The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals

Danny Postel

This post previously appeared on Dissent‘s blog:

http://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/war-isis-views-from-syrian-activists-and-intellectuals

Conspicuously absent from the debate about ISIS and U.S. intervention—both in the mainstream and in the leftosphere—are Syrian voices. ISIS and U.S. officialdom occupy center stage, leaving the perspectives of Syrian civil society activists and writers out of the equation. While hardly surprising, this omission is troubling.

In an attempt to remedy this imbalance, I asked several Syrians—longtime activists and intellectuals from a range of backgrounds, including Kurdish, Palestinian, and Assyrian Christian—what they think about the ISIS crisis and Western intervention. Here are their responses.

Three Monsters

I am ambivalent about a Western attack against ISIS.

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society.

On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Western powers could have avoided this had they helped the Syrian resistance in its battle against the fascist Assad regime. The right thing to do, ethically and politically, is to build a coalition against both ISIS and the Assad regime, and to help Syrians bring about significant changes in their country’s political environment.

Let me finally say that I am very skeptical of the plans and intentions of the American administration. ISIS is the terrible outcome of our monstrous regimes and the West’s role in the region for decades, as much as it is the result of grave illnesses within Islam. Three monsters are treading on Syria’s exhausted body.

—Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, imprisoned from 1980 to 1996 for left-wing activities, now living in exile in Istanbul (see this interview with him for more)

Symptoms and Causes

Any attempt to uproot or crush ISIS will be of no avail if it is undertaken without adequate analysis of the reasons for the group’s rise. The widespread feelings among Syrians of indignation and betrayal by the international community for the better part of the last four years will not be an easy matter to deal with, and will only be heightened if the international community does not commit to a serious initiative beyond sloganeering.

Fighting against ISIS without stopping the Assad regime’s massacres would have serious ramifications. Living under daily bombardment and shelling have led some Syrians to see ISIS, despite its barbarity, as a savior and avenger on their behalf against a murderous regime. These are sensitive matters. Neglecting them will only help ISIS spread further. Any attempt to deal with symptoms without serious considerations of the causes will lead to more dangerous complications. You can’t remove a malignant tumor without dealing with and disinfecting the whole context and resolving the problem. Otherwise you can end up with a bigger tumor, leading to complete loss of control over the situation.

—Iyas Kadouni, former director of the Centre for Civil Society and Democracy in the city of Idlib, former member of the Revolutionary Council in the city of Saraqib, pursued both by ISIS and by the Assad regime, now living in exile in Brussels

Alternatives to Military Intervention

As a Syrian from a Christian background who has many years of experience with different Syrian opposition groups, I believe military intervention against ISIS will only lead to the creation of more extremism.

Before starting with a military solution, why not explore political, economic, and social solutions? Why did it take the West so long to embargo the oil produced by ISIS? Why did the West turn a blind eye to the flood of jihadists entering Syria through Turkey? Why no real pressure on Gulf countries for their official and unofficial massive support of different nefarious armed groups? Why did the “Friends of Syria” fail to provide Raqqa—the first liberated area in the country—with any support for the local community, the civil society organizations, and the emerging local council, despite all the calls to do so?

—Rasha Qass Yousef, member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and the Syrian Democratic Forum, a co-founder of the Haquna Movement, a civil resistance group in the city of Raqqa that campaigned against both the Assad regime and the armed groups who seized the city, including ISIS

Arm the Rebels and Smash ISIS

I strongly support U.S./NATO air strikes against ISIS, which has committed, and continues to commit, horrifying atrocities against civilians in Syria and Iraq, and I urge the international community to arm the Syrian rebels and provide them with the necessary means to take down ISIS, which has shown nothing but brutality against the Syrian people. This course of action will advance the cause of the Syrian revolution, which started as a struggle for freedom and dignity for the Syrian people.

But attacking ISIS without taking down the Assad regime’s air force would invite problems, as the regime can be expected to strike the Syrian rebels during their battles with ISIS, as it has done previously. The Assad regime is the source of extremism and violence in Syria. Any move against ISIS must be followed by effective steps toward a political transition beyond Assad.

