Neera Tanden And A Cultural ‘Obsession With Hierarchy’

Over at his blog, Corey Robin details an interesting Twitter spat with Neera Tanden–“the person who many think will be Hillary Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff….the head of the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Party think tank that works closely with the Clintons.” Tanden is an arch-defender of Hillary Clinton–which is unsurprising given the passions political allegiances can inspire. But as I’ve observed her interactions on Twitter with those she considers foes, something about her defenses of HRC, the Democratic Party and its many shenanigans during the primary season, her own brand of ‘progressivism,’ her obsequious fawning over heads of state as contrasted with her snappy, brusque, interactions with journalists and bloggers, struck me as familiar, possessed of a distinctive and recognizable style. I finally realized where I had seen it before–in the Indian manifestations of the universal phenomenon termed ‘sycophancy.’ That in turn is rooted in a particular and peculiar Indian understanding of, and relationship with, social and political hierarchies.

In Being Indian (Penguin, 2004, pp. 7-21) Pavan K. Varma writes:

Indians are exceptionally hierarchical in outlook, bending more than required before those who are perceived to be ‘superior,’ and dismissive or contemptuous of those perceived to be ‘inferior.’ Understandably, notions of self-esteem and personal image, in conformity with perceived ‘status,’ are of great importance to them….the obsession with hierarchy, and the symbols that project it, is not a monopoly of officialdom….The structure of hierarchies may be changing, but ‘for an Indian, superior and subordinate relationships have the character of eternal verity and moral imperative–(and the) automatic reverence for superiors is a nearly universal psycho-social fact.’¹  This acceptance of the hierarchy of power gives a particularly Indian colouring to the meaning and operation of modern concepts like democracy and equality.

To an Indian, the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person’s entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. In order to preserve status, one has to be seen to be above those below, and below those above. There can be no ambivalence in these equations.

Tanden is Indian-American, the child of immigrant parents, and in her political identity–which like good anti-essentialists, we would expect to be a hybrid of sorts–she seems to have found a pitch-perfect blend of stylistic elements that are most relevant to the achievement of her personal and career objectives. In particular, from the Indian cultural predilection for deference to power and hierarchy–one reinforced by the Indian family structure with its overbearing emphasis on respect for ‘elders’ and essential conservativeness–Tanden has drawn on, and found, a fecund reservoir of political behavioral patterns.  Those–defer to superiors, defend your position in the hierarchy at all costs, smack those down below you–should help her in her steady ascent through these lower orders of being. The ruling class will settle for nothing less.

Note #1: Here Varma cites the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar‘s The Indian Psyche: The Inner World; Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors; Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, p. 138.

GK Chesterton On Conservatism’s Necessary Changes

In Orthodoxy (Image Books, 1959) G. K. Chesterton writes:

Conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of changes. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must always be painting it again….Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. [pp. 15]

Wikipedia makes note in its entry on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in the section on his most famous work, The Leopard that:

Perhaps the most memorable line in the book is spoken by Don Fabrizio’s nephew, Tancredi, urging unsuccessfully that Don Fabrizio abandon his allegiance to the disintegrating Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and ally himself with Giuseppe Garibaldi and the House of Savoy: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Indeed. And that conservative adage, as expressed above by Chesterton and Tancredi, has been quite vividly on display this election season. The ‘conservative’ party’s leading candidate for president is a decidedly unorthodox one who threatens to upend the hierarchy of the party’s leadership and is leading a revolt against the ‘establishment;’ riots are threatened if his march to the candidacy is interfered with by the party leadership; he is most definitely not reading from some prepared party script. That same conservative party has no interest in abiding by its constitutional responsibility to vote on the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice by the sitting president–a responsibility adequately established by historical, legal, political precedent. Should this be confusing to those thinking the Republican Party is a conservative party? Not really.

As I noted in my review of Lee Fang‘s The MachineA Field Guide to the Resurgent Right

The modern Republican Party supposedly suffers from ideological confusion. It is for the regulation of gay marriage and reproductive rights; it is against the regulation of industrial pollution, healthcare insurance, and workplace safety. It is for the reduced power of the executive branch, except when it comes to spying on Americans and declaring war. It is for the religious freedom of Christian evangelicals but not Muslim Americans. These seemingly disparate platforms actually display a coherent unity: the American Right is committed to preserving all hierarchy and imposed order: men over women, white over black, rich over poor, bosses over workers, Christian majorities over Muslim minorities. This love of hierarchy, of entrenched power, is manifest in the most visible face of opposition to the Obama Presidency: the Tea Party and the new crop of Republican representatives it has sent to Congress.

