Charles Lenox Remond, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, argued that it was “right and wise” to kill someone trying to capture a slave. Like today, activists debated both the morality and the pragmatism of violent activism (different issues that are too often conflated).

One interesting difference, though, was the definition of violence, where the line between violence and nonviolence got drawn. As Graeber suggested at the end of his letter, the violence that Black Bloc protesters have been accused of–breaking windows, spray painting, occasionally throwing rocks– is small beans compared to the violent tactics that have been debated in most political movements. For abolitionists, the question was about the morality of taking up arms against the state, something they did over and over again, killing a number of slaveholders and US Marshals. One group I study, called the Boston Anti-Man Hunting League, planned on kidnapping Southerners who were trying to capture slaves. Kidnapping the kidnapper, if you will. And when these actors set the terms, non-lethal force was rarely considered “violent.” In 1851, When a mob of black Bostonians pushed their way into a court room, grabbed a slave, “kicked, cuffed and knocked about,” some guards, and ran off, Garrison applauded the act. If he thought pushing their way into a court room and shoving down police officers crossed the line, he didn’t mention it. The point was, when abolitionists discussed what tactics were violent, they meant things far more radical and dangerous than anything that the Black Bloc thinks about.

Obviously the stakes were much higher in the fight against slavery than they are today in the Occupy movement. But violence of some form has dotted American social movements. Let’s not run away from this: the Left has often used violent tactics, as one, among many strategies. Unions waged pitched battles against state militias and violently kept scabs away from workplaces, black homeowners defended their right to integrate neighborhoods with the force of arms, and even the Stonewall Riot was, well, a riot, complete with firebombs, thrown bottles, and bloodied cops. What’s remarkable, in fact, is how little violence, all in all, the OWS movement has engendered. No talk of running to the barricades, no calls for “the deliberate increase in the chances of death,” or the “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder,” no naming of “defense ministers” for the movement, or sloganeering about the “birth-pangs” of the new society.

The best defense of Graeber’s point, then, is that by defining “violence,” in such a narrow way (one that, without questioning it, includes property destruction as well as self-defense in the same category as aggressive violence against human beings), Hedges sets up an unrealistic standard, that few if any social movements could meet. If you get 100,000 angry people in the street, its hard to imagine that some won’t throw a rock or fight back when cops try to kick the shit out of them. This is especially true as cities impose greater and greater restrictions on the ability of protesters to meet, and as police resort to greater and greater acts of repression and violence. So hewing too closely to some mythologized vision of nonviolence, and working to exclude those violate the terms, means accepting a paralyzing and self-limiting definition of what are acceptable tactics.

The whole debate illustrates well the elasticity of the term violence, and the historically specific ways that it gets defined. At an earlier time, you were one of the “good” ones, if you eschewed armed struggle, and just limited yourself to the occasional excess in the street protest. Today, according to the administration of Berkeley, linking arms to resist police invasion is an act of violence. The Left should, rather than accept the state’s definition of what is nonviolent (and therefore what is “good” activism) fight back at an ideological level against definitions that only restrict our behavior.

At the same time, its hard to take Graeber’s wounded outrage totally seriously. Does he really not understand why nonviolent protesters are angry when a tiny minority hijacks their events? Does he really not see how a small group trying to provoke the cops endangers everyone? I’m not super offended by Black Bloc tactics, but if I were the type to engage in them, I sure wouldn’t be shocked when other people disapproved. I also have no patience for the ultra-leftists who openly detest unions, community groups, and the Democratic Party as a bunch of pathetic bureaucratic sell-outs, but then clutch their pearls in shock when anyone dares to attack their preferred group or tactic.

As Bhaska Srunkara points out, tactics like the Black Bloc are unlikely to lead to the type of democratic dialogue that will inspire more people to join a movement. Its hard to see how a smashed window will convince anyone to join your movement, but its easy to see how it will keep them out. “Masks, after all, aren’t good for talking to people.” And rarely do you see the “fuck-shit-up” crowd coming to the boring planning meetings or going out flyering with you.

