Ph.D. Octopus

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Please… no more “Don’t Go to Grad School” Articles

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A Latenight Rant by Peter

There is no genre more beloved by the old, lazy, and tenured than the “don’t go to grad school,” advice column that seem to spring up every other couple of months or two on the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed. Writing with nothing but the best paternal intentions, some tenured prof or another explains, with his hand gently patting our shoulder, that he has come to realize that there just aren’t jobs in X field and students really just shouldn’t apply for these PhD programs.

As a member of generation-fucked, I find these types of arguments frustrating. Let me rephrase that. I find them god-damn fucking frustrating. I encounter them mostly from academics, who make some series of arguments about why no one should follow them into graduate school. All the reasons why people say it is a bad idea to go into grad school (terrible job market, no social respect, you will simply be a source of cheap labor, etc…) are all true, of course, but turning them into reasons why you shouldn’t go into grad school misses the point.

Think about it this way: would any good progressive look out across the Rust Belt in 1985, fold their arms, and say (with a certain self-satisfied air of regret), “well I’ve always told Youngstown high school graduates that they shouldn’t go into the steel industry.”

Of course not. They would blame union-busting, and off-shoring, and leveraged buy-outs, and Reagan, and everything else. But they wouldn’t shift the blame onto the workers themselves, who should have known better than to go into that industry.

Obviously people who are considering a PhD or JD have more options than a steel worker did, but anyone who thinks that recent college graduates are just overflowing with good choices is just revealing their own generational entitlement (defined, for the purpose of this post, as anyone who came of age before the country went to the total shitter, especially those who took advantage of that non-shittiness to get good public education, and then gleefully grabbed up all those fun tax cuts and cushy tenured jobs).

What, prey tell, are those would-be English PhDs supposed to do? Journalism? Ha! We know they can’t do law school! Publishing? Not even worth joking about. Secondary school teaching? Not now, after NCLB/Michele Rhee/budget cuts/TFA/Scott Walker have all had a go at teachers. People don’t have interchangeable skills, (we all can’t just smoothly transition from excelling at languages since 7th grade into a career as a chemical engineer) and those of us who hoped to make a living on our writing, thinking, teaching, arguing, etc… don’t have a ton of options these days.

The problem with the “no one should go to grad school” articles are that they, unconsciously or not, shift the blame for the endemic joblessness onto the most vulnerable, those who are, or will soon be, unemployed. This is especially pernicious when these arguments come from tenured faculty who should be exactly the ones who have the greatest responsibility to try to fix the Academy. Implicitly, they accept conservative narratives about individual agency within capitalism. Rather than fight the real enemy (the corporate administrators, the Tea Party Governors, neoliberalism, etc…), they turn it into a moralistic argument about what some 22 year old should be doing. It all becomes a way to justify to themselves why they aren’t helping out the grad student union, or marching with OWS, or challenging their University President.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it often is a terrible idea to go to graduate school. It is generally a terrible idea to be young right now. But let’s not blame some poor kid who wants to dream that he might not have to be a barista for the rest of his life. The people we should be paying attention to are the university presidents, and politicians, and think tank “intellectuals” and everyone else who is destroying our educational system and our economy.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 29, 2012 at 23:18

Posted in Uncategorized

Universities are still Super-White and if our Leaders have their Way will only get Whiter.

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By Peter (the second in a series of three posts on affirmative action)

There is a group of students getting unfair advantage with their admission into college. Despite the best effort at remedial education, this group lags behind other students on most standardized testing. Some (like myself) even suspect that this group could be genetically less intelligent. Worse, they are more prone to violent outburst, misogyny, and other anti-social behaviors.

So why, then, do colleges insist on giving such advantages to white lacrosse players? The answer:

The push by Midwestern liberal arts colleges to add lacrosse programs is one of several tactics employed by these institutions in recent years to hold on to a demographic that presidents say is central to these institutions’ identities and bottom lines, particularly as the population shrinks and becomes more coveted by other types of institutions. Middle-class suburban students, who are not only able but willing to pay the high price for private education, used to be liberal arts colleges’ bread and butter. Now they’re increasingly lured to other types of institutions. Lacrosse is a weapon in the fight to keep them

Let’s dig into this demographic that is “central to these institutions’ identities and bottom lines.” We learn they are “likely white, from a well-educated and wealthy household… Lacrosse players are desirable for several reasons, but the main one is that they tend to be what enrollment professionals call ‘full-pay’ students, or students whose families tend not to qualify for need-based aid.” Ivies, notoriously, recruit for waspy sports like squash and rowing, giving a leg-up to the long-suffering “arrogant prep school jock” demographic.

