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Tech-Driven Deprofessionalization

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What ultimately has made the criticism of the Chicago strike so odd and irritating is that the critics are so dismissive and arrogant about the chief sticking points in the negotiations, which aren't really about money. There's a seeming inability to understand why poorly designed evaluation systems, particularly those that are tied to test results, threaten the very best and most inspiring teachers as much as anyone. What they threaten is not the loss of job security, but the professional discretion and skill of good teachers. You can't be in favor of clumsy or cookie-cutter evaluations and still claim to be primarily concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools.

What might be happening here is less the rage of privileged elites against anyone they deem to be beneath them, and more the rage of upper middle-class professionals who have found their own lives increasingly hemmed in by forms of deprofessionalizing oversight and dumb operant-conditioning gimmickry sold to organizations by snake-oil consultancies.

The trick in the next decade is going to be: can we get the river to flow the other direction? Rather than give in to every person who insists that whatever outrages and inefficiencies of 21st Century Taylorism have been inflicted on them must be inflicted on everyone else, we should be trying to claw back generative, productive forms of dignity and autonomy to the working lives of every person.

Do Liberals and Elites Hate Teachers? | Easily Distracted

I took a super-interesting Information History class with Dan Schiller my last semester at GSLIS, and one of the main themes of the course was how IT allows capital and management to deprofessionalize and regiment work. This starts at least from the invention of the modern clock, and goes up through the early management techniques of the industrial revolution, to office technology like the typewriter and the adding machine which replaced a whole middling professional class of clerks with pooled labor. Then you get the full monty with Taylorism and all the dehumanizing results that followed from that, which was thankfully somewhat offset by the rise of organized labor by midcentury.

So, then modern computer IT comes along, which of course was initially clearly centralized and controlling (think mainframes and men in gray flannel suits.) But, since I didn't know my history or recognize my privilege I'd always thought of the emergence of the networked personal computer as different somehow, liberatory instead of controlling. And, of course, it can be, for those with the power to control it rather than be controlled. 

What we're seeing now is the rapid shrinking of the proportion of people and professions who have that power. It's happening to teachers, lawyers, writers (think of the methods of HuffPo and Nick Denton and the rise of pageviews as the measure of cultural worth if you don't think that cultural work can be regimented and automated) and lots of other previously autonomous professional occupations.

That call center worker whose every second and every move is monitored and timed and dictated? Well, that may be your future too, unless we fight tooth and nail for power over our working conditions. That's what teachers in Chicago are doing now. It's time for professional classes to realize that they have a lot more in common with those below them on the economic ladder than with the people running things. We're in a place now where solidarity isn't just sentiment, it's survival.

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals... But it feels like a real fight--as if there was something really wild in the universe which we are needed to redeem - Wm. James

Writing up that last post reminded me of another useful consequence of a Pragmatic worldview. The admission that are all of our ideals and institutions are of human origin, and thus mutable, also implies that we can take nothing for granted. I think taking the accomplishments of the New Deal and the 60's for granted is a big part of what allowed our civil society to deteriorate to the level of the current political situation.

After 1968, or 1972 at the latest, the American Left in many ways declared victory and went home, ceding the field to the forces of the radical Right, who were willing and increasingly able to move heaven and Earth in attempt to roll back those gains. They needed to be fought tooth and nail the whole way, but really we only began to see some real fight and commitment return to the Left with the Clinton impeachment, and we didn't have anything like what was called for until very recently.

A lot was accomplished in the era from FDR to LBJ, and American liberals could be justifiably proud of that legacy, but to make good on it they needed to stay in the trenches and fight for it. No social or political ideal or arrangement can endure unless there are many people who continue to actively value and embody it, and who are willing to make a lifelong commitment to defend it. Positive social change, though plenty difficult in its own right, may well be the easy part of the equation in comparison to the long slog of consolidating the change and vigilantly defending it from reactionary forces.

I hope we've learned that lesson in the wake of what happened from Nixon through Dubya, but I wish that our country and our world didn't have to be put through all of this hell in the first place. If a large portion of the people who made up the mass social and political movements of the 60's had committed themselves to the long and messy political process of defending what they just had worked so hard to accomplish, instead of moving to the suburbs to have kids, or taking up disco and cocaine, or becoming high-rolling investment bankers, or whatever the hell they did after they disappeared from the public stage and let the Silent Majority wreck everything they had just built, we wouldn't be in this mess.