In my mind, the proper response is for all sides to dial down the outrage. This question is old and probably never ending. I have absolutely no interest in throwing a brick or whatnot, but I think history teaches us that at a low level, at least, such things are likely to be part of any significant social movement. As long as serious acts of violence against people (as opposed to against property) don’t erupt, I’m willing to live and let live, while remembering that the real action should be in dialogue, organizing, and recruitment, not whatever happens to the Starbucks’ window.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 13, 2012 at 00:42

Do Scholarship and Politics Mix? Stanley Fish and Howard Zinn on Academic Freedom

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by Julian 

Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should “save the world on their own time.” Just last week, he reiterated this point in a column about a conference he attended on “originalism,” the contentious legal doctrine that judges should interpret the Constitution as the framers had originally understood it. Despite the subject matter’s obvious implications for hot-button issues like immigration and the health care mandate, Fish happily reported that conference participants stayed focused only on matters of academic concern. They never waded into the territory of political partisanship.  As he explained,

It would be an understatement to say that these questions provoke heated discussion in the world at large, but at the conference they were not themselves debated; no one stood up to say that he was for or against the individual mandate, or that citizenship standards should be relaxed or tightened. Instead participants argued (vigorously, but politely and with unfailing generosity) about where and with what methods inquiry into the questions should begin. Actually asking and answering them was left to other arenas  (the arenas of the legislature, the courts and the ballot box) where their direct, as opposed to academic, consideration would be appropriate.

While Fish’s insistence on the stark distinction between partisanship and scholarship might strike some as unrealistic, it comes out of his broader view on the nature of academic freedom. From his perspective, academic freedom differs fundamentally from the free speech rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most workplaces, colleges and universities don’t have the right to fire their academic staff because of their opinions. More accurately, they don’t have the right to do so if they operate under the academic freedom guidelines established nearly a century ago by the American Association of University Professors.

How did faculty members gain these special protections? In the United States, academic freedom began to gain institutional support during the Progressive Era, a period in which many placed a high value on the ability of disinterested expertise to solve social problems.  Academic freedom was originally designed to advance such expert knowledge. The AAUP argued that faculty members needed professional autonomy in order to remain free of the corrupting influence of business interests, religious groups, political parties, and labor unions. To advance knowledge, only accredited specialists could judge the merit of academic work: this explains the necessity of peer review.

By politicizing their work, Fish argues, faculty members weaken these philosophical justifications that protect academic freedom. If the broader public believes that professors at the universities they support promote a political agenda—rather than disinterested scholarship—the public will then have reasonable grounds to insert itself into decisions about research and teaching that had once been reserved for academic experts. The rationale for academic autonomy crumbles.

Not long after reading Fish’s recent column, I happened to come across a speech on academic freedom written by the militant historian, Howard Zinn. As anyone at all familiar with Zinn’s work will have probably guessed, the speech promoted a vision of the academic enterprise diametrically opposed to the one articulated by Fish. Delivered to an audience of South African academics in 1982, the speech implored all scholars to fight against the temptations of political complacency. For Zinn, academic freedom had

always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic –that the university, because of its special claim to be a place for the pursuit of truth be a place where we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions, the practices of society, measuring them against millennia-old ideals of equality and justice.

From Zinn’s standpoint, any understanding of academic freedom that urged scholars to remain aloof from contemporary social struggles remained hollow to the core. Professional autonomy might have its place, but at what cost? 

American higher education, Zinn insisted, had historically served the interests of wealthy elites that dominated the worlds of big business and the state. As long as faculty members quietly went along their business—training the middle managers and professionals that would keep the deeply unequal society running smoothly—the powers that be would grant them a degree of autonomy and prestige. Should scholars really be content with this state of affairs?