—Kassem Eid, a.k.a. Qusai Zakarya, Syrian-Palestinian activist and chemical weapons attack survivor who launched a hunger strike in November to protest the starvation sieges of cities throughout Syria and demand that humanitarian agencies be allowed unfettered access into these besieged areas

Who Fueled ISIS’s Rise?

My support for the Syrian revolution is unconditional and for that reason I am opposed to the U.S. intervention. The United States and its regional allies have done everything to undermine the Syrian revolution. Most importantly they have done so by supporting the Syrian National Coalition against the grassroots movements. U.S. allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar initially backed Assad and later funded and equipped the most reactionary forces in the opposition. These same powers (plus Iraq) are now forming a coalition to fight ISIS. But these countries played a major role, directly and indirectly, in making ISIS a regional power. The United States and Saudi Arabia were instrumental in the creation and funding of global jihadism since the 1980s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq led to the emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq. Qatar is helping Jabhat al-Nusra while Turkey was, until recently, allowing ISIS to operate freely and cross its borders unchecked.

The U.S. intervention in Syria (and Iraq) will kill many innocent civilians. It will also fulfill ISIS’s wish to become the primary anti-American force in the region and thereby help the terrorist organization recruit more fighters. The beheading of the two U.S. citizens by ISIS was intended to generate the reaction it is now getting from the United States. Finally, Assad played a crucial role in strengthening ISIS and using it against revolutionary forces. The irony of all this is that the United States is asking the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS but not use American weapons against the Assad regime.

Yasser Munif, professor of sociology at Emerson College and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution

Remove One of the Syrian Revolution’s Key Obstacles

For me there is no simple answer. On the most elementary level, I am inclined to favor U.S./EU/NATO intervention against ISIS. Attacking ISIS would remove one of the Syrian revolution’s key obstacles, and this would leave the Assad regime more vulnerable. But I believe it is wishful thinking to expect any meaningful intervention that would give us such ideal outcomes. I think the future is gloomier than this. Despite all the political rhetoric on Syria from the White House, the U.S. administration is deadlocked, much as it has been since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Obama’s strategy of “seduce and abandon” has been used consistently over the last three years to deflect criticism about U.S. intervention in the Middle East. There has been no appetite to intervene in any real way to come to the aid of Syrian rebels. Either way, it is too little, too late.

Confronting ISIS, while crucial, is meaningless without at least two things: urgent and actual support for whatever remains of the secular and democratic forces within the Free Syrian Army, and sustained international political and economic pressure on the Assad regime. ISIS plays the role of a deus ex machina in the Assad regime’s version of reality, resolving the seemingly unsolvable problem that the regime has faced since Syrian protestors demanded its downfall: that of restoring its political legitimacy and international credentials. It ensures the regime’s survival and confirms the narrative that Assad’s forces are embroiled in a bitter fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Moreover, the present situation enables the regime to paint itself as an indispensible partner in the fight against terrorism, which is why commentators like The Nation’s Bob Dreyfuss will continue to argue that “one key to solving the ISIS crisis is hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus, and his name is Bashar al-Assad.”

Firas Massouh, doctoral student at the University of Melbourne in Australia and author of several essays on the Syrian uprising, including “Left Out? The Syrian Revolution and the Crisis of the Left

Too Little, Too Late?

From a policy standpoint, Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels would have been more effective if implemented over two years ago, when Syrian opposition forces were less depleted. Syrian activists must welcome Obama’s plan with a sense of trepidation, because we were left in the lurch in August 2013 after the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. We waited for the retaliation against Assad that never came, despite assurances from the administration that it was imminent. Obama’s backtracking emboldened Assad, paving the way for the deaths of tens of thousands more Syrians. Now we are playing the waiting game again. When will the weapons arrive? And will they effectively change the balance of power on the ground? Our objective now has to include the downfall of both Assad and ISIS. Whether Obama’s plan will help achieve both remains to be seen.