And yes, I'm a little bitter. I've got another post brewing about how the 60's and many of the Boomers went wrong. I think a lot of the problems that led to the dissolution of those movements were inherent to their structure, ideology, and culture from the beginning. If things are indeed turning again, I hope we will do better and be wiser and more committed and practical this time around.

Philosophy and Social Hope

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To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter

I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.

It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.

Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.

My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact  - Wm. James

What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.

Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.

Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.

In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)

In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:

I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.

As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.

He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.

More on Why Vonnegut Mattered

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Amanda of Pandagon's Vonnegut tribute post reminded me of another reason why he, and the literature of WWII in general, was very important.

what I find interesting about Slaughterhouse Five is that it's an angry protest against the historical revisionism that casts WWII as the "good" war.

This is vital, especially in light of what happened in the 90's with the ridiculously over the top mythologization of the Greatest Generation. It confused me a lot at the time, because all of the literature and history of WWII I had read up to then was nothing like that. And most of it wasn't written by professional intellectuals or mythmakers, but by people like Vonnegut and Heller who were working or middle class, and actually fought and saw what it was really like.

None of them seemed to have any illusions that WWII was anything but a senseless bloodbath and a tragedy for humanity in general. Nobody "won" that war. The very fact that it happened to begin with, and that humanity got to a point where things like London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Rape of Nanking, and the Holocaust could occur was such an immeasurable tragedy and loss that no amount of heroism and courage could begin to overcome it. Pynchon, who was too young to actually fight in WWII, but who definitely understood it in the same way as Heller and Vonnegut, put it this way:

Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates these incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines. The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Fuhrer - it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity... Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it... so absentee. Perhaps the War isn't even an awareness- not a life at all, really. There may only be some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.

He saw the war as some sort of inhuman, irresistable force; machines and systems that we had unconsciously or inadvertently created had broken out of our control. From the literature that came out of it, to the countless grandparents who were not at all eager to even talk about what they had seen and done, let alone cast themselves as heroes, it's clear that many of the people who participated in it and saw the real price on all sides seem to have seen it similarly, and taken the same sorts of lessons from it that Vonnegut and the others who wrote the literature of the war did.

Failing to grasp those lessons is a lot of what got us into the mess that we're currently in. I think the 90's revisionism about WWII was really pernicious, in that it put forth this ideal of a great crusading struggle against evil, with America at its head. That was attractive to lots of people looking for meaning in post-post-everything life. They wanted to be part of a Great Unambiguous Struggle like their parents and grandparents were, to be swaggering heroes like their mythical forebears.

That's a significant piece of how we got from a limited fight against a bunch of dudes in caves in Afghanistan to a full blown Holy War. The only reason people can think it's plausible that Islamic Fundamentalism is an existential threat to our way of life is that they're looking at it through the lens of WWII. They wanted a Nazi Germany of their own to overcome, and, since no such thing existed, it had to be invented. Vonnegut and most of the voices of his generation knew that you should never wish for something like that. After all, they saw what that really meant, and what the true cost was.

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. - KV

I'll start this out by saying that I come from the position of a pretty strong free speech zealot. I'm a card-carrying ACLU member, and so on. But, there's a lot of confusion going on out there lately about what freedom of speech really is and means.

Free speech is a right of individuals and groups in relation to the state, not in relation to each other. This is something that the people who are kneejerking about the proposed or actual moderation of comments on web forums and blogs in response to the recent hateful and scary attacks on feminist bloggers should keep in mind. Allowing unfettered speech might be a good principle to try to uphold personally or as a community, but nobody has a right to be jerk or a bigot with impunity on anyone else's website or in any community's forum, any more than they have a right to spam someone else's site or forum. You delete spam, don't you? That's speech too, albeit often of a rather dadaist and puzzling variety.

And especially now that public outlets for anyone's speech are essentially free and fungible, even the principle of allowing unfettered speech is pretty weak. If someone wants to say hateful or bigoted things in relation to something I write, they can start up a blogspot blog for free and link/rant to their heart's content, and I can't and won't do anything to stop them unless they defame me or threaten me with violence. But I'm sure as hell not going to invite them to do it in my own sandbox that I'm paying for and maintaining and that carries my name and represents my identity to the larger world.