Zinn also maintained that in attempting to remain apolitical, academics actually performed a disservice to scholarship. Under the guise of objectivity, academic standards often masked support for the status quo. These standards encouraged social scientists to put on blinders when they examined issues of racial, sexual, and class inequality. In the name of supposed neutrality, professional disciplines such as engineering and finance often eschewed questions of values all together. This kind of thinking, he believed, helped encourage the mindset that led American academics to play important roles developing weapons and providing expertise for the Vietnam War.

Zinn used his own experience teaching courses at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s to illuminate the limitations of a narrow view of academic freedom.  The Spelman campus, he remembered, was beautiful. Ideas were openly discussed within college walls. However, faculty and students were expected to publicly remain silent on segregation.  If they had publicly expressed themselves on this issue, it would have caused a scandal and threatened the college’s vaunted autonomy. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn explains, a critical mass of students and faculty stopped self-censoring themselves. They had realized that a measure of academic freedom within the college meant little if it was not accompanied by the right to fight for justice and equality on the outside too. In stark contrast, to Fish, Zinn concludes,

I did not think I could talk about politics and history in the classroom, deal with war and peace, discuss the question of obligation to the state versus obligation to one’s brothers and sisters throughout the world, unless I demonstrated by my actions that these were not academic questions to be decided by scholarly disputation, but real ones to be decided in social struggle.

Zinn practiced what he preached. He served as a faculty advisor to SNCC in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he engaged in sit-down strikes with campus workers at Boston University. In 1980, he produced one of the most famous and contentious works of revisionist scholarship in American history.  Throughout his career, he devoted his writing and public life to exposing injustice. Due to his outspoken activism, he was trailed for decades by the FBI and at least one high-ranking member of his university tried to have him fired.

Is there a middle road between the radical commitment demanded by Zinn and the academic formalism celebrated by Fish? It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates.  Just in the past year or two, this appears to be the case in books as varied as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, and, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The authors of these books have all received praise (and criticism) from their peers in academia, while also making important and pointed contributions to debates of major public significance.

Fish is right to the degree that the academy shouldn’t be a place that promotes political propaganda. On the other hand, it would be a sad state indeed if at least some academics didn’t also heed Zinn’s advice. We need more, not less, rigorous works of scholarship that deepen an often shallow public discourse on issues of crucial concern.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 10, 2012 at 12:54

Tony Judt Retrospective

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by David

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

While Peter was participating in (and ably chronicling) the Occupy Chicago’s protest of the American Economic Association’s (AEA) annual conference, I stayed behind at the American Historical Association’s (AHA) annual meeting to attend a panel commemorating the late historian Tony Judt.

The similarity and contrast between the two events is revealing. Before succumbing to ALS in 2010, Judt became an intellectual leader to the left, most notably in his moving 2009 NYU address, “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” later expanded into a book called Ill Fares the Land. Had he lived, I think Tony Judt would have found a lot to admire in the broader Occupy movement and in this specific protest, for as Peter notes, he was an ardent critic of “economism,” the American cult of efficiency, and he howled against the decline of the welfare state and rising rates of inequality.

On the other hand, a central theme of the Judt retrospective, and of the latter half of Judt’s life, was his militant, strident anti-Marxism. All four panelists, John Dunn (Judt’s professor at King’s College), Marci Shore (eastern European historian at Yale), Peter Gordon (European intellectual historian at Harvard and my undergrad professor), and Timothy Snyder (also an eastern European historian at Yale) made this a major focus on their talks, particularly the last three presenters. Judt would have had no use for the Marxist and anarchist platitudes of the protesters.

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Occupy Economics?: A Report Back from the Nerdiest Protest I’ve ever been to.

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By Peter

I just got back from Chicago, where, along with attending the American Historical Association, I participated in a series of protests held by Occupy Chicago, along with CACHE (Coalition Against Corporatization of Higher Education) that targeted the American Economics Association (AEA). Its not everyday that the worlds of street protests and academic conferences blend so well. But then again, part of the point was to “puncture the bubble,” that academic economists live in.