Rasha Othman, Syrian-American activist based in Washington, one of the key organizers of the International Solidarity Hunger Strike for Syria

No Shortcuts

Violence will only yield more violence. You can’t put out fire with gas. The U.S. attack on ISIS will only contribute to its proliferation. The international community and the United States have played a role in creating ISIS. They rely on hegemony rather than spearheading democracy, as they claim. There is a conspicuous lack of ethics in dealing with various global issues. For example, the Syrian issue got lost in the corridors of the UN for years, due to double standards in dealing with humanitarian crises. But suddenly the Iraqi case has taken center stage—it did so in a matter of days and without evening going through UN channels—due to geostrategic interests.

The solution lies in dealing with these matters on a consistent humanitarian and humanist basis and seeing people as fellow human beings and not as strange citizen of other lands, and to start seriously viewing our common and intertwined interests on the planet. Concretely this could be achieved by supporting civil resistance movements and other institutions and organizations that are helping spread education and awareness. Empowering local people and NGOs, particularly investing now in the millions of refugees, would represent an alternative path forward. There is no short cut to heaven.

Khorshid Mohammad, Syrian-Kurdish co-founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and neonatologist at Alberta Health Services , University of Calgary, Canada

Special thanks to Afra Jalabi, a Syrian activist and writer in Montreal, for connecting me with several of the people I interviewed for this article. She is active in the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and serves on the Executive Committee of The Day After project, an international working group of Syrians representing a large spectrum of the country’s opposition engaged in an independent transition-planning dialogue. —Danny Postel

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Bureaucracy in Academic Research

Thomas Scheff

Why are we making so little progress in our understanding of the human world? Bureaucracy might be one of the reasons. As Max Weber (1947) pointed out, bureaucracies run on a system of rules in order to avoid arbitrary decisions. But Pascal (1660), an early scientist, pointed out that system itself can become arbitrary. The discovery of new knowledge, he wrote, requires both system and what he called finesse (intuition) more or less equally.

The attempt to plot the orbit of Venus by the astronomer Tycho Brahe illustrates the problem. Brahe’s approach was entirely systematic: his sightings of the planet were quite accurate. But he couldn’t chart the orbit, because he assumed, like everyone else at the time, that it was around the earth, rather than the sun. After Brahe’s death, his assistant, Johannes Kepler, broke the impasse unsystematically. In what might be called a “case study,” he constructed a physical model of the planetary system. In doing so, he accidently placed the sun in the center. When he saw the mistake, he knew how to make good use of Brahe’s data.

At the other extreme, the theory of relativity began with intuition rather than system: Einstein devised what he first thought was a joke about the effect of train travel on time. When he realized that it might not be just a joke, he needed a colleague to help him restate it in mathematical form, so that it could be tested empirically. The two examples taken together suggest that ending impasses in knowledge may require both system and intuition, no matter which comes first.

  1. O. Wilson’s 1998 book is organized around the idea of consilience, the integration of seemingly different points of view. Wilson proposed that the physical sciences have made huge advances but the social sciences and humanities have not. He argues that most physical science progress has been made when separate disciplines or sub-disciplines have combined: biophysics, physical chemistry, and so on. His plea for integration was made more than twenty years ago, but there has been little response from the disciplines.

Wilson has several pages of criticism of each of the major disciplines, including economics, psychology, and history. Here is some of his comment on my own discipline of origin, sociology. It concerns a quote from a leading sociologist of his time (Coleman 1990):

“The principal task of the social sciences is the explanation of social phenomena, not the behavior of single individuals.”

Wilson takes issue with this idea, still strongly held by most sociologists, by noting that biology would have remained stuck in its 1850 position if it had remained at the level of the whole organism, refusing to include cells and molecules.

Durkheim’s study of suicide gave birth to modern sociology, showing that there is a social component in causation, independent of individuals. This is an important first step, but it is not much help for understanding suicide, because the relationship is tiny (less than 10% of the variance). The more obvious meaning of Durkheim’s finding and its replications is that the social component is NOT the major cause, or even one of the most important causes. Perhaps in the beginning, pure sociology was a virtue, but treating it as the only way has become a vice.

In modern academic research, social/behavioral studies tend toward system, and the humanities, intuition, ignoring Pascal’s advice. The discipline of psychology, for example, has become Brahean, committed to systematic studies, even if they don’t work. One example: more than twenty thousand studies using self-esteem scales. These studies are systematic, but they don’t predict behavior and are therefore useless. The main problem seems to be the confounding of true and false pride [egotism] (Scheff and Fearon 2004).

