Peter Thiel Should Attempt the Anatomically Impossible

A few years ago, I made note of Peter Thiel’s showboating program to give young folks a cool hundred grand if they dropped out of college to pursue their dreams. This scheme, cooked up by a Stanford graduate, a venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager, was in transparent alignment with various neoliberal schemes cooked up to denigrate and weaken and ultimately destroy higher education by the simplest of strategies: under the guise of reform, simply gut the system in question–all the better to pick at its scraps. (c.f. charter schools, which aim to reform the public school system by getting rid of it.) From that stance, a straight line can be drawn to Thiel’s donation of 1.25 million dollars to the Donald Trump campaign; one of the hallmarks of fascism, after all, is disdain for education. Or rather, for anything that could possibly generate critical inquiry of any sort. As the New York Times’ source said, “the investor feels the country needs fixing, and Mr. Trump can do it.” That’s certainly one way to ‘fix’ a problem; you get rid of the entity afflicted by the problem. In this case, the American republic.

We should keep Thiel in mind whenever we evaluate an anti-public education stance. The undermining of public education is not an innocent bid to ‘restore’ quality; it is a malignant bid to replace public education with a horde of shrieking rent-seekers: the armies of educational consultants and charter operators lurk among them. Folks like Thiel are common in the business world; they attain success in one narrow field, and then they imagine that the tool they have acquired–the corporate vision, with its particular incentive schemes, its understanding of human relations and their monetizations–can then be successfully exported to all domains. In Thiel’s case, first it was public education, then it was the country. Soon he will have a scheme for curing cancer and for bringing peace to our troubled world. Corporate ‘leaders’ and ‘innovators’ imagine they are sneering at the conventional niceties which up prop hidebound domains of human endeavor and infusing them with radically new paradigms–in the form of their own conventionally acquired, cliché ridden, wisdom. Unsurprisingly most of these corporate-to-country-to-world schemes are cooked up by the graduates of private schools, which have provided a comfortable insulating layer from the realities of most folks’ lives.

Thiel embodies the worst kind of educated philistine, the kind Nietzsche worried about and warned against: they possess education in the formal sense–Thiel does have a pair of degrees in engineering and law–but they show little cultural or intellectual sophistication, and their thin patina of education equips them with a dangerous assurance that they could clean up any mess, solve any problem, so long as quaint notions such as the collective interest or social constraints like civil liberties were shoved out of their way. They have grown up imagining they have bent the world to their will; they now seek new territories to conquer. As part of a fascist brigade, if necessary.

CUNY And The Public University That Couldn’t

In the fall of 2015 I taught my philosophy of law class in a hostile environment: my classroom.  With windows and doors open, it was too noisy to be heard; with windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on, it was too noisy. With the air conditioner turned off, it was too hot. We–my students and I–struggled with this state of affairs into November, till the time it finally became cool enough to allow us to conduct the class with the door and windows closed. Till then, sometimes we shouted, sometimes we sweated; mostly we fretted and fumed, irate and vexed by this latest evidence of the City University of New York’s inability to provide a working infrastructure to facilitate its educational mission.

Over the weekend, the New York Times finally brought to this city’s attention a state of affairs at CUNY that for its students and staff has been a grim reality for too long: a severely underfunded educational institution that has gone from being an ‘engine of mobility’ to the little public university that couldn’t. A crumbling physical foundation; no contracts for its staff and faculty; overpaid administration; reliance on underpaid contingent labor; all the pieces for eventual failure are here.  A strike might yet happen in the fall.

It is common, among progressives, to bewail the continued under funding of public education as an act of class warfare, one animated by racist prejudice. It is worth making that claim explicit: public education is a threat to established social, economic, and political orders; it threatens to bring education–not just textual knowledge, but critical thinking, reading, and writing–to the disenfranchised and politically dispossessed; that fact, on its own, paints a bulls eye on public education’s back, inviting pointed assaults by a surrounding neo-liberal order. Make no mistake about it: public education is under attack because it seen as serving the wrong communities for the wrong reasons.

New York City’s financial health is considerably better than it was during those periods of time when the university was fully funded by the city and the state, when it was able to educate the children of immigrants and send them out to work the engines of the nation’s economy and move themselves and their families up the rungs of American life. But priorities have changed over the years. Now city and state budgets must attend to: university administrators and their desires for bigger salaries and plusher offices; management consultants and their latest pie-charted dreams for ‘process’ and ‘best practices’ and ‘unique selling propositions’; capital projects that do not advance core educational missions; and a host of other diversions that have nothing to do with learning. Run education like a business: shortsightedly, with an eye to the next quarter’s profits; learning be damned.

