Teaching The Students of Texas about The Black Panthers

The whole liberal internet is up in arms about the latest in red-state idiocy, with the Texas Board of Education voting to implement a number of curriculum changes that conform to conservative ideology. Among the changes are additions of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek to the list of economists studied, as well as labeling capitalism with the nice euphemism “free enterprise system.” What has apparently sent Democrats into a tizzy is the de-emphasis of enlightenment values and Thomas Jefferson’s role as a revolutionary. Instead, Texas history classes will now focus on the role of Christianity in the foundation of America without all that pesky Deist business. One Democrat on the Board of Ed, whose amendment calling on schools to look at the influence of Hispanic Americans was voted down, accused the body of “whitewashing” the curriculum.

She acts like American history classes weren’t whitewashed already. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get worked up about history classes in Texas not pretending well enough that American history is based on respect, tolerance and “Enlightenment values.” It’s not like they removed the parts where the history books included that Thomas Jefferson raped a child whom he owned as property, because that was never in there in the first place. It’s not like they removed the sections on Emma Goldman and Angela Davis, they just changed from glorifying capitalism to glorifying the free enterprise system.

Apparently the Republicans beat back attempts to include hip-hop in the curriculum as an example of a cultural movement. Good. The less students are inclined to trust their history teachers, the better I feel about the future of this country. The Conservatives on the Board of Ed clearly haven’t seen The Matrix enough times and forgot what happens when you tell people a history without conflict: they don’t believe you.

The way American History is taught, at least as it was taught in an Advanced Placement class with a strong teacher in a liberal public school five years ago, involves acknowledging a bunch of the pain and suffering on which this country was founded and thrived, but to frame it as somewhat inevitable, as part of the inevitable march of history. Teachers describe resistance movements as historical curiosities rather than real alternatives. MLK gets his shout-out, but if Malcolm X gets a paragraph then it’s about his violence and relation to the Nation of Islam.  The other night I was watching Reds and during a scene about the Palmer Raids, I remembered that I’d learned about those in school. I had never made an emotional connection between an organized program of repression perpetrated by the U.S. government and that thing I had to remember for that midterm in high school. Teaching kids about the dark parts of American history in a classroom is the best way to make sure they don’t care about them. My dream now is students in El Paso forming an underground Enlightenment reading group, passing around dog-eared copies of Diderot and Locke. Not that likely, but maybe slightly more than yesterday. I don’t know, maybe it will piss off some liberal teacher enough for her to pull out the People’s History copy left on her shelf from college and lend it to a curious student. In the mean time, good riddance to the social contract and empiricism.

What this news item does end up doing is get a lot of liberals to start defending Thomas fucking Jefferson and his bullshit Enlightenment values. Instead, I’ll be working with my new allies on the right at heightening the contradictions and alienating students past the breaking point. See, at first I thought the 10 conservative BoE members were just nutball ideologues, but then I read this sentence in the Times story, “Dr. McLeroy, a dentist by training, pushed through a change to the teaching of the civil rights movement to ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Get rid of any mention of tolerant America’s pluralistic founding and then teach the kids about Huey and Bobby? Well done comrades, well done.

Fuck Nicholas-Jacques Conté or Why I Hate Pencils

I spent an unstrategically long time during my Race and Ethnicity in American Politics exam thinking about Nicholas-Jacques Conté. Even though I had no way to know how many minutes I had left to finish the test because my insecure professor watched too many movies about teachers who are tough but fair and won’t allow us to keep phones on our desks and who really wears a watch anymore anyway?, I couldn’t help my mind drifting to the French inventor. Upon cursory research, it turns out my world history teacher was wrong and Conté didn’t invent the pencil so much as invent modern pencil lead five years after a guy in Austria did the same thing. But at the time, when I was trying to remember the median household income of Asian-Americans, I blamed him for the torture implement wedged in between my fingers.

In addition to pencil lead, Conté also pioneered balloon warfare. So clearly the guy was full of brilliant fucking ideas.