At the other extreme, the humanities use finesse, rejecting system. For example, there is a large literature in experimental psychology showing that the venting of anger seldom works (Scheff 2007). These studies support the literary idea of catharsis, based on the concept of the distancing of emotion (Scheff 1997). That is, angry yelling tends to be underdistanced, merely reliving rather than resolving one’s backlog of anger.

Theatre and most other art, on the other hand, are built on emotion at aesthetic distance: one is both reliving unresolved anger and also being a spectator of the process. Wordsworth wrote about powerful emotions recollected in tranquility. Neither the psychologists nor the literary theorists seem to be aware of their mutual support.

Perhaps journals can help overcome this unfortunate division. Specialization is still useful, but it must not become an end in itself. Rather it should be balanced by integration between specialties. Social/behavioral studies and the humanities need to connect, and also the disciplines and sub-disciplines within and between them. There should be groups and journals in all disciplines trying interdisciplinary or other new approaches.

Journals, particularly, have fallen into the Brahe trap. They are mechanized to judge submissions in terms of discipline and/or sub-discipline, size, and adherence to scholarly/scientific rules. One approach would be to stop relying entirely on any particular system of rules: not just disciplinary rules (“No psychology please: we are sociologists”) but all rules. Even though a submission breaks rules, is it new or interesting enough to warrant consideration anyway?

Such a change might encourage researchers to explore new topics and approaches, rather than choosing the well-worn, safe and conventional ones. Perhaps this would be a step toward overcoming our impasse on understanding human beings.

References

Durkheim, Emile. 1901. Suicide. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press (1951).

Pascal, Blaise. 1660. Pensees. (Thoughts). Paris: Editions du Cerf (1982).

Scheff, Thomas. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. Berkeley: U. of California Press.

______________2007. Catharsis and Other Heresies. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology 1 (3), 98-113.

Scheff, Thomas and David S. Fearon Jr. 2004. Cognition and Emotion? The Dead End in Self-Esteem Research. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 34, 1, 73–90.

Weber, Max. 1947. Theory of Social and Economic Organization. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Wilson, E. O. 1998. Consilience. New York: Knopf.

Thomas Scheff is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, past president of the Pacific Sociological Association, and past chair of the Emotions Section of the American Sociological Association.

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Danny Postel’s review of Mohammed Ayoob’s Will the Middle East Implode?

Originally posted on Middle East Policy journal.

http://www.mepc.org/journal/middle-east-policy-archives/will-middle-east-implode

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Allen Ginsberg’s Magical Evolving Visions

Stevan Weine

For nearly fifty years Allen Ginsberg told readers and listeners that his efforts to change writing and society we’re ignited by the mystical visions he had in 1948, at the age of 22, in which he heard the voice of William Blake reciting “Ah Sunflower.” At the time he journaled: I was staring out of the window when I saw a vast gleam of light cover the sky. The bowl of heaven was suffused with an eerie glow.

In a 1965 interview published in the Paris Review Ginsberg gave the most explicit description of the visions. This time he said: “…suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.” Several other small published pieces briefly mentioned visions with a voice, but none before 1960. The Paris Review interview became the definitive version of the Blake visions.          

1948 to 1965 leaves a mysterious and unexplained gap of 17 years from the days of experiencing visions in Harlem to his elaborated confession that he heard Blake’s voice. A gap that surprisingly has not been acknowledged or explained despite the massive amount of writings by and on Allen Ginsberg. What are we to make of this 17-year gap from a writer who famously documented everything?

While trying to learn more about the visions, I found something shocking and secret in Ginsberg’s archives. I found a letter from Dr. Worthing of Pilgrim State Hospital concerning the 1948 lobotomy of his mother, Naomi. Naomi had a severe chronic psychotic illness since before Ginsberg was born. She suffered from hallucinations and paranoia and was in and out of state mental hospitals for most of her adult life, receiving electroconvulsive and insulin therapies. Dr. Worthing wrote to Ginsberg, because after his parents’ divorce, Allen was responsible for Naomi’s care. Though he was only 22 at the time, the letter asked him to give the doctors consent for his mother’s lobotomy. Ginsberg signed the consent document and the lobotomy was performed soon thereafter.