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.


The Right Body Language For A Court Appearance

On Wednesday morning, I reported to the New York City Criminal Court to be arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct stemming from my arrest during a civil disobedience protest staged outside the office of the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, on March 24th. The day proceeded along lines similar to those I had reported in my previous day in court (back in 2014, after protests outside the Israeli mission during the Gaza crisis): meet my fellow defendants; meet our union’s lawyers; wait to be called into courtroom; wait to be called up before judge. We would, in all probability, be granted an ‘adjournment contemplating dismissal’ (ACD)–a deferment for six months, during which time the charge would remain open and after which could be dropped. Unlike my last appearance in court, this time my name was called out in the first group itself.

I walked up to the front of the courtroom and stood in front of the judge. My fellow defendants–three of them–stood next to me. As I stood and waited, I crossed my arms in front of my chest. Seeing this, a court guard–who was handing papers to the judge–walked up to me and told me to put my arms down. He didn’t specify an alternate location; just that the current one wouldn’t do. I complied; I had no intention of arguing with a police officer in a courtroom, thus risking another arrest for ‘disorderly conduct’ even as I was appearing in court for another such charge.

But the business of being told to adopt the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ body language was intriguing and revelatory. So much of what happens in the courtroom is pure performance, a legal theater: the judge’s seat placed on high, the imposing architecture, the formal, stately, convoluted language, the solemnity, the tightly circumscribed procedure, all the better to impress upon legal subjects–sinners, penitents, and legal officers alike–the awe-inspiring power and majesty of the law. Respect; deference to authority; unblinking conformity–these are the values to be reinforced in this space.

My act of crossing my arms was, I suppose, in this context, an insolent gesture: I did not convey the appropriate respect. I was certainly not causing any disruption; I did not talk; I had not raised my voice.  I was not a threat of any sort–in case, you think that crossing arms allows for the concealment of weapons–because I had already been searched upon entrance to the court. No, quite simply, I had to be bent into that shape which would convey the appropriate respect for the court. And also the particular and peculiar blend of humility and servility that the law is looking for in those who ‘commit crimes.’ The guard’s admonishment was a reminder I was not following the director’s stage instructions.

A minute or so later, it was all done, and I headed to campus with a warning from the judge to ‘stay out of trouble.’ That will not be easy if the Governor of New York State does not restore funding to the City University of New York, if the CUNY administration does not sign a new contract with its faculty and staff.

On Voting ‘Yes’ On The CUNY Strike Authorization Vote

Yesterday, like many of my colleagues at the City University of New York I voted ‘Yes’ on our union’s strike authorization vote. (The voting period ends May 11th; at that time, the PSC-CUNY will be able to inform CUNY administration of the extent of faculty and staff support for a strike.) A strike is serious business; it is a high-risk political tactic; in the current political and economic climate, a strike invites serious rhetorical and material blow-back. A strike shuts down services, sometimes essential ones; a strike causes economic damage and hurts livelihoods; a strike inconveniences many. Why strike?

It is an interesting feature of our modern social discourse that a strike has come to be regarded with as much antipathy as it has. Such a development would not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of analysis that theorists like Max Weber or Max Horkheimer gave us of our developing understanding of work: work for the sake of work, work as a deliverance, work as a blessing, the desire to work as evidence of rationality, “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling”–these all would come to signal the refusal to work as a kind of moral failing. As Horkheimer noted in The Eclipse of Reason, “The deification of industrial activity knows no limit.” Or as Weber had noted in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, “modern labour has an ascetic character.” Unsurprisingly, we find moral abuse directed at those who strike: striking workers are lazy, they are parasites, they are selfish, they are thuggish, and so on.

But workers can, will, and should only work–surprisingly enough–if they are adequately recompensed for their labor. Their relationship with their employers should be underwritten by a respect for this basic postulate of the employment relation. Otherwise, it is no longer enjoys such a status and  merely devolves to some variant of older, exploitative models of hiring and firing (indentured labor, feudal serfs, and so on). The failure of the City University of New York administration to sign a contract with their staff indicates that such basic respect is not forthcoming: the staff of this university have been expected, for six years now, to continue working under the terms of a contract that expired six years ago. In this nation’s most expensive city, such salary and wage conditions amount to a steadily increasing pay cut.