Up until this exam, I had not written with a pencil since my SAT. In an act of inexplicable arbitrary cruelty, my professor requires that we use pencils to write our essays in class. He has, to my knowledge, not attempted to explain this decision. The structure of the exam requires the examinee to try to string as many references to the readings as possible into a somewhat coherent framework. There are four compound questions, you have one hour and fifteen minutes. You must write in pencil. Halfway through the second question, the friction causes a cut on my fourth finger to open and as I rotate the stick in my hand I coat the exposed wood in an even layer of blood. Fuck you, Nicholas-Jacques Conté.

Writing with a pencil after writing with a pen for years is like being asked to write in crayon. The lead, even after being freshly sharpened, quickly turns dull. Normally neat handwriting becomes childlike, possibly so defined because we force children to write with pencils. The ability to erase is poor compensation for the loss of the smooth glide of a ball-point across a page. Writing over erased words is unnerving; I always feel like I’m desecrating a cemetery, paving over graves in order to replace the dead. The discarded thoughts live on in their ghostly imprints, making the new words look nervous.

It’s important to remember that when you write with a pencil, you scratch clay and rock against paper and read the debris.

Pencils require constant maintenance. Sharpening pencils is archaic, a tradition that lives on because we don’t trust children with ink. The pencil produces trash often, unlike pens which create trash only when they are completely spent. There is no need to care for a pen. The mechanical pencil is no excuse, it is a modernization of something that should no longer exist, like a VCR with an iPod dock. The lead advertises its thinness and breaks with the smallest pressure, leaving me afraid I will poke a hole in the paper. A pen requires one click to engage, a mechanical pencil requires continual clicking. Is there anything worse than continual clicking?

I begrudge artists nothing, but I also refuse to write essays with a paint brush.

Ultimately the children must defeat the pencil. We want them to have a reverence for the idea of permanence (e.g. the myth of the permanent record) and so they must be kept away from permanent ink. They must be made to know that mistakes must be erased and hidden, that the final product matters more than the process. It makes me crazy to see kids who panic when they make mistakes, as if one left uncorrected would set the universe off its intended course. Of course the ink is not permanent and neither are the records or anything else, and the sooner we are okay with kids knowing that, the sooner we can escape the tyranny of Nicholas-Jacques Conté.

No Flood, No Ark: On The Optimism of Collapse

Chris Hedges’s article in the new Adbusters with its dramatic title (“Zero Point of Systemic Collapse”) is a spirited call to new forms of resistance against a capitalist structure that is dead on its feet. Within the first paragraph he has renounced reformism, declaring “All resistance must recognize that the body politic and global capitalism are dead.” This is a gutsy move for a magazine most closely associated with Seattle-era anti-neo-liberal opposition to branding. Adbusters has never been far from the radical left, but one would be hard-pressed to say it’s been on the cutting edge of leftist theory.The piece is also a courageous move by Hedges who has relatively strong mainstream appeal to call for a war to the death with capitalism. If this article can provoke discussion and more writing about radical forms of resistance moving forward, then Hedges and Adbusters have done us an enormous service. I write this partly because I fear the critique that follows will sound too harsh and I want to make clear that I thought the article was not only interesting but important and I will spend the next few days sending it to friends and family. Hedges’s book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning was distributed free to students the year before last at Maryland and the author came and gave a talk. I read War Is A Force and wrote a complimentary piece in The Diamondback looking at the ways in which my university fails to live up to the standards Hedges sets in the book. He was nice enough to send me an e-mail thanking me for the article and his talk was both critical and engaging. All of this to say that I think Hedges is a stand-up guy and an important voice on the left who manages to write about complex ideas in ways that interest readers. None of what follows is meant to contradict any of that.