Do we Really Need Affirmative Action for these guys?

The recruitment of lacrosse players is hardly the only way that colleges give advantages to the already privileged. The worst are legacy admissions. Having parents who went to Yale can be the equivalent of a 160 point increase in your SAT scores when applying. At Amherst, a legacy is 4 times more likely to be admitted than a non-legacy. Nor are legacies insignificant. At most elite schools they compromise between 10-25% of admissions. Finally, schools like to maintain “geographic diversity,” which means that students from sparsely populated mostly rural and white states like North Dakota get an advantage. Note too, that these groups get this formal advantage above and beyond the millions of informal advantages in life that have accrued to them on account of their wealth, whiteness, and educated parents.

Meanwhile, of course, thanks to the age of austerity, black and Latino students are less likely to even have the chance to go to good public universities. Tuition is skyrocketing and the predictable consequence is that poor and working class communities of color have fewer options. Here in New York, thanks to the CUNY tuition hikes pushed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo (aka Governor 1%), we’ve seen dramatic drops in the black and Latino enrollment at top CUNY programs. So Cuomo takes the money that had been going to education for poor black and Latino students and hands it over, in the form of tax breaks, to rich suburbanites who now have extra cash to pay for lacrosse lessons.

Something is going on in society when we freak out about giving someone from a poor background a leg-up, but we are silent about all the advantages we give—at the exact same moment!—to privileged demographics. Those who claim to speak on behalf of a “meritocracy” would have a lot more credibility if they showed even half of the concern about how all these privileged people get an unfair advantage. As long as Harvard continues the far more unjust policy of giving an advantage to children of Harvard graduates, I will never take seriously a critique of race-based affirmative action.

My point with all of this is to highlight the power of definition. When admissions offices take race into consideration it is defined as “affirmative-action” and therefore a betrayal of American ideals of meritocracy; when they take where your parents went to school into consideration it is simply a legacy admission, protecting the unique “traditions” of each school. Schools take lots of things into consideration: but somehow the act of taking race into consideration gets picked out, put into a separate category of decision making, and subjected to a separate critique and logic than do those processes which benefit white people. One of the privileges of whiteness, then, is its invisibility, as society naturalizes and normalizes the very processes that give white people advantage, sewing white privilege into the unexamined fabric of social reproduction, while subjecting to the most strict and withering examination any systems that try to remedy existing inequality by benefiting black or Hispanic students.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at race and graduate school. In 2009, 4.9% of all doctorates went to black graduates and 3.7% went to Hispanic students. For both groups that is about 1/3 of what their general population suggests should be the case. Although women come closer to parity, they still only comprise 47% of phds, despite comprising a higher percentage of undergraduates. Clearly we are not in a nation where Affirmative Action has run amuck.

Outside of a handful of disciplines in the humanities, most grad programs are shockingly undiverse. Economics programs, for instance, are both heavily white and heavily male (.73% of PhDs awarded in 2009 in economics went to black students, 1.46% went to Hispanic students. About 2/3rd of econ PhDs are men, perhaps part of the reason the field is so enamored of autistic math-oriented modeling). My university, NYU, lists 7 tenured or tenure track professors of economics who are women; this comprises 13% of the 55 professors in the department.

The sciences do have a lot of Asian-American PhD students, but only 2.9% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) PhDs go to African-Americans. (Remember this when economists talk about whether their field is a science; it’s not, in fact its much more racist.). Given that 67% of all PhDs in the nation go to those in the STEM fields, you can see that African-Americans and Hispanics are in fact dramatically underrepresented in academia overall.

Perhaps the worst offenders, when it comes to diversity, are philosophy departments, which are remarkably white and male. One study found only 16% of academic philosophers were women and another showed that a shocking 1% of academic philosophers were black. NYU has one of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the world, yet only 6 out of the 36 professors on their website are women (16.7%). As an undergrad, my girlfriend was repeatedly dissuaded from applying to philosophy PhD programs because she was told that it would simply be much harder as a woman to flourish in such a program. Philosophy is especially interesting, because unlike the sciences, it can’t (or shouldn’t) hide behind the formalism of quantitative standardized test scores to explain its lack of diversity; like the other humanities, it supposedly studies more abstract and less measurable ideals of critical thought and intellectual creativity and could sorely use engagement with other perspectives.