When I found this letter in his archives, it was summer 1986 and Allen Ginsberg’s consent for the lobotomy had not yet been publicly disclosed. When I showed this letter to Ginsberg he paused in silence, looked down, and said, “Hmmm. That’s a very extreme thing.”  

“What are you thinking?”

“I wonder to what extent there is a relation to my whole change of mind during that time, psychotic breakthrough so to speak. Because I had to do the signing for that.”

It was only six months after the lobotomy that Allen Ginsberg began to have visions. He was living by himself in an East Harlem apartment subleased from a friend in the divinity school. Ginsberg was single, gay but closeted, and apart from his friends. He hadn’t managed to fulfill his dream of himself as a writer. And he was trying to live with himself after authorizing a psychiatrist to cut into his mother’s brain presumably to save her life – a life that neither she nor he thought there was much chance of salvaging, given the horrible price that her chronic severe psychotic illness had already exacted.

His readings were a veritable syllabus in the literature of visions—William Butler Yeats, William Blake, St. John of the Cross, and other visionary literature that he found on the bookshelves in his Harlem sublet. But he wanted to be an artist, not a professor, and to descend from what he perceived as neurosis and too many abstractions. The visions offered that and more by turning him into a religious man.

Having visions allied him with Naomi and her misunderstood visions, but gave him a clear purpose. He was now a visionary poet whose calling was to write vision-inspired poems, salvaging her madness, and his own. He turned to literary classics on visions and tried to write his own allegories. Seventeen vision-poems from this time were later included in Gates of Wrath (1948-1949), published 25 years later.

But in addition to seeing the visions as an igniter of changes, I discovered how Ginsberg’s memory and representation of them from 1965 on came to differ from his original accounts. Thus the Blake visions were actually a consequence of changes made by Ginsberg well after 1948; changes in his approaches to madness, to writing, and to his role in society. Making those changes involved deep studying of visionary literature, composing scores of vision-poems, and unceasing correspondence with his supportive and challenging literary brethren.

It also involved his lock-up in the madhouse (the prestigious New York State Psychiatric Institute) and getting treatment, both inpatient and outpatient – another secret story that needs telling. Ginsberg knew from reading William James that psychiatry was likely to dismiss visions as hallucinations, and visionaries as being mentally ill. He felt that psychiatry did not help his mother, or for that matter, to try to understand her. Nonetheless, Ginsberg acknowledged that in those early years psychiatry helped him.

None of this fully explains the appearance of Blake’s voice after a 17-year gap. Nor how the changes in the visions came upon the heels of “Howl”(1957) and “Kaddish” (1962), side by side with his emergence as a poet-prophet. In his archives I found another letter bearing important evidence that could explain these changes. In June 1957, Ginsberg wrote a letter from Madrid to his brother Eugene. He spoke of his encounter that month with an extraordinary painting by Fra Angelica at the Muse del Prado: “the annunciation seemed the greatest painting I ever saw first hand – I’d vaguely remember it from life, or art books – but was not aware of its perfection – delicacy and solid bright centuries.” Ginsberg even crudely sketched the image for his brother to see.

The surprising meeting with Fra Angelico’s Annunciationi offered a model for revising the visions as an annunciation experience. From then on Blake’s voice was in the first place, like the doves and angels whispering into Mary’s ear, making it immediately obvious that Allen Ginsberg made a holy connection and was indeed Blake’s heir. This reimagined holy connection through visions, centered on Blake’s voice, was the central image that Ginsberg used to justify his role as a modern day poet-prophet. The dreadful links to Naomi’s lobotomy and Allen’s signature remained hidden behind myth.

This means that the Blake visions were not the singular transformative event that they have been made out to be for the public. Ginsberg’s tendency, and those of his chroniclers, to present the 1965 revised Blake visions as the original event, do not give full justice to the changes he made and the hard work necessary to achieve them. Nor to how his immersion in his mother’s madness and lobotomy somehow led to creating something powerful and sublime. Apparently the need for visualizing a dramatic event that encapsulated a completed foundation myth to justify Ginsberg’s role as a poet-prophet was greater than the messiness of a fifty-year evolving attachment.