In “Zero Point,” Hedges writes of an American society on the edge, “on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” His thesis is that old forms of resistance that conjure up a fantasy of popular revolt are antiquated and no longer respond to our historical circumstances. Most of the modes of struggle, at least as far as the media is concerned, are reformist and centered around environmental sustainability. Hedges lays the smackdown;

“We can march in Copenhagen. We can join Bill McKibben’s worldwide day of climate protests. We can compost in our backyards and hang our laundry out to dry. We can write letters to our elected officials and vote for Barack Obama, but the power elite is impervious to the charade of democratic participation. Power is in the hands of moral and intellectual trolls who are ruthlessly creating a system of neo-feudalism and killing the ecosystem that sustains the human species. And appealing to their better nature, or seeking to influence the internal levers of power, will no longer work.”

I don’t know about “moral and intellectual trolls” but the power elite’s best angels don’t speak loudly enough to deserve much credit. This critique of the current sustainability movement is probably the best part of The Coming Insurrection and it’s nice to see Adbusters take the more radical side and not the greenwashing cop-out.

Instead of just calling attention to problems, Hedges proposes alternatives. In this articulation he falters and reveals the central problem in his analysis and the prophetic tradition in which he writes. The author’s solution is to build neo-monastaries isolated from the destructive effects of contemporary capitalist society:

“If we build self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can weather the coming collapse. This task will be accomplished through the existence of small, physical enclaves that have access to sustainable agriculture, are able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture and can be largely self-sufficient.”

This idea of hiding out and relying on each other in communes is predicated upon a need to “weather the coming collapse.” Hedges has made a clear, strong argument about the unfeasibility of reforming current social structures and the emptiness of our contemporary political culture, but this is not the same as predicting a collapse. The mechanics of what could actually bring down American capitalism is almost an afterthought in the piece, and not a very well-researched one. It seems fair to quote Hedges’s collapse prediction in its entirety:

“The massive bailouts, stimulus packages, giveaways and short-term debt, along with imperial wars we can no longer afford, will leave the United States struggling to finance nearly $5 trillion in debt this year. This will require Washington to auction off about $96 billion in debt a week. Once China and the oil-rich states walk away from our debt, which one day has to happen, the Federal Reserve will become the buyer of last resort. The Fed has printed perhaps as much as two trillion new dollars in the last two years, and buying this much new debt will see it, in effect, print trillions more. This is when inflation, and most likely hyperinflation, will turn the dollar into junk. And at that point the entire system breaks down.”

This certainly sounds like it could be true, and if our government were a household, it would have declared bankruptcy a while ago. But our government is not a household and despite its magnitude, the national debt is not our most pressing economic concern. Paul Krugman put the fear of China selling dollars in context in this post, which is kind of wonky but basically concludes in Krugman saying that it would help the U.S.’s finances if China sold some dollars and that fears of this process initiating a collapse are unfounded. Sure, Krugman’s one of those Times elites, but he has a reputation for over-predicting collapse. If he thinks you’re worrying over nothing, you probably are.

Hedges’s language frames the collapse as inevitable, “one day has to happen,” without considering the alternative. America has been behaving unsustainably since its founding, what makes him think collapse is imminent? Hedges, who has a degree from Harvard Theological Seminary, is writing in the same Judeo-Christian tradition as the Old Testament prophets who forewarned the people of an angry God’s coming wrath. In this discourse, the collapse, as predicted by the prophet, is connected to man’s failure to fulfill a contract with the divine being. From The Flood to Amos and Jonah to Sodom and Gomorrah, social depravity leads to collapse as God renders judgment upon the living. One of the more vulgar examples of this way of thinking was Jerry Falwell blaming the ACLU for 9/11 because they took God out of the schools. Hedges speaks more in the tradition of Amos who did not warn of a violation of the cultic requirements (like worshipping God insufficiently in schools) but of social requirements. We have allowed injustice to run rampant and will pay the price. Things have gotten so bad that they must collapse soon, therefore we ought escape to our communal monasteries and preserve whatever knowledge and culture is worth saving.

The problem here is that I still haven’t heard why this collapse is coming. Hedges seems to attribute the collapse of the U.S. structures of power to the hand of God in the form of Chinese monetary policy (although Bob Herbert’s analysis of unemployment as a flashpoint for social unrest seems more realistic). I think Hedges and those who believe that the “arc of history bends toward justice” are optimistic in thinking that we can’t go on this way. The author’s conclusion seems to be some variant of the “build an ark” strategy, but America has developed complicated systems of flood prevention.