It’s hard not to see these numbers and suspect that there are processes of exclusion—formal or informal, conscious or unconscious—going on that are keeping some departments from being particularly diverse. For instance, one study examining why there are so few women in the sciences concluded that who students see teaching matters a great deal: women who only see men teaching Chemistry are less likely to stick with the discipline or find mentors there. Similar processes, no doubt, occur with race. Until those disciplines make exerted efforts to promote professors who are women, black, or Latino, students will never see professors who look like themselves. Thus inequality replicates itself.

The only really diverse PhD programs are in parts of the humanities, like history, English, American studies, cinema studies, etc…, where black and Hispanic students make up a significant percentage of the PhD students.

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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 26, 2012 at 12:00

Book Review: David Harvey’s Rebel Cities

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By Peter

David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities, is the latest entry in his life-long interest in uncovering the intersection between capitalism and urbanization. It’s a collection of previously published, but updated and revised, essays and articles. They are all particularly important to our understanding of both the long fall out of 2008’s economic crash and the rise of urban revolts in Egypt, Greece, New York and elsewhere. You should pay attention to David Harvey for lots of reasons (he’s probably the most important Marxist theorist alive today, and one of the most important intellectuals in general). But you should read him for no other reason than the fact that he was cautioning against the mortgage bubble, and worrying about “what happens if and when this property bubble bursts,” in 2003, years before celebrated bourgeois economists like Nouriel Roubini made their reputation predicting it.

This is a simplification, but basically Harvey has two distinct areas of interest in cities. First, he explores the way that urban spaces are created by distinct modes of capital accumulation; second, he’s interested in the reasons that cities are particularly important sites of class conflict. These are, obviously, related, since cities are important sites of political mobilization and conflict exactly because they have such central roles in the creation and circulation of capital. But loosely, this division frames the two parts of the book.

Capitalists need cities, Harvey argues, because building them up is one of the primary manners in which capitalists can dispose of excess surplus product. That sounds a bit jargony, but basically it comes down to the idea that construction (of buildings, of roads, of infrastructure) allows capitalists to do something with the profits they have made, once reinvestment in other things has run out. I understand that this argument was made in full in Harvey’s classic Limits to Capital. Unfortunately, due to a (sorely disappointed) thief in the West Village who took my messenger bag last year, I never actually finished Limits to Capital. But Rebel City seems like a good introduction for amateurs like myself.
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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 8, 2012 at 23:09

Posted in Uncategorized

In Defense of Obnoxious Hipster Retro-Luddism

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By peter

As is obligatory for Creem magazine wannabes like myself, I am a big fan of Wilco, whose latest album the Whole Love, was a surprisingly excellent work for a band that had descended into unfortunate levels of NPR-accepted statis. Today they posted on their website that they are releasing the album on Piano Roll (an early April Fool’s joke, I assume). Piano Roll, according to my best wikipeding, is the process of recording music via long sheets of paper with notches cut in it. A player piano is required to hear it. They haven’t been widely used since 1927, when shellac 78s started to take off. As they announced:

“Wilco pride themselves on authenticity and a respect of the American musical tradition, so what better way to honor that heritage than to listen to The Whole Love on a barely functioning piano in a dusty antique store,” writes Chief Wilco Strategist Lucy Lillabee. “Besides, these things cost like $1 to make, and hipsters are going to eat this shit up.”

The joke hits a bit home. First it was vinyl, and carrying around new 33s was a sure sign of taste. Now, as our vast readers of hipsters are surely aware, the cool kids are selling their recordings on a hipper and even less practical format: cassette tapes. As anyone who has been to one of the thousands of new bars in Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene that force their employees to dress like a Prohibition-era barmen knows (or has taken a look at Trader Joe’s turn-of-the-century bourgeois aesthetic) there is a vast market for pseudo-authenticity, for consumer items whose very appeal is that they appear not to be consumer items, relics from an innocent time, goods whose exchange value is astronomically increased by seeming to be all use-value.

Of course, there is no more evidence of being an insufferable hipster than humorlessly complaining about the insufferableness of hipsters, so let me show a little empathy for the luddism that Wilco is (lovingly) mocking.

As absurd as it all is, I think the hipster love affair with vinyl (and cassette tapes, and homemade pickles, etc…) actually speaks a bit to the dullness of digital culture. People increasingly participate in culture digitally: they download music from itunes (or steal it), they read books on their kindle that they bought with one button on amazon, they watch movies streaming on netflix, and tv on hulu. As a result, the places and cultures that used to be hubs of these things are dying out. Records stores are going extinct, video-rental stores (like the famous Kim’s of the East Village) are out of business, and even the big-box book stores are going under.