Reading this post at Slacktivist reminded me that these confusions about speech also extend to hate crime laws. The first big problem is a misapprehension of what hate crime laws actually do. Hate crime laws do not ban hateful speech. If they did, I would oppose them. The KKK and the Nazis can still have their marches and hand out their literature and run their websites, and I'll fully support their right to do so, though I'll also support my and everyone else's right to shout them down and/or ignore them. Again, they have the right to appear in the public square and say their piece without government interference, but the community has a right to express their opposition as well. If the community breaks other laws in trying to suppress their speech, such as by threatening or doing violence to them, then they're in the wrong, but vigorous opposition within the law is covered just as much under the 1st Amendment as the hateful speech being opposed.

As for the more nuanced issues regarding speech, thoughts, crime, and punishment: Hate crimes do indeed concern speech and thoughts, but only insofar as they pertain to motive, intent, and culpability for a crime. Consider the varying degrees of culpability involved in different scenarios in which a pedestrian is run down by a car: Someone who has a heart attack and runs down a pedestrian is less culpable than someone who accidentally does so, who is less culpable still than someone who is drunk and does so, who finally is less culpable than someone who makes and executes a plan to do so. As soon as you act on your thoughts to harm others, those thoughts become a part of the context and the evidence by which the nature of your crime and the degree of your guilt is measured, and it's hard to argue that the punishment is for some sort of "thoughtcrime," unless you think that either state of mind, thoughts, and speech should be inadmissable as evidence in any crime, or that everyone who thinks or expresses hateful or bigoted thoughts is inevitably going to act on them and should be preemptively charged.

So how is it any different to add another category to the above scenarios: someone who makes and executes a plan to run down a black man to send a message to others like him that they are not welcome or safe in a neighborhood, or to run down someone in front of an abortion clinic to scare others who might try to get an abortion? The murder is already a crime, and hate crime laws add in the possibility of an additional crime of attempting to terrorize a whole class of people, if said intent can be proven to the jury.

Something I don't quite get about conservatives who oppose hate crime laws is that they are often very much in favor of extra punishment for violence-as-speech when said violence is overtly political, which is called terrorism. Setting off a bomb and killing people is a crime already, so why add an extra punishment for the speech or intent part? That's the same logic as "assault is a crime already, so why add an extra punishment if the violence was intended to send a message to a particular minority?" And of course, it bleeds together at the margins. Was the KKK at the height of their power a domestic terrorist organization? I would say yes. They participated in and fomented violence intended to terrorize everyone else into accepting their preferred political and social arrangement. Their individual acts could be seen as hate crimes today, but when they became pervasive enough, it amounted to terrorism. When hate-motivated violence expands from individual cases to a broader social environment, it thus becomes political and pretty much indistinguishable from terrorism.

Now, there are some scenarios that are a little more exclusive to speech. You can probably be charged with a hate crime under some statutes for, say, burning a cross on a black family's yard. But, not all speech is protected. Credible threats of violence constitute assault under most assault laws (hence the distinction between assault and battery) and in the context of American racial violence, it is not hard to see a burning cross on your lawn as a credible threat of violence. In the very odd but I suppose possible case in which it wouldn't be, well, that's why we have prosecutors with leeway and jurys of our peers who have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt.

So, to sum it up, speech is free, but not free as in beer, and lots of folks would do well to take that into account.

The Once and Future UN

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Time for more from the department of interesting crossovers and coincidences in reading. I find that this is one of the best parts of reading widely and voraciously... you start to see all kinds of serendipitous and productive new connections between different genres, groups of ideas, historical eras, and so on and so forth. The more you read and learn, the more your further reading and learning is enriched, and the more sense it all starts to make, at least internally, and at times externally as well. This is why reference and allusion, when done well, is so great. It's more than just being able to feel really smart whenever you "get" a reference. It goes two ways... modern writers invest their works with meaning through allusion and reference, and this in turn can make musty-seeming older works take on a new, modernized significance and applicability of their own.

This is much of why I tend to defend at least some sort of loose form of the literary canon. There are certain things that you just have to read, or at least certain concepts and ideas that you have to be familiar with, to be able to fully understand and get the most out of just about anything else you read, and vice-versa. Most "important" books are that way for a reason... because many people who came afterward saw fit to write about them. Even if you don't greatly enjoy, say, the Iliad or the Odyssey on their own merits, slogging through them will truly enrich your experience with an innumerable number of later books and authors.