Hedges’s has an overriding concern for the quality of his and our souls. Despite recognizing that there are times for armed resistance, the author chides anarchists for their romanticization of violence. He acknowledges that their structural analysis is correct, but reacts strongly against the reactionary mayhem that was the bread and butter of hard-left factions of what became known as the “Anti-Globalization Movement.” This is a good place for Hedges to refer to the thesis of War Is A Force, but he’s taking unnecessary shots at friends. I don’t know when the last time was Hedges spent time with grassroots anarchist organizers, but he seems to think their analyses haven’t changed over the last decade or so. It’s not true. There are some activists who just want to fight cops, but they’re increasingly a joke within larger communities and their strategic insights are not in great demand. Hedges crosses the line with this sentence, “There are debates within the anarchist movement – such as those on the destruction of property – but once you start using plastic explosives, innocent people get killed.” Who are the anarchists advocating using plastic explosives? When was the last person killed in an act of anarchist political violence in the U.S., President McKinley? Hedges fights the same spooky straw-man the mainstream media constructs when it comes to anarchists. The anarchist movement if we can speak of such a thing at present, is much more interested in building sustainable communities than breaking windows.

Anarchists may be violent in their aspirations, but not precisely in the way Hedges imagines. Creating new structures based around non-market values involves the destruction of current institutions and patterns of thought. This sort of change is violent insofar as it dislodges us from current subjectivities and ways of interaction. (Thus Slavoj Zizek’s infamous claim that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.) Having heard him talk about his book, I know Hedges’s aversion is based in extensive experience around war, but I’m worried how much theoretical sense his definition of violence makes. If we cannot ethically use the violence of thrown bricks to destroy the violence of sweatshops, then what responsibility have we really claimed when it comes to creating a better world? The urge to destroy can lead to a spiral of violence, but it is dialectically linked to the urge to create.

The author then finds himself in the position of a Disney screen-writer. By the end of the movie, the villain must be destroyed in order to usher in the happily-ever-after utopia, since there is no possible compromise with the pure evil. At the same time, the hero cannot be directly responsible for the villain’s death since that would bring the pollution of murder into the utopia, a contradiction in terms. The recurring answer is some Deus ex machina, usually a product of the villain’s hubris, ends up doing the dirty work of actually removing the evil, setting up the possibility of utopia – e.g. Scar’s death at the hands of his hyena cronies in The Lion King or Jafar’s desire to be a genie imprisoning him in Aladdin. Hedges requires the flood, brought on by American arrogance, so that we might keep our souls and be worthy to save what’s worth saving. Needing a collapse isn’t the same as having one ready in the wings.

The article starts with a quote from Aleksandr Herzen, “We think we are the doctors. We are the disease.” Hedges uses this to make an argument against reform, but he fails to recognize the full implications of what he writes. The distinction between doctor and disease is one between reform and revolution, not reform and withdrawal. We cannot wait for the flood because we are the flood, and rising waters need no boat. If Hedges’s analysis of our current structures of power is correct – and I think it is – then we can’t head for monasteries 2.0. The struggle is to reclaim for the commons what has been unjustly privatized, commodified and appropriated and its a monstrous process. I share a portion of the author’s fear for our humanity, but the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister executed by the Nazis, holds no hope for me. Hedges quotes Bonhoeffer’s last words, “This is for me the end, but also the beginning.” But without an act of God, I see no time to waste with post-mortem beginnings.

De Daumier-Smith’s Red Period

The death of J.D. Salinger left me thinking about my favorite of his stories, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” in his collection 9 Stories. The short story is about a young artist who gets a job at a Montreal correspondence art academy based on a contrived professional reputation. The story devolves into typically Salinger-esque mysticism as De Daumier-Smith’s one talented student – a cloistered nun – provokes his redemption with her religious paintings. But the part of the story I found most striking was De Daumier-Smith’s relationship with the Yoshotos, the married couple that runs Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres, the Canadian correspondence school. The 19 year old is clearly scamming the old couple with his forged relationship with Picasso, but the Yoshotos are in turn scammning their students with false promises and forged accreditation to match the imaginative resume of their employee. With his characters, Salinger illustrates the interlocking cons that seem to comprise so many contemporary work environments.