Sure, record stores were run by snarky aloof losers, book-stores by dweeby know-it-alls, and video-stores by the worst of them. But they were still little cultural hubs, where you could learn about cool new bands, have a book suggested, etc… At their best, book stores (like say Cambridge’s Raven or New York’s Book Culture) can feel like mini-temples to all the knowledge you don’t yet have, inspiring you to want to read and know more.

So I’m of two minds about the digital transmission of art. On one hand it democratizes it, letting every kid in every small town download whatever they want. On the other hand, it removes so much of the mystery and meaning out of the experience. This might sound hyperbolic, but things like itunes disenchants the experience of buying music, just as kindles do the same for reading. Last week I was in Other Music, an insufferably hip but kind of charming record store (referenced as Alan Sparhawk’s “favorite record store” on Low’s classic album The Great Destroyer), and came across an early Belle and Sebastian album on vinyl. I had forgotten about all the little stories that Belle and Sebastian used to put on their album covers, the unique imagery they employed on all their releases (close-ups of precious looking models with pretentious literature in their hand, all faded some monochrome wash) and just holding the record induced some sort of twee “episode of the madeleine” moment, bringing me back to my days as a college dj, when I first started listening to the band. Belle and Sebastian, in particular, cultivated an entire aesthetic to their recordings, something only fully appreciated if you can hold the physical object in your hands.

There is a totality to the experience of most art; you never experience anything with only one sense. Music brings to mind images and experiences, you remember the shape and feel of the books you read, etc… I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like digital art lacks much of this, its one-dimensional and flat, stripped of the context that the artist consciously and unconsciously meant for it. The record as object used to have a certain magic to it, as the portal into the artistic experience. I know lots of bibliophiles feel the same way about the printed book. Certain books and record sleeves even have a particular smell of fresh paper.

With music in particular, the inability to quickly shift between songs and albums on vinyl changes the experience completely. You are stuck with the music, forced to listen to every song in a way that you aren’t with your ipod, which encourages a sort of musical ADD. Sure, those filler tracks on Guided by Voices albums were annoying, but waiting through a crappy song like “Auditorium” in order to get to “Motor Away” was an essential part of the experience. The Times just reported on a similar problem with readers and their ipad, as readers can’t concentrate on long books for long, without checking their email or facebook. I imagine long or more challenging literature will suffer if everyone is interspersing their twitter feed with their Pynchon.

Which is a long way to say that, yes, I paid $27 for The Whole Love on vinyl back when it came out, when I could have gotten it for $9.99 on itunes. I haven’t yet invested in a player piano, but maybe some day…

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 31, 2012 at 22:12

Posted in music, nostalgia

“Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!”: the Deep Roots of the Birth Control Freakout

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By Peter

Thanks to Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, and the Virginia Legislature we’re engaged in an elevated and enlightened national debate over just exactly how big slutty slut sluts are our nation’s women. We all know, of course, that sex without the intent to procreate is immoral, unless, like Newt Gingrich, you’re in the sanctity of a Congressman/aide relationship. So the question is, of course, exactly how many sexual experiences should women be allowed? 5? 10? Exactly how much should we humiliate those who have unapproved sex? Should they be forced to videotape the sex for Rush’s sweaty amusement? Be raped by the state of Virginia?

Some commentators have noticed that this rash of attacks on women’s rights is a bit strange coming from a political movement that, a year ago, was screaming about getting the government off its back, but is now so eager to get in between our sheets (and our knees). It does raise a serious question: why does the libertarian tradition in this country seem to be so blind when it comes to women’s rights? Why is it that the party that claims to speak for people’s private property rights, is so careless about the autonomy of people’s privates? We shouldn’t be surprised, though, as the conflation of property rights and control of women have deep roots in American history.

Corey Robin has discovered some great intellectual history that partly explains this disconnect, showing that libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises actually had repugnant views on women, worrying that access to birth control might give women too many free choices. And Mike Konczal has also written on some intellectual background. Together they suggest that there is a strong tradition of libertarianism that is not committed, even in theory, to what Robin calls a “project of universal liberty,” not even a project of negative liberty. At least as so far as women are concerned.

I would like to add a little social history to the mix, in a way that I think supplements the analysis of Robin and others. I’m currently reading Stephanie McCurry’s book on the troubles of Confederate nation-making, Confederate Reckoning. A major theme in her work, going back to her Masters of Small Worlds, is the intersection between domination of the home and perceptions of liberty. Many scholars piously tell us of the need to integrate analyses of race, gender, and class, but, other than maybe Glenda Gilmore, I can’t think of anyone who does this as well as McCurry.