The Trump candidacy is a classic conservative candidacy: it seeks massive, sweeping changes precisely so that crucial hierarchies–like the ones made note of above–will be preserved. Populism to prop up hierarchy: that’s conservatism at its finest. (These thoughts have been expressed far more eloquently by Corey Robin in his The Reactionary Mind.)

Note: The GK Chesterton quote above is cited in Garry Wills‘ Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders pp. 143.

Contra Damon Linker, ‘Leftist Intellectuals’ Are Not ‘Disconnected From Reality’

Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.

I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.

First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:

In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)

What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.

As Robin says:

[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.

As Robin goes on to note:

By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.

The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.

The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.

Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:

[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.

All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.

Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:

a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.

Linker now fulminates:

The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)

Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge.  Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.

If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.

And then, Linker levels that old canard:

The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”

The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.

Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.

Workplace Dynamics And The Treatment Of Support Staff

A couple of days ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin asked (on his Facebook page):

How many academics would get tenure if the review took into account how they treated the department’s secretarial staff?

A year or so after I had begun work at Bell Laboratories, I told a new hire that she should always strive to keep three classes of co-workers (or ‘staff’) happy: secretaries, computer system administrators, and security guards. Later, I extended this claim to other members of our building’s facilities crew. This imperative suggested itself to me as prudent and moral (and political). It still does in my current location at my academic workplace.

The first two on the list above made our daily tasks much easier; they helped us navigate workplace mazes, administrative, logistical, and bureaucratic; they let us concentrate on our work, which was supposedly technical and creative. The third were the first ones to greet us on our entry to the building, and the last ones to bid us goodbye when we left; being friendly and personable in our interactions with them served to provide a kinder, gentler bookend to our days at work (And if you forgot your ID card on the weekends, in the days before high-speed dial-up connections, you could count on them not blocking your entry to the building in case you desperately needed to get some coding work done in your office that could not be accomplished from home.)

I’m happy to say that over the years I have followed my directives quite faithfully, and have generally enjoyed good relations with most members of my ‘support staff.’ These have made my workday experiences considerably more pleasant. The exceptions to this have occurred with some security staff who insist on taking their badges and uniforms a little too seriously and adopt the demeanor of the police a little too eagerly.

Despite these fairly self-evident considerations, secretarial staff still remain unappreciated, frequently overworked, and poorly treated. (The sexism and harassment directed at female secretaries is legendary.) In my corporate workplaces–which were mostly manned by folks with technical backgrounds–there was a great deal of patronizing and dismissive behavior too. In response, secretarial staff often scorned the head-in-the-air attitude of those they served, decrying their inability to accomplish the simplest tasks by themselves and directed some scathing disrespect at them behind their backs. To the credit of my colleagues at my two university employers–the University of New South Wales and the City University of New York–I have witnessed fairly pleasant and egalitarian patterns of interaction between them and our administrative staff. (Robin’s question above seems to indicate there is trouble in paradise.)

At academic workplaces the power differential is clear. Faculty might imagine themselves, PhD and all, as the bees knees, with administrative staff, possessing perhaps only a lowly bachelors or associate degree, as mere dust to be shaken off their feet. (This was certainly the case at Bell Labs, which was populated by graduates from the nation’s top science and engineering programs.) Faculty are also often overworked too, and their requests for assistance can be made a little brusquely. Status and class anxiety does not help this already complicated picture.

It might behoove all of us ‘non-management types’ to remember that a more equitable and harmonious relationship among ourselves is one of our primary protections against the impositions of our ‘bosses,’ that there are allies here, if we were only willing to look a little closer.

Donald Trump’s Allies: Our Craven Media (And Our Apathy)

Here are some damning statistics (reported by the Washington Post) from “the Tyndall Report, which tracks the airtime that the various flagship news programs on NBC, CBS and ABC dedicate to a variety of stories.”

Quick, depressing, highlights:

1. The Republican primary race received more than twice as much coverage as the Democratic contest. (The larger number of candidates perhaps necessitated this but undoubtedly their illiterate pronouncements made for better copy.)

2. Donald Trump has received more airtime (234 minutes) than the entire Democratic field (226 minutes).

3. Joe Biden, who is not running for president, got far more coverage (56 minutes) than Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (10 minutes), who is running.

4. As Nate Silver pointed out on Twitter: “There are (slightly) more Bernie supporters than Trump ones, but Trump has gotten 23X more network news coverage.”

(Donald Trump and the rest of the xenophobic, racist, nativist, Republican candidates have not just received ample, disproportionate prime-time coverage; rather, when they have gone on air, their fact-challenged assertions have gone unchallenged. )

Some twenty or so years ago, in the course of a conversation with a disgruntled academic whose career had been spun off into the backwaters–thanks to the usual depressing combination of overzealous gatekeepers, unimaginative senior academics, and unsympathetic university administration–I heard him blurt out in disgust, “Scum rises to the top.” Yes, well, it does, but it needs help too from forces that impel it upwards.