Anyhow, this week, it's been the confluence of TH White's The Once and Future King, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an article lamenting the possible demise of internationalism, in the latest Mother Jones. These at first don't seem like a terribly likely combination; an Arthurian fantasy novel, a terse historical document, and a despairing commentary on current events, but, they dovetail quite nicely, at least in my addled brain.

King, besides being a delightful and poignant modern update on the Arthurian legend, is also sort of a tradegian look at the ongoing experiments of liberalism, human rights, and civil society. It casts the forming of the Round Table by Arthur as an attempt at replacing the Medieval idea of Might as Right with one of the use of controlled Might to defend Right, with the eventual goal of establishing equality before civil law, and abolishment for the need of violent, warlike power at all. He brings the knights, the most powerful and invulnerable weapons of his time, under his central control, and uses them to prevent the various feudal lords and barons from using them to promote tyranny and anarchy for personal gain.

The United Nations was formed with similar goals in mind. Horrified by the carnage and chaos that typified the first half of the 20th century, the internationalist founders of the UN tried to restrain the use of Might by nations for selfish means, by attempting to set up a global version of concentrated power enforcing civil law. They neglected to attempt in earnest to concentrate true Might behind it(perhaps a mistake in retrospect, perhaps not), relying more on consensus and mutual benefit, but the main idea was the same, to replace the idea of kill or be killed with that of cooperation and the concentration of power for mutual safety and benefit.

There is a dual tragedy operating in White's book, that of Arthur's own personal life, fatal error, and eventual unfulfilled death, paralleled by that of the demise of his grand project. He harnesses Might productively at first, subjugating the warring barons and bringing peace and prosperity to the kingdom. However, with nothing else to occupy and direct it, the controlled violence of the Table soon begins to turn on itself and others. He then tries to direct Might on a cleansing spiritual quest, in the form of the Holy Grail, in the hopes of both occupying and taming it. This also succeeds for a time, and the knights who succeed are indeed cleansed of violence or killed, but this sadly leaves only the more mercenary among them in place with no countervailing force to restrain them. The end of the book documents the slow unravelling of Arthur's dream in internecine warfare and chaos, both in the case of his kingdom and of the fate of himself and the people he loves.

Reading the utopian vision of universal rights that is the Universal Declaration, the defining document and hope of the UN, I couldn't help but think of what I had just read about the failure of Arthur's beautiful dream. Both were incredibly worthy ideas, which society and human nature in the real world are sadly just not ready to practically allow. The UN and internationalism are currently threatened with irrelevance by the same uncontainable forces and human failings that destroyed Arthur's vision, the same streak of irrational violence, fear, hatred, and selfishness that runs through the heart of us all, and by extension all of our aggregations together as nations or societies in greater or lesser degrees. The same failings that have destroyed every attempt at ending war and providing liberty, equality, and justice for all. The eternal bane of all Utopias.

So, does this mean that we should come to our senses already and just stop trying? I'm not so sure. White ends his book on a more hopeful note, having Arthur call in a youthful page named TomFootnote
Sir Thomas Malory, of course. See what I was saying about allusion and references above?
, and ask him to stay out of the coming (and fatal) battle, and instead to make sure that the ideas for which it was being fought would live on.

"Thomas, my idea for those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it with me for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle... you won't let it out?"

I think that Arthur finally realized, right there at the edge of death's door, that there would be no winning of a decisive ultimate battle, no magic bullet that would fix everything and lead us to a Utopian world. What matters is slow progress over time, and what allows that is ideas that survive and pervade, that change individual minds, the sentiments and choices of which filter upward to form what we call societies, nations, and the global community. Arthur would die in a futile and foregone battle the next day, but he would not be a failure, because his dream would live on, and others would work towards bringing the world closer to approximating his vision.

Even if the UN meets a similar fate and eventually fails politically, and this incarnation of internationalism goes by the wayside, there's no reason to despair or quit. The world is a better place now than it was looking backward from 1948 by almost every measure. The ideas that the UN and the UDHR made legitimate and important on a global scale are here to stay, enduring in the hearts and minds and actions of millions of people and many governments around the world. The candle may gutter at times, and the ideas may come to manifest themselves in a different form in the future, but I don't think there is any way that particular flame is going to go out anytime soon. Like Arthur, the Once and Future King, they too will return to lead us one day, if we are willing to fight on their side.

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