In Masters of Small Worlds, she studies small households in the Low Country South Carolina, those with no or few slaves. These poor whites have always been a bit of a problem in historical understanding. In a nutshell, why did those white men who were not profiting from the slave system, still fight and die to protect it? One traditional answer, going back to Edmund Morgan, and before that W.E.B. Dubois, is that race was the factor that tied the poor white to the rich white, creating a “socialism of fools,” which seemed to unite the interests of all white people. McCurry doesn’t disagree, but adds gender to these analyses.

White men’s self-identity, she argues, in the age of the yeomanry, was intricately linked to domination of the home and, especially, domination of dependents: children, women, and slaves. Moreover, this was a process that linked private property with control of slaves and women. Her first chapter in Masters of Small Worlds is about the spread of laws regarding fencing and boundaries. Once this enclosure is complete, and property is ensured, than the white male can exercise control over his subordinates. “The law elided distinctions between forms of property, rendering a man’s control over his enclosure synonymous with his control over the familial and extrafamilial dependents within it.” (p. 14)

The result was an economic system in which the small property holder had total control of his property and total use of the labor of all dependents on this property. Like many yeomanry, they first produced a subsistence, and the remainder they sold for the market. Thus, they weren’t as totally integrated into the market as, say, a New England millworker was, or even a Western grain farmer was. Women’s labor, then, was crucial for the functioning of the economic unit, as they wove, cooked, cleaned, butchered, etc.. But it was a labor that occurred under the control of the male. In defiance of pro-slavery ideology, in fact, white women often worked in the fields alongside white men and slaves. And, though she doesn’t go into this, the reproduction of both the wife and slave women had direct economic benefit for the master.

White Southern men received real and tangible benefits from this system that ensured their near-total autonomy and power within the boundaries of their own property. While at home, they controlled the labor of their subordinates, and in public their status as a free-holding white man (a master) linked them to the elite. McCurry does not actually argue that this common mastery eliminated all class resentment or divides, but it did provide a common language that could be used to mobilize poor whites. Thus on the eve of the war, planter elites argued that the “black Republicans” would threaten the mastery of white men, an argument laden with gender and racial anxiety.

Moreover, this was a tradition that was hostile to most government action. Sure, you needed the government to capture fugitive slaves, protect against rebellion, and punish other transgressors. But, unlike those Whig factory owners in Massachusetts, a Southern freeholder had no need for tariffs or canals, no need for public education, and no need for a systematized and regularized legal code. The conflation of property with racial and gender privilege also partly explains the seeming paradox that the capitalist North actually had a far greater communitarian tradition, far more advanced public goods (libraries, roads, schools, etc…), and a far more advanced anti-capitalist tradition, than the supposedly agrarian South did. Southern white men had extra-good reasons to be suspicious of the Federal Government, as you would have to share power with those idealists from Ohio or Massachusetts who you couldn’t trust on the issue of slavery.

The result was, publically, an ideology that strongly linked the subordination of women and the subordination of blacks with the defense of white liberty and white private property. Few issues were as intricately linked in antebellum times as were black rights and women’s rights. Southern ideologists weren’t alone in noticing that in the North women’s rights activists came almost exclusively out of the ranks of abolitionists. While abolitionists imagined liberty as about individual self-possession and control, Southern ideologues imagined it as household self-possession and control, possession and control being exercised by the white man. George Fitzhugh wrote that abolitionists “give at once the coup de grace to the old world, and to usher in the new golden age, of free love and free lands, of free women and free negroes, of free children and free men.” (these are all bad things, for Fitzhugh). In Cannibals All, he constantly refers to the “women, children, and free negroes” as one group, those fit to be ruled. He also, interestingly, accuses all abolitionists of being socialists: “men once fairly committed to negro slavery agitation … are, in effect, committed to Socialism and Communism, to the most ultra doctrines of Garrison, Goodell, Smith and Andrews – to no private property, no church, no law, no government, – to free love, free lands, free women and free churches.” (p.368)

Now Fitzhugh was no libertarian, obviously, but he was a spokesman of a Southern ruling class that saw no inconsistently in emblazoning both “liberty” and “slavery” on their banners. The reason, as should be clear from McCurry’s analysis, is that the freedom of the white man (as they saw it) really did depend on the subordination of both women and blacks. As Fitzhugh said, in commendable honesty, “To secure true progress, we must unfetter genius, and chain down mediocrity. Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!” Moreover, you can see how, in his mind, loss of control over women would literally be an assault on private property, as women join slaves as being essential appendages of private property.