At every job I’ve ever held there has been a feeling that everyone, on every day they’re not fired, is getting away with something. The knowledge that your boss and your boss’s boss are doing the same thing does some work in allaying the guilt. Contemporary representations of work environments, from “The Office” to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to The End, contain universal incompetence and irrelevance. No one is good at their jobs and the ones who are still don’t seem to be producing anything. Hamsters get off their wheels and look guiltily over their shoulders to make sure no one saw they spent the day just running, and not even fast the whole time. And to think they feed us for this stuff! Increasingly precarious labor and withered unions have made layoffs a common management cost-cutting technique, which makes each day like a game of hide-and-seek with employees snickering under beds while bosses smile to themselves about how much they’re getting paid to look half-heartedly around for derelict employees. Ultimately of course, all this conning filters to the shareholders, customers or taxpayers. In a con, even with interlocking cons, someone loses.

The notion of interlocking cons describes no current societal institution better than the Republican Party. Perhaps one of the consequences of building a group out of a common love of capitalism is you attract a lot of people trying to make a buck. Sarah Palin might be the dominant (at least media) personality in the Party and yet she still seems like nothing more than a bumbling scam artist. Everything about Palin from the notes on her palm to the circuitous and empty speeches indicates that she is in far over her head, and yet she seems to be getting away with it. Most importantly, she is still cashing in, through book sales and speaking fees. Her daughter Bristol even started a political consulting firm as a fairly obvious precursor to money laundering. The all-American narrative of the Alaskan hockey mom is more American than we could have originally imagined – she’s a small-town con putting one over on the big-shots who run national politics and media. They think she’s a legitimate voice on foreign policy, what suckers!

But of course the upper levels of the Republican party or what’s left of the conservative movement don’t take Palin seriously as a foreign policy expert – except possibly Bill Kristol who is either running his own ridiculous scam or is the single biggest mark in the world. The Party itself is the larger con, whereby corporate elites convince working-class people that they care about God and America in order to further their own narrow class interests. While Palin must be giddy that they seem not to realize she has no idea what she’s talking about, the party overlords are positively ecstatic that she has convinced so many people that the G.O.P. gives a crap about them. Scams within scams, cons on top of cons. And that’s not even including Michael Steele who has turned his own incompetence into a selling point, daring the elders to fire him for making money off speaking engagements and writing a book without telling anyone. Glenn Beck and the rest of the conservative media cadre are possibly the best cons in the group; they do the dirty work of convincing the working-class base to listen to and trust political elites who have only the thinnest veneer of populist appeal. (For the best description of this particular scam, check out David Foster Wallace’s essay “Host,” it’s the last one in Consider the Lobster). Think of famous con man with a heart of gold Harold Hill in The Music Man who denounces the sin of billiards to sell the town on a band – the classic Republican threat of impending immorality. In the group of clever knaves – the economics term for people who cheat or cut corners without facing the regulating consequences – that is the Republican party, the prominent people all find a way to profit off the structure, which consists definitionally in taking out more than one puts in. No wonder the Party is crumbling. Ezra Klein recently called the Republicans a “party without grown-ups,” but isn’t the problem that they have too many grown-ups? There’s no shred of child-like idealism in the G.O.P.,  just the very adult knowledge of how to get yours.

The Democrats do not have nearly the same enduring operation as the Republicans, and the left-wing funding conspiracy is considerably smaller than its counterpart. Democrats largely lack the ability to con and as a result rely on not being completely delusional and suggesting possibly useful policy to get votes. Sometimes this works, but it rarely reaches people on the populist gut-level that the scammers on the other side rely on. As a result, the Democrats find themselves constantly responding to stories concocted by amateurs only a few rungs up from Nigerian princes e-mailing you about an exciting offer. In the case of Glenn Beck selling gold, we’re talking very few rungs up.