The protesters gave out “alternative” awards for Most Conflict of Interests (Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard), Intellectual Narrowness (Harvard’s Greg Mankiw), and top prize, the “Toxic Waste of Space Award” (Harvard/Obama administration’s Larry Summers). Other than a brief yelling match that one protester got in with a professor, the tone was light and fun. Protesters “accepted” awards acting as Mankiw, Hubbard, and Summers (who reminded us how much smarter he was than us) and served “Rahmon” noodles, in honor of the Chicagoans impoverished by Rahm Emmanuel’s neoliberal policies. Overall a lot of fun, albeit fun that might have gone over the heads of the random shoppers on Michigan Ave.

According to protesters: “The bankrupt ideologies of ‘neo-liberalism’–trickle-down theory, austerity, deregulation, privatization–have all been proven empirically disastrous. Those ideas still enjoy a monopoly in the mainstream debate due to the massive scale of academic subsidizing by the bought AEA and it’s cohorts in the 1%.” Watch a great interview with an organizer at the bottom of this post.

It just so happens the protests came at a time of particularly hot debate about the ideology of the economics profession. The recent release of the minutes of the 2006 Federal Reserve Meetings well illustrates—along with Timothy Geithner’s utterly pathetic sycophancy towards Alan Greenspan—that the High Priests were asleep on the job, completely unaware of the looming housing crisis. Said one professor quoted by the New York Times:

“It’s embarrassing for the Fed,” said Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “You see an awareness that the housing market is starting to crumble, and you see a lack of awareness of the connection between the housing market and financial markets.”

“It’s also embarrassing for economics,” he continued. “My strong guess is that if we had a transcript of any other economist, there would be at least as much fodder.”

Not the discipline’s finest moment, no doubt.

I have a longstanding hatred/fascination with the foundational logic taught in modern Economics courses: its technocratic imagination, its inability to question its own premises, its ahistorical logic (see Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, Chapter 2 for more on how society, power, and history dropped out of the Economics discipline), its inattention to moral consequences, its reductionism (like the horrid Freakonimics series, which thinks all aspects of human existence can be explained by their simplistic assumptions about human behavior), and its normative amorality (seriously, studies have shown that taking economics makes students less generous people).

And this is all important because Economics inhabits a unique disciplinary position. Part academic discipline, part incubators of elite policy makers, academics in no other departments transition so seamlessly from academia to government to Wall Street. Look at a figure like Larry Summers, who has (in the last five years alone!) inhabited leading roles in all three worlds. While taking money from Wall Street while producing intellectual material about Wall Street suggests casual corruption, the influence that economists, and what Tony Judt called economism (the tendency to think of all social problems in terms of the marketplace) has deep ramifications on our public policy. The very power of economists makes it more likely that they will be captured by elites. I think, then, it is fair to target the AEA, even if many, if not most, economists are actually innocent of any corruption. It matters to the public what economists talk about, much more so than whats going on in, say, the MLA.

A silver lining, though, to the economic collaspe might be a rethinking of some economic thought.

Writing about the great shift in Economics departments that occurred in the 1970s, as Samuelson, Galbraith, and the other Keynesians lost favor, Daniel Rodgers writes:

“The economic crisis of the 1970s was, in short, not merely a crisis in management. It was also, and at least as painfully, a crisis in ideas and intellectual authority. An extremely confident analytical system had failed to explain or make sense of the unexpected.”

The results, according to Rodgers, were that the profession increasingly moved towards a more neoclassical model and microeconomics prevailed over macroeconomics. Meanwhile, the logic of markets and economic thinking invaded other disciplines: rational choice theory in political science, the “law and economics” movement in law schools, etc… One hopes that our recent crisis and the inability of our policy elites to predict or solve the problem, will produce a similar paradigmatic shift. This time, though, hopefully it will be away from such apologias for capitalism.

So in that spirit, I wanted to highlight two interesting thinkers. The first, I saw over at Crooked Timber, where New School economist Sanjay Reddy gives a fabulous interview about the need to bring moral reasoning back into the study of Economics. Reddy argues against the notion that Economics is a value-neutral science, restoring an “evaluative framework” to the discipline. It is impossible, he argues, to come to purely technical solutions to most problems. In a sense, Reddy is asking that we take moral sides before we engage in economic debate. First, for instance, we say that a goal of policy should be to aid the poor, then we figure out ways to so.