I haven’t finished McCurry’s new book yet. But I gather from what I’ve read so far that she will argue that it is exactly this style of freedom that Confederates think they are preserving when they go to war. But, in fact, the war necessarily politicizes and empowers women and slaves, who play a part in bringing down the Southern project.

The relevance, of course, is that, is that out of this social history comes a strong tradition of understanding liberty, not in abstract terms, but in the concrete, as the ability to dominate and control your own subordinates. Moreover this should remind us that the women’s rights movement does entail real losses for men: loss of status, loss of labor, loss of privileges. I think Robin has made similar arguments from an intellectual history point of view. But I think its important to also embed the arguments of classic conservatives in the particular economic forms that give rise to them and where they best grow. I suspect that the average Tea Partier knows relatively little about von Mises’ actual thinking. But the sort of deep cultural sense of control and hierarchy created in antebellum yeomen life (and continued in Jim Crow and after), laid deep roots in American society.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 2, 2012 at 23:35

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Charles Murray vs. Frederick Douglass

with 2 comments

By Peter

There are racist execrable hacks, and there is Charles Murray. Murray, of course, is the libertarian thinker and cross-burner best known for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence is genetically determined and that, well golly gee, white people just happen to have it and blacks and Mexican don’t. Solution: no more welfare so that poor (aka stupid) people stop having so many babies. As Bob Herbert wrote at the time, “Mr. Murray can protest all he wants, his book is just a genteel way of calling somebody a nigger.” Stephen Jay Gould, who actually knew a thing or two about biology, wrote that the Bell Curve was “a manifesto of conservative ideology, and its sorry and biased treatment of data records the primary purpose – advocacy above all. The text evokes the dreary and scary drumbeat of claims associated with conservative think tanks – reduction or elimination of welfare, ending of affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cessation of Head Start and other forms of preschool education, cutting of programs for slowest learners, and application of funds to the gifted.”

Well Mr. Murray is back in the news with his book Coming Apart, his explanation about how the white working class is to blame for economic inequality. David Brooks– while failing to actually include the subtitle of the Murray’s book (that would be “the State of White America”), since it might reveal a bit more than Brooks wanted–writes that “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important.” Charles Pierce responds aptly: “David Brooks is impressed that Charles Murray, career hack, has found some white people he can treat like black people, and just in time, too.”

Anyways… there isn’t a ton left to say about Murray. His entire career, from Losing Ground on, has been providing intellectual justification for the base prejudices of the ruling classes. Welfare hurts the poor (and thus, must be removed for their own sake), racial inequality is simply a result of biological determinism (so, once again, might as well get rid of the Great Society so that we don’t upset nature), rich people are that way because they are just so innately smart, etc… And now we learn that economic inequality doesn’t have anything to do with 30 years of top-down class warfare: its not off-shoring, union-busting, privatization, deregulation, tax-cuts for the rich, or the corporatization of our entire society. Its not that one major political party has relentlessly tried to divide Americans by race, using the arguments that Murray provided. Nope, its, as Brooks writes, the fact that the (white) poor “are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms.” And we already knows what he thinks of the black and latino poor…

I think Frederick Douglass had something to say about this, a quotation that pretty much sums up Charles Murray’s career:

Pride and selfishness, combined with mental power, never want for a theory to justify them—and when men oppress their fellow-men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression. Ignorance and depravity, and the inability to rise from degradation to civilization and respectability, are the most usual allegations against the oppressed. The evils most fostered by slavery and oppression, are precisely those which slaveholders and oppressors would transfer from their system to the inherent character of their victims. Thus the very crimes of slavery become slavery’s best defence.

That pretty much sums it up, right? Murray is part of a long tradition that seeks to change the topic from systematic injustice to the personal failings of the oppressed. This has three advantages for the oppressor: 1. It makes the oppressor feel good about how smart and civilized they are (in Douglass’ time that would be paeans about how great the Anglo-Saxons are, for Charles Murray… well, pretty much the same, except take out the poor ones); 2. it creates hostility towards the oppressed (who are now viewed as lazy, uncivilized, unintelligent, etc…);3. It changes the subject so that we’re no longer talking about whether the system is just, but now we’re talking about whether or not the oppressed group really is or isn’t lazy, stupid, unintelligent.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 2, 2012 at 16:29

Posted in Uncategorized