Something that is so clearly a scam to get people to panic and buy a product has a real effect on politics. People not only buy gold, they call their representatives and want to know what they’re doing about the government’s plot to pay off its debts with inflation. The Democrats end up compromising on a stimulus plan, partly due to worries it would yield runaway inflation. All this happens while the inflation rate hovers around zero percent. If the Republicans are the con man Hill in The Music Man, then the Democrats are Marian, the librarian who tries to tell the townspeople that Hill lacks credentials, but is interrupted by the arrival of shiny new band instruments. A good con is so distracting that it doesn’t matter that someone has figured it out, no one will listen to them anyway. Since the Republicans have appropriated the image of working-class respectability, Democrats can’t call them liars without being in turn called elitists. Technocrats might be hard to scam, but no one wants to believe them when they tell you to ignore the fantastic calls of carnival barkers. The Republicans make governing sound really easy and no one wants to be told that it’s actually so Byzantine that they can’t possibly understand it, never mind come to a well-reasoned policy position. This strategy works because the Democrats are technocratic elites with a dominating and unreasonable faith in their ability to solve structural social problems with policy tinkering. The Republicans acknowledge that they have to pretend that our society is based on the people’s desires, while the Democrats do no such thing. That said, the vast majority of Democrats are willing to engage in the same sorts of scams as Republicans, especially when it comes to convincing people to support massive government bailouts for their backers on Wall Street.

The Tea Party is really the Republican Party par excellence, the overriding principle taken to its extreme bound. Nixon and his cronies would be ashamed at how blatant and inartful the  backers of the “grassroots” movement have been. It’s no secret that the people who buy Palin’s book or pay the exorbitant Tea Party Convention registration fee are the ones being scammed and that the backing organizations’ resolutely pro-corporate agenda is out of harmony with the “movement’s” populist tenor. The ultimate political con is a crusade against letting the people get conned by politicians – think about the recurring cosmetic fights over earmark spending.

What Salinger gives us are the insights that respectability can always be bought and that institutions are ultimately the people that they contain. Post-industrial capitalism in which production is more difficult to measure than in tons of steel or number of cars provides the conditions for interlocking cons like the one at play in Salinger’s story.  With no good metric to measure how an advertising copy-writer is producing, as in Ferris’s novel, s/he has an incentive to try to profit by putting less into the job than s/he takes home in pay. There’s no reason to think that parties, which are at the same time paying out a lot of money to a lot of people and profoundly impacting our political culture, would operate differently. The result is a political culture in which institutional respectability hides profound and petty corruption alike. The current gridlock makes a lot more sense in light of these institutional factors, and until people throw out the con artists and the structures that create them, I don’t know that we can hope for much better.

“Jersey Shore” Is A Campaign Ad: On Citizens United v. FEC

The thing that surprises me most about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC is the amount of surprise it has generated. Aside from the fact that there’s no way in hell that this Court takes this case in order to give the SCOTUS seal to campaign finance law by upholding the lower court’s decision, to draw a legal distinction between money and speech ignores social realities. Everyone is shocked and appalled that corporations will be allowed to spend as much money as they like affecting the population’s political consciousness as if this weren’t already the reality. The ability to spend directly on elections or candidates is only a clarification of corporate power, not an extension.

The Court’s ruling in Citizens United is an affirmation of corporate personhood; the idea that incorporated businesses have the rights of a person under the Constitution. As obscene as this sounds – and is! – is it any different that the way we think about corporations? We endow them with personal characteristics all the time – Microsoft is mean, as is Starbucks, Apple looks like Justin Long, etc. We develop relationships through products and advertisements; when people become fans of brands on Facebook, we might as well be adding them to our list of friends. Corporations speak all the time, in ads and press conferences, as well as through media owned by some of the largest and most profitable firms. Most speech is corporate, and all of it is political.