This seems to fit well with an article in the latest issue of Jacobin magazine (also featuring an excellent piece by friend of the blog, Andrew Hartman), by Mike Beggs, calling for radicals to occupy economics. Begg’s article asks economists to be less technocratic, and more openly political in their ends. Beggs takes a middle ground (for radical intellectuals), acknowledging that “mainstream economics is both an ideological bastion of capitalism and a genuine social science.” A tool for understanding the world, it is also wrapped up in a set of assumptions that are not neutral, but that favor a free market approach to the world. Nevertheless, as Begg’s points out, the stereotype that many have of a discipline of Milton Friedmans is actually unfair. A wide swath of economists agree with the need for some government intervention, and, other than a few reactionaries in Chicago or George Mason, most also acknowledge the importance of Keynes. The problem, Beggs suggests, is “not that mainstream economics was delusional, or biased to the right, but that it was technocratic.” It presumed it could manage and control, rather than take sides in class warfare.

In the opening editorial of Jacobin, the editors declare that, as the rebellion of Occupy Wall Street spreads, “we are in the last throes of the era of Ezra Klein.” What they mean, I think, is that the tepid liberalism of the technocratic elite (poor Ezra has, a bit unfairly, become a symbol of this) says nothing to the fundamental message of the OWS movement: the restoration of politics—full throated politics—to our understanding of class and economics. Class will no longer be something discussed in dry studies by the Brooking Institute or in economics seminars, but in the chants and marches in the streets, as those without challenge those with. Millions of people simply standing up and rejected these “market-based” solutions that have been crammed down our throats, will do more to change the dialogue than any polite article or policy paper ever will.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 16, 2012 at 23:21

Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Occupy Wall Street

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by David

Occupy Wall Street is the Civil Rights Movement of our time. I’m not ashamed to say it. I don’t think it’s offensive or ahistorical. I don’t think it dishonours Martin Luther King’s name or legacy. In fact, I think the broader Occupy movement honours MLK, and he would have been a proud supporter of it.

When I refer to OWS, or the Occupy movement, what I mean is the fight against economic inequality. That’s economic inequality in America, and economic inequality throughout the world.

Right-wingers, conservatives, even libertarian racists like Ron Paul like to claim King’s mantle for themselves. Heck even Glenn Beck tried. They say that King was all about colour-blindess. Equality of opportunity. We were with MLK until 1965″ they say, but after that, it became about equality of condition, of entitlement, the road to socialism or serfdom and some-such doomsday dystopia.

Well that’s bullshit. I say that as a student of history. That’s just wrong. Watch the clip. MLK calls for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” He says: “If a man doesn’t have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.” And of course: “all labour has dignity.” And “it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

Martin Luther King was a religious social democrat. He believed in social justice. In government assisting the poor. In supporting unions. He believed in REAL equal opportunity, which can only come about when healthcare, and education, and safety can be provided to all. He was the anti-Ayn Rand: he despised selfishness. You don’t believe me? Take Paul Krugman’s word for it. Or this awesome video by Jay Smooth.

MLK would have supported the Occupiers and the 99% movement

Some people still  might think this my analogy ridiculous and offensive. African Americans under Jim Crow suffered real, horrific racial discrimination. The suffering of the so-called 99% cannot compare, and thus cannot justify civil disobedience. Well it’s true that Jim Crow was horrible, and that America has made a lot of progress since the 1960s, thanks to people like MLK. But the poor in this country still suffer greatly. Poor people of colour still suffer worse, fighting against unequal opportunity, an unfair and brutal police system and prison industrial complex, racism and xenophobia, a real lack of safety net, and an unfair financial and economic system that privileges the wealthy. On a global level, the gap between the haves and have-nots is even more terrifying, and the racial divide is even starker. So I think all that is worth blocking a few streets, or yelling outside some buildings peacefully, and striking, and rallying, and demanding justice.

Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s millions of people around America and the world.

Now I’m not a religious person, and MLK was not a saint. Just because he said something doesn’t make it right. But his legacy and his lesson remain valuable. For MLK was also not a Marxist or an anarchist. He was the LEADER of a broad-based social movement. He was able to achieve real change by engaging the political process, and democratically uniting people with disparate views. This is important because individuals matter in history.

The radical activists and anarchists have done the world an incredible service by getting this movement started. But their views are often undemocratic and represent a fraction of a fraction of the 99% (remember half the country votes Republican, and the other half Democrat). We should keep protesting. But we should also engage the political process, both through the Democratic party, and external channels like the idealistic but pragmatic 99% Declaration plan to hold a National General Assembly on July 4, 2012, in Philadelphia. It’s time to find leaders, make a plan, and keep moving forward, to make sure Romney doesn’t win and that Obama doesn’t kowtow to Wall Street and the 1%.

Some cynics might also think I’m over-exaggerating the importance of OWS. “Hasn’t the movement already fizzled?” Well, no. People left and right are talking about inequality, in and outside of politics. More importantly, let’s try to have some historical perspective here. When people think about the American Civil Rights movement, sometimes they think it started in 1960s. Maybe the late 1950s. Maybe Brown v. Board in the 1954. Actually, historians like to refer to the “long Civil Rights movement.” Some people date this to the end of WW2. Or Asa Philip Randolph‘s attempt to lead a March on Washington in 1944. Or to the activism of the 1930s and 1940s, often led by socialists and social democrats and communists, linking race and class. Or Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Or the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Or the end of the Civil War in 1865. With the state of America’s hospitals, schools, and prisons, some people still don’t think it’s over.

I’m not going to rehearse those academic debates. But I am going to reiterate MLK’s oft-invoked quote: “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a long, slow process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in November 2012, even if Obama is re-elected. It will take time. But we’ll get there. Let’s not let MLK’s dream die.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 16, 2012 at 12:30

Symbolism and Social Change: More Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

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by David

David getting ready to join Occupy Wall Street protest

I went to protest with Occupy Wall Street yesterday. I was not alone. Peter, a veteran of protests, came too. In fact, he helped organize the NYU student walk out yesterday, and has written about the protest eloquently here. Read him, and also Ezra Klein, who’s been doing a good job of covering OWS.

It’s easy to be cynical about big public protest movements. It’s also easy to overly romanticize and glorify them. It’s true that some conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truthers are tarnishing the movement’s good name. It’s true, the protesters don’t represent 99% of Americans. It’s true that they are targeting oil companies, and prisons, and military efforts that many not be directly associated with Wall Street. But the people who wore “I am Troy Davis” shirts weren’t all Troy Davis. “We are the 99%” is a slogan. It refers to the top 1% of American earners, but that should not be read literally. It simply implies that many people, people on the left, are angry. Wall Street is not their only target. But Wall Street is a convenient symbol, and not an inappropriate one, for their ire.

It’s true that the protests have radical, anarchist roots. I don’t consider myself a radical, or an anarchist. I’m not even one of the 99%, because I’m Canadian. But from what my friend and fellow protester and I saw, the bulk of the protesters aren’t after radical change. Of course, change is a funny word. It was the big tent mantra of “Change” that saw radicals, progressives, liberals, moderates and even some conservatives unite behind Barack Obama in 2008, never knowing what the word really meant to the campaign. These protesters also have disparate demands. But they are different. They are moving the conversation to the left. That is a good thing. The question is: how far left?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