Though Ginsberg may have sacrificed these truths of the visions, it was done for higher purposes. Beginning in 1948 and continuing throughout his life, Ginsberg used his experiences with visions to devise a radical new way of depicting madness not as a single unitary construct but in multiples: as a religious experience of ecstatic visions; as a psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia; as the experience of deviance of a mental patient, junky, or homosexual; as something that characterized the governmental and political forces that destroyed human souls, as manifested in the Cold War and later in the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. According to Ginsberg, madness not only has more than one meaning, but is precisely the point where reality and ecstasy meet, and thus is part of our humanity and should be embraced. By letting all the multiplicities of madness flourish in his art, Ginsberg could not only live with himself, but could give birth to poems that would powerfully challenge existing orders and remake the world.

Stevan Weine is professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of When History Is a Nightmare (1999) and Testimony after Catastrophe (2006).

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On Slavoj Zizek’s Plagiarism

It has come to our attention that an extended passage in Slavoj Zizek’s Critical Inquiry essay ”A Plea for a Return to Differance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua)” 32 (Winter 2006) was taken from a review by Stanley Hornbeck in American Renaissance of Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique. We deeply regret that this passage appeared in our pages without any citation of its source.

Given the source of the material in question, we emphasize that the passage was an expository summary of an anti-Semitic tract with which Slavoj Zizek himself profoundly disagrees.  Zizek adduced this tract as evidence for a “new barbarism” in critical discourse.  Critical Inquiry stands behind the point that the anti-Semitic screed is indeed barbaric, even as we regret Zizek’s failure to adhere to a baseline standard of academic discussion.

Zizek’s own statement:

A CLARIFICATION
With regard to the recent accusations about my plagiarism, here is what happened. When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book. (These passages are also taken over in Part III, Chapter 1, of my book The Parallax View.) As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another’s theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever; all I do after this brief resume is quickly dismissing Macdonald’s theory as a new chapter in the long process of the destruction of Reason. In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarizing another’s line of thought, of “stealing ideas.” I nonetheless deeply regret the incident.

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On Vergara versus California

Bill Ayers

 

 

Analogy Test:

High-stakes, standardized testing is to learning as:

a). memorizing a flight manual is to flying

b). watching Hawaii Five-O is to doing detective work

c). exchanging marriage vows is to a successful marriage

d). reading Gray’s Anatomy is to practicing surgery

e). singing the national anthem is to good citizenship

f). all of the above

 

On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that current teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under California’s constitution.Vergara v. Californiawas cast as a group of poor kids suing the state to get rid of bad teachers under the banner of an advocacy group called Students Matter, a not-for-profit founded by Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch in order to bankroll his multimillion dollar lawsuit.

Vergara was immediately hailed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as an opportunity and “a mandate to fix these problems.” Give Arne Duncan credit for consistency: he called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it swept the slate clean and folks could just start over (never mind those black bodies piled in the corner), and in 2010 he applauded the school board in Central Falls, RI, the most densely populated and one of the poorest cities in the state, for firing every teacher, guidance counselor, and the principal at the high school because of poor performance. “This is hard work and these are tough decisions,” Duncan said at the time. “But students only have one chance for an education, and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”

Breitbart.com called the California decision a “conservative’s dream-come-true victory” over the unions, and cheered Welch and his supporters as “a long-time coalition of educational free-market supporters and privatization philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation.” Karen Lewis, fiery leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, responded that the ruling had “the moguls drinking champagne.”

The link to Brown v. Board of Education was explicit in Judge Treu’s decision as well as in aneditorial in the liberal New York Times which acknowledged somewhat grudgingly that teachers deserve “reasonable due process rights,” but saluted the decision for opening “a new chapter in the equal education struggle.”

There’s trouble in every direction.

Because Judge Treu wrapped his judgment in it, let’s start with Brown, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and heralded the legal termination of racially segregated schools—it’s become an icon in the popular story America tells itself about its inevitable upward trajectory. On October 26, 