Such a cut in wages sends several signals, none of them respectful to the most important constituencies of the university. First, it tells students that the university does not care how their teachers are compensated for their work; second, it tells students that the university is willing to suffer shortfalls in services that might result from the lack of fair compensation (loss of staff, strikes etc); third, it tells faculty, responsible for instantiating the university’s core mission, that they are not important enough to have their reasonable demands listened to. The final result is a diminishing of the university, a member of a cohort of institutions that now finds itself increasingly under attack from a political and economic sensibility that would destroy as many public goods as possible.

A strike by the faculty and staff at the City University of New York would not just showcase workers laying down their tools; it would also signal to the rest of the polity that attacks on public education will not be tolerated.

Strikes are reviled and abused because interestingly enough, they find their grounding and motivations in firmly and passionately held political convictions that might, as Georges Sorel noted (in Reflections on Violence,) attain the status of myth. In writing of the ‘general strike’ Sorel commented on the common understanding of its supposed irrationality, but as he went on to note, this was in part because of the strong social desire to return to a more quiescent state, one that would not be possible once “the myth of the ‘general strike’ is introduced.” And such reactions were especially understandable: “It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to dispute it.”

A strike is as feared and as despised as it is because very often, a strike–the denial of a worker’s labor, his ultimate weapon, only to be exercised in the direst of circumstances–is effective. The administration of New York City and the City University of New York and its faculty and staff will soon find out–if no contract is forthcoming–how matters will turn out in this domain.

A Strike At CUNY: The Work Yet To Be Done

Over at Sean M. Kennedy strikes a sharply critical note of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress’ tactics in their ongoing struggle with CUNY, New York City, and State administrations. Kennedy takes as as his starting point, the recent civil disobedience action staged last week, and on a couple of occasions, calls for a not-ersatz civil disobedience:

[M]any rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law. [link added]

[W]hat does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

[M]any of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Given Kennedy’s explicit and implicit concern for CUNY students, I thought I would offer some notes on my experiences as a student whose faculty went on strike. That experience, I think, highlights my greatest concerns with a union strategy that includes a strike. I’ve voted in favor of a strike, so I’m not against a strike per se; rather, I think, a great deal needs to be done to prepare the ground for a strike. In that sense, I join in Kennedy’s critique of the PSC’s tactics because that work has not been done yet, and neither does it seem to have been planned for; I just come at it from a different perspective than he does, in the hopes of highlighting a concern that is not raised in his post. (The costs of going on a strike do not, for instance, include a mention of the losses to students: delayed graduation, derailment of educational plans, loss of income dependent on graduation etc.)

During my undergraduate days at Delhi University, the faculty went on strike twice. First in my ‘freshman’ year, for thirty-six days; and then, in my second year, for sixty-six days. The local press, as can be imagined, was hostile: the usual complaints about faculty indolence and self-indulgence–these should be familiar to Americans–came flooding in. More importantly, the students responded with anger and confusion: they did not know why the strike was being called; they had not been supplied with any information about the nature of the negotiations between the university administration and the faculty union; university faculty were subject to the same critical view that school teachers in the US often are–those who can’t, teach; and so on.

The result was that university faculty had practically no support–rhetorical or practical–during their strike. (The first strike failed precisely for this reason, thus necessitating a second strike, but it seemed the lessons of the first time had not yet been learned.) Moreover, the students developed an intense  antipathy to the faculty; this came to a head in the second year, for on that occasion, when faculty returned to teach, students boycotted classes. This boycott did not last long but the bad feelings did.

If the PSC wants to call a strike, it must do much more to communicate to the students–and their families–why such a strike is necessary and how it would benefit students and faculty alike. A strike will not succeed if the students don’t support it.

Note: Here is an older post responding to a New York Times article on the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.

A Day In Gaol: Protesting Andrew Cuomo’s Attack On CUNY

Yesterday I, along with many other members of the City University of New York’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) participated in a civil disobedience action outside the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Across the street from us, other members held a rally; they waved signs, chanted slogans and marched. We were all protesting New York State (and City’s) slow starvation of CUNY–through persistent budget cuts. (See this earlier report too.) Moreover, faculty and staff have now been without a contract for six years. Given the cost of living increases in New York City, this  means that we have been receiving pay cuts for the past six years.