Fascists and demagogues don’t magically acquire power; they draw it from their environment. In his rise to the top, or his race to the bottom, depending on your perspective, Trump has been aided and abetted by a media corps that prefers sensation over substance. This is not a new complaint in the American political context, but it needs to be made and aired yet again just so that when the time for reckoning comes, when the smoke has cleared, and this nation will–hopefully–wake up from this nightmare, blame can be apportioned fairly. (Even if uselessly.)

The problem, of course, is the insanity created by the election ‘season,’ which with each passing year becomes lengthier, more expensive, and as such, ever more vapid and offensive. Television channels run twenty-four hours a day; they need content and ratings and sponsors; and political candidates supply it. A vicious feedback cycle is rapidly created: Trump says outrageous things; other candidates try to match the bid; supporters in the respective camps take the rhetoric to newer depths; and all of this then makes it back to the newsroom. (I’ve never been happier about my decision to have cancelled my cable subscription a few years ago.)

Over at Corey Robin‘s blog, he asks what is to be done, besides gnashing our teeth, were Trump to come to power.  This is an excellent question (even though Robin seemingly only directs it at the ‘professoriat’): after all, it is unclear whether Trump will provoke serious in-the-streets resistance were he to become President. This is a nation that let a presidential election get stolen in 2000, which does not punish mass murderers and war criminals like the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld troika, and whose population is narcotized by television and long working hours.

Long dark nights and all that.

Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.

Standing By Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last week, I made note here of the philosophy department at Brooklyn College co-sponsoring ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th.

As you will notice, on the link for the event above, there is a disclaimer, in fine print, which reads:

Co-sponsorship does not imply agreement with, or support of, views expressed at a student-hosted event.

This disclaimer was deemed necessary–in this case, at least–because departments are made skittish by accusations of anti-semitism and anti-Israel stances.  But that is not all. The SJP’s use of the word ‘allies’–again, in the link above for the event–has not sat well with some of my colleagues in the philosophy department: it seems to imply the department is engaged in active endorsement of the ‘content’ of the event.  Perhaps the philosophy department shouldn’t be co-sponsoring any such events for fear of not being able to ‘control the message’?

In response to their expressions of concern, I sent the following email to my colleagues:

Some thoughts.

1. I think it would be an ambitious inference for someone to make that the ‘allies’ in question refer to the departments and organizations sponsoring the event (as opposed to say, those attending the event). Some folks will, no doubt, make precisely such an inference. But I wonder if that were even true, what would we be allies to? I still think it would be precisely those issues which are at stake: academic freedom, free speech, academic governance – and the chance to see them discussed in an open forum.  We should be able to articulate a defense for that even in the face of ill-motivated accusations. There should be no need to backpedal in the face of an accusation that “we are actively promoting a pro-Palestine/anti-Israel stance” when it is false. (Indeed, the event is titled ‘Silencing Dissent”.)

2. The word ‘sponsor’ has had, prior to the BDS event last year, a relatively unambiguous meaning on our campus; it has acquired this notoriety almost entirely due to hostility expressed to events organized by the SJP. Has there ever been such a fuss about the word when some other student organization is involved? Indeed, given that the student organization in question is named Students for Justice in Palestine, their events are *always* going to be characterized as being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. I mean, JUSTICE in PALESTINE? That’s a red rag if there ever was one. If departments get too skitty when it comes to the SJP, if they do not co-sponsor any events organized by SJP for fear of the furore it will provoke, then they will co-operate in a de-facto ostracization of a student group. “Every time you guys organize an event, we get shit from alumni and the press – no thanks, we can’t co-sponsor.” This doesn’t seem like a great move for us to make as a department of philosophy, ostensible lovers of wisdom. [link added]

I don’t want to broaden this discussion too much, but let us not kid ourselves about what is going on here. A tenured faculty member was fired, from a state university, for his public speech, because it was deemed to render him unfit to fulfill his academic duties. (Let us not forget the administration at UIUC rode roughshod over faculty decisions pertaining to hiring and tenure.) We are doing the right thing by sponsoring this event, by being part of the effort to have Salaita on campus, talking about the issues involved.

Personally, I see it as an honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ an event that highlights issues of utmost importance to the modern university. We are a philosophy department; we claim to teach analytic and argumentative skills, all the better to puncture hypocrisy, irrationality, and intellectual dishonesty. We should be able to mount an adequate defense of our actions here and in any other situation we think deserves our support. I do not think we should run for the hills because of a dishonest rhetorical tirade, because people insist on imputing motives and reasons for our actions that we do not actually hold.