When the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about “want creation” in The Affluent Society, he was talking about the political implications of corporate speech. Galbraith’s thesis is that in an “affluent society” like post-industrial America where most people have the necessities of life covered, producers have to create desires for unnecessary products through advertisement. The post-modern citizens thinks him- or herself too clever to fall for the ads that cram our streets and browsers. “Sure they’re there, but it’s not like I look at them,” we say, but we must look at them or else they wouldn’t be profitable. Advertising works and it creates more than sales, it creates consumers. The politics of consumption have never been more than one step away from actual government and in the 21st century, we’ve seen politicians transformed into advertised commodities. The Obama campaign was run as a hip marketing push with flashy fonts and catchy slogans, but it was also a classic example of want creation. Change, progress, hope, these were all things we found ourselves desiring and the best way to feel hopeful was to vote or volunteer. Whether the new candidate – or the new dishwasher for that matter – provides change isn’t the question, it’s about how the commodity makes us feel about ourselves. Media corporations have never had a hard time using airtime to shape public perceptions when it comes to politics, and now they evaluate candidates like beer. “He’s got great timbre in his voice, but he sweats too often.” “You’re right Jim, on the other side Palin tastes great and is less filling.” Compared to the ability to craft a political culture, deciding individual elections is child’s play.

But what’s the alternative, ban advertising entirely? Why, that would be censorship! This from the same people who argue that the Court erred, that corporations are not people and do not have the right to speak. If we have an overriding interest in letting people make up their own minds about elections, how come that interest doesn’t extend to letting people decide how to live, what or if to buy? If corporations aren’t people and their speech is subject to oversight by the republic of behalf of the people, then “Vote Republican” is not first on my list of messages to stop, it might not even come before Axe hair gel ads. The fence between political speech and other forms is artificial. Public discourse is profoundly political and any existing entity with the prominence of large corporations will influence the way we talk and think about things.

Kafka wrote “I do not read advertisement – I would spend all my time wanting things.” Sadly, the choice not to read ads no longer exists for those outside of hermitages. The risk of limitless desire is real, and yet the existence of advertisements confirms that we do read them. We spend all our time wanting certain things, the ones that happen to be sold. Public service announcements about the joys of reading or the dangers of drinking and driving barely make a dent in “Jersey Shore” and Bacardi ads, all on airwaves provided to corporations for free by the government. If prisons exist to make us think that we’re not always in prison as says the philosopher Maurice Blanchot, then campaign finance laws exist to make us think corporations don’t already influence how we see campaigns. If you don’t think advertising has anything to do with your desire or that your desire has anything to do with your politics, then you’re naive at best. Corporate power hasn’t changed since the day before the ruling, it has just become more clear. If the idea of corporations deciding elections bothers you, then you don’t have an issue with corporate speech, you have an issue with the existence of corporations.

Staying out of It

So I wrote around 500 words about the Nina PowerJessica Valenti misunderstanding – because that’s what I think it is – before I realized that it was just a bad idea. Because I read one of each of their books this break, (I found them both fantastic and recommend them highly) I found myself doing the dude-who-reads-feminist-theory-and-then-tells-women-about-it thing. I’m trying not to do that any more. (For more on the phenomenon, check out Robin’s post about it on the SdS Womyn’s Caucus Blog.) Also, two young feminist bloggers arguing about stuff is something the media can’t get enough of and I didn’t want to contribute to the “cat-fight” discourse even if I called it for what it was. They’re both excellent writers and thinkers and everyone should read both of them. Framing them in terms of this sort of disagreement does a disservice to their writing. The people I was most impressed by were the commenters on Valenti’s blog who were well-informed and assumed the best of Power and Co. Anyone who can create that sort of forum on the internet is certainly doing something right. Anyway, if anyone wants to talk to me about how I generally agree with Power’s analysis but think American feminists like Valenti in their work around rape culture sets up a great foundation for radical anti-capitalist formulations, I would love to, but right now I’m going to shut up and listen for a bit. Thanks to Robin and all the other women in my life who keep me working on this stuff, I’d be much worse-off without you.