October 6, 2011 at 11:23

The “Gay Girl in Damascus” Hoax: Some Reflections

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I’m pleased to once again be able to introduce a great guest post from friend-of-PhD-Octopus, Mircea, who takes on the case of the mythical Syrian lesbian blogger, Amina, and its personal and geopolitical fallout.  –Luce

by Mircea

It’s been not 24 hours since the mystery behind detained Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf Al-Omari has been solved. What began as an international outcry over the arrest of a popular blogger giving voice to the queer side of the “Arab Spring” quickly turned into a frenzy of Internet investigations, carried out by journalists and bloggers, that has reached a sad and predictable end – there was never an Amina in the first place. The blog, and even more disturbingly, an entire online identity going back almost four years, was the creation of a 40 year-old American man from Georgia now studying in Edinburgh, Tom MacMasters, and his wife Britta. In what follows I’ll quickly recount the story, from first suspicions to this morning’s denouement, then offer a few thoughts on what this might mean in the larger context of queer politics and the Middle East.

It all began with this post detailing Amina’s capture by Syrian security forces, ostensibly put up by Amina’s cousin Rania Ismail. The response was swift, with several newspaper reports and a flurry of “Free Amina” facebook groups, like this one and this one, mobilising concerned people around the world. But within a few days, as reporters and State Department officials in Syria attempted to contact Amina’s family, doubts began to emerge. No one, it seems, had ever met or spoken to Amina, not even her girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria (they had only communicated via e-mail). One of the first to publicly question the story was NPR’s Andy Carvin, who was sceptical yet cautious to declare that she didn’t exist. Maybe she was simply very good at concealing herself, as all activists living under repressive regimes must be. But then a Croatian woman living in London, Jelena Lecic, noticed that the photos of Amina being circulated were actually of her. There were hundreds, including all the photos on Amina’s personal facebook page, all apparently stolen from Jelena’s facebook. Troubled, she went on the BBC to prove her identity, and wonder how all this had come about. The evidence was increasingly pointing to an elaborate hoax.

I began following the controversy at Liz Henry’s blog, where commenters took to the Internet to uncover as many details about Amina as could be found. The mass of details was confusing, and involved an extensive cast of characters, some real and some fictional. Amina had stated she was born in Virginia and went to high school and college in Georgia. She had a previous blog where she declared her intention to mix fact and fiction; she had also been active in posting on alternate history Yahoo mailing lists, declaring her interest in medieval Byzantium. There were several online dating profiles, one in which she listed her language as Hebrew. Some used pictures of Jelena Lecic, some of another woman. Her cousin Rania Ismail’s facebook page turned out to be a likely fake; no one had been able to contact her either. Anything seemed possible. Was she the creation of Rania, a married Syrian woman looking for an escapist fantasy? Did Rania even exist? Was Amina a creation of Sandra Bagaria, the Canadian girlfriend? Or perhaps it was Jelena Lecic herself, whose first statement to the media was released through a suspicious P.R. agency? These theories may seem ridiculous in retrospect, but only through this kind of free-thinking exercise could all options be considered. The truth, when it came out, was perhaps stranger still.

Parallel to Liz Henry’s and Andy Carvin’s efforts, which later turned out to involve e-mail communications with someone likely to be the person behind the hoax, the website Electronic Intifada and the Washington Post were putting together a story based on two concrete leads. One came from Paula Brooks, an editor at the website LezGetReal (which was the first to introduce Amina’s blog to a wide readership). She provided two IP addresses used by Amina, both in Edinburgh. The other came from Scott Palter, a moderator on the alternate history boards, who had once gotten a mailing address from Amina in Stone Mountain, GA. This, it turned out, was Tom MacMaster’s home. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place: MacMaster was born in Virginia, had lived in Georgia, currently studies in Edinburgh, and plans to write a thesis on medieval Byzantium. He is a pro-Palestinian activist, and his wife Britta, a Quaker, was involved in organising events on Syria and Israel. Britta is a fellow at St. Andrews in the Centre for Syrian Studies, writing a thesis on the Syrian textile industry. She had posted pictures of her travels in Damascus, the same ones also used by Amina. The game was up.