We marched out as a group in rows, arms linked, and then performed a ‘die-in’ in front of the entrance to the office building. We received three warnings from the NYPD to cease and desist; following our non-compliance, we were all arrested and taken to NYPD’s central office at One Police Plaza for booking and post-arrest processing. (Thankfully, the NYPD was not over-enthusiastic about tightening their plastic hand-cuffs.) The usual tedium ensued: first, we waited in the paddy-wagon before being driven off, then on arrival we waited before disembarking. Once that had happened, we moved slowly through several stages of processing. Identity cards were collected, searches conducted, property–including shoelaces–confiscated for holding, mugshots were taken (with a twist that each arrested person ‘posed’ with his arresting officer.) This done, we were sent to a holding cell. I had been assured by my arresting officer–a Pakistani gentleman with whom I struck up a rolling conversation in Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani-Punjabi–that a new streamlined procedure was being followed and that we would be out quickly, but even then, a wait of approximately four hours was still in store.

As was the case in my previous time spent in a NYPD holding cell, conversation with my cellmates was the saving grace of what would otherwise have been an exercise in boredom. I chatted with, among others: a staff member of CUNY’s Murphy Institute who hailed from a family with four generations of union organizers;  a political theorist who analyzes conservative critiques of capitalism; a doctoral student in sociology writing on race and class in social movements; a Brooklyn College sociology professor specializing in studies of policing and police brutality. (In the paddy-wagon too and while waiting in line for processing, there had been wonderful moments of bonding and camaraderie, including the obligatory rendition of ‘Solidarity Forever.’)

Finally, the moment came, as our arresting officer called us out to pick up our property and court appearance notices (we had been charged with ‘disorderly conduct.’) After doing so, we were escorted out to the precinct gates, where we were greeted by our union colleagues, who had kindly arranged for food and snacks and had held on to our backpacks. I was underdressed as I had not anticipated the sharp drop in temperatures, so I quickly ate a sandwich and headed for the downtown Q train to take me back home. I was in bed around midnight.

The ongoing, seemingly nation-wide, assault on public education is one of the most shameful features of modern American life. It is the true negation of the American dream, a central component of which was the promise to educate, and make possible, a better life for those who could not afford it otherwise. An attack on public education is a political act; it loudly and proudly proclaims an anti-intellectual stance; it says that education is a privilege reserved for those able to pay for it. That is not what CUNY is about, and the faculty and staff here will not let the city and state administration forget it.

Note: These articles by Village Voice writer Nick Pintohere and here–provide more useful background on what is going down at CUNY. This article in the Gotham Gazette reports some of the latest developments in the funding crisis.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Attacks One Privilege, Defends Another

Last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly took Dylan Byers to task after the latter’s snarky response to Coates’ anointment of Melissa Harris-Perry as ‘America’s foremost public intellectual’:

What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking.

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like “Geniuses of Western Music” written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

Good stuff. But as part of his defense, Coates also said:

This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is “America’s foremost public intellectual.” I made this claim because of Harris-Perry’s background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.

Again, mostly good stuff. The bit that bothers me is the bit about ‘background’, which abides by another conventional sort of privilege: the credentialing capacities of the Ivy League. (In my mind, almost synonymous with ‘expensive private university privilege.’)

Duke, Princeton, Harvard. (There is Tulane too, another private school; I’m aware Duke is not Ivy League.) Coates deploys these names as any other exponent of Ivy League privilege might: the mere fact of association with them is evidence enough of intellectual quality. What was the Ph.D on? Was the dissertation any good? Did it make dissertation-level contributions to its field or was it pretty perfunctory stuff? Coates also mentions ‘two books’. What were they on? Were their arguments any good? (They were published by Yale and Princeton University Presses incidentally.)

What if Melissa Harris-Perry had done exactly the same work, but had gone to the University of North Carolina with stints at San Diego State and the University of Illinois? And had her books published by Florida University Press and University of Texas Press? Would Coates still be citing her ‘background’? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Ivy League privilege is real. Presidents, Supreme Court justices, the list goes on. Remember that old football chant that Ivy League students use when their teams are losing to a state school: ‘It’s alright, it’s OK, you’re going to work for us someday’?

Why not just concentrate on the intellectual quality of her work and forget about her credentials? Like you know, we should forget about race and just concentrate on the quality of her work? Down with all privilege, right?

There is something problematic, also, about turning the business of being a ‘public intellectual’ into some sort of competition, but more on that later.

Note: I didn’t attend the Ivy League.