We Can Change!: Business School Post-Crisis

As I write this, the number one most e-mailed business story at the NY Times Online is Lane Wallace’s piece about changing curriculum at business schools. The title of the feature is “Multicultural Critical Theory, At Business School?” a question whose answer is apparently “No” as there’s no mention of any such thing in the actual article. Instead, some business schools are adding what they’re calling “critical thinking.” This isn’t critical thought like Foucault or Adorno, it’s critical thinking as used in the title of my 10th grade English class. The meaning of this phrase shakes out to something like “thinking for real,” “thinking hard” or “really thinking,” but Wallace defines it as “[H]ow to imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives.” Why are some b-schools (around 25 percent according to the article) making their curricula more like my high school English class?

[E]ven before the financial upheaval last year, business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market were beginning to realize the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines. The financial crisis underscored those concerns — at business schools and in the business world itself.

The implicit logic of a paragraph like this is that the financial crisis was a result of unimaginative thinking on the part of the business world. The discursive value of this narrative is that business schools (and the professionals they create) can be responsible organs of society if they think a little more like anthropology majors. The story the Times is pitching to its intellectual readership is that the financial industry screwed up by thinking like business majors instead of liberal arts majors. They’re sorry and they’re working innovatively to fix the problem.

The argument steadily devolves into marketing-speak and it makes this reader wonder if Wallace thought about the fact that the people she interviewed teach classes on how to sell shit. An MBA is a commodity with a flagging market, which means its time for a new branding strategy. The most infuriating part is the language the business professors use:

“I think there’s a feeling that people need to sharpen their thinking skills, whether it’s questioning assumptions, or looking at problems from multiple points of view,” says David A. Garvin, a Harvard Business School professor

and,

John J. Fernandes, president and C.E.O. of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, estimates that only about 25 percent of association-accredited schools are making significant curriculum changes focused on what he calls “the creation of more sustainable leaders.” But he expects that to reach 75 percent in 10 years.

Professor Garvin of Harvard agrees, saying that there is “an imperative for change.” “At this point,” he said, “the forces for change are real, and the need for change is real, and the blueprints are already in process.”

The word ‘innovation’ appears in the article seven time. ‘Perspective’ appears modified by “global,” “multidisciplinary,” “many” and “multiple” – the last of which also modifies the perspective synonyms “points of view,” “frameworks,” and “lenses.” I have no idea what of this means in terms of the practice of business, but Wallace wrote it seven different ways in one article. The term “financial innovations” refers to ways of creating and marketing new securities – the same practice that gave birth to the crisis. It is insulting that the MBA factories can’t think of a better way to justify their existence than to use the same exact meaning-challenged word.

The problem with this story is that the financial crisis resulted from b-school graduates who had too much imagination. The system of securitization that investors used to make billions in retrospect verges on super villain status in its horrific intricacy. They imagined an entire fucking economy. Some graduates at Goldman Sachs were so innovative that they hedged their bets with an investment in the Democratic party which turned out to be a brilliant, if dastardly, move. The last thing we need is more creative investment bankers.

Part of the apologia is the rhetoric of social responsibility,

“If I’m going to really launch you on a career or path where you can make a big impact in the world,” explains the school’s dean, Garth Saloner, “you have to be able to think critically and analytically about the big problems in the world.”

Mr. Saloner says Stanford wants its business students to develop “a lens that brings some kind of principled set of scales to the problem.” In other words, he says, students need to learn to ask themselves, “In whose interest am I making the decision?”

If the students are making those decisions on behalf of a publicly traded company, then the answer is, by law, the shareholders. All the critical analysis in the world does not change the incentive structure of America’s finance markets.

Both of these graphs come from the Federal Reserve. The finance industry is based and debt; sustainable finance is a contradiction in terms. What we need is fewer b-school graduates competing to see who can design the most innovative financial products. A tax on financial transactions seems like a common-sense way to do this. We also need journalists who do not write sentences like,

That insight led Mr. Martin to begin advocating what was then a radical idea in business education: that students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions.

That’s more specific? Jesus Christ.