MacMaster’s so-called apology on the blog, posted this morning, is a remarkable display of narcissism, self-delusion and self-righteousness. He declared, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” with the exception, of course, of all the key facts on the blog – that a gay woman, living in Damascus, was experiencing the revolution and had been detained by security forces. He had the gall to claim that, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Let me count the ways:

  1. Closest to home, it was Sandra, the Canadian girlfriend, who had been privately lied to for months. Reading her tweets from before the abduction story, one is struck by the sincerity and passion with which she speaks of Amina. She had to endure constant media questioning, when it became clear just how deep the deception went. Interestingly, the abduction story was posted only a few days after Sandra attempted to call Amina at home in Syria and got no answer. That day Amina wrote about security forces visiting her family and her subsequent need to go underground. It may be that this is the point at which Tom and Britta freaked out and looked for a way to take their character off the stage, at least temporarily.
  2. Everyone else who had an online relationship with Amina, and who has been affected by the investigation. The website LezGetReal, for example, was subjected to intense scrutiny because Paula Brooks and other editors, who have families working for the federal government and do not wish to be outed, write under pseudonyms; they, too, were suspected of being fake.
  3. Finally, most obviously and most importantly, this is a devastating blow to queer activism in Syria and everywhere else in the Middle East. These furious reactions from actual Syrian activists give a sense of the damage. Not only does the hoax make it more difficult for Syrian bloggers to be heard in the future without undue suspicion, but it puts LGBT activists currently in Syria under the spotlight of the authorities. In every way, MacMaster has done about as much harm to the Syrian revolution as could be imagined from a computer in Scotland.

It is, however, the following sentence that deserves the greatest outrage: “This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” Not only is MacMaster not apologising, he is in fact blaming everyone else for the very sin he has committed. In a sense, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was the perfect instantiation of liberal Orientalism, wherein Western audiences are enjoined to sympathise with a young, attractive, Westernised and courageous individual battling against the forces of dark, oppressive Islam. If Amina didn’t exist, one would have had to invent her. MacMaster’s twisted activist vision piled on all the desirable characteristics for what he thought the West should know of the Middle East, but didn’t bother because of the biased, Zionist media. The cruel irony is that in not finding a real Syrian who could represent some or all of these things, he confirms the very fantasies he set out to dismantle are just that, fantasies.

It is also troubling, it must be said, how those sceptical of Amina’s story from the start have slipped into the same traps of Orientalist fantasy. One of the earliest arguments for the hoax was that, “No one in Syria would ever kiss their girlfriend in public,” or speak so freely, etc. Though this may be in a very general sense accurate, it further adds to the erasure of the public presence of LGBT Syrians. Another argument from a commenter on one of the investigating blogs was that MacMaster had wished to show that being gay in Arab countries is not so bad, when in fact he had proved the opposite. There could be no one as free as Amina in Syria; but, the commenter added for good measure, there could be in Israel. It was MacMaster’s anti-Israel bias that made him paint such a rosy picture of an Arab country. Both Amina’s blog and the arguments of the sceptics are symptomatic of a wider set of highly debilitating discourses. In effect, it is becoming impossible to speak of what being queer in the Middle East is like without falling into one extreme or the other.

All of this brings to mind Jasbir Puar’s extraordinary theoretical work Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, in which she tracks the complex ways in which queer activism in the West has become implicated with imperialist projects and mindsets. One effect is the erasure of Muslim queer sexuality, and its converse — Israel’s propaganda efforts to brand itself as the only “gay-friendly” country in a homophobic region (known as “pinkwashing”). One of her tasks is to affirm the voices of queer Muslims and queer Arabs speaking out against state violence, against religious intolerance, and against US and Israeli colonialism all at once.

This is the kind of person whom MacMaster, no doubt familiar with this literature, wished to concoct. Two of Amina’s blog posts, for example, were on the phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” What this odious, despicable individual has managed to do instead is produce the perfect mockery of queer scholarship and activism, a farce that feeds right back into the very discourses he sought to resist, feeding them to the brim and sustaining them for years to come.

Written by Kristen Loveland

June 13, 2011 at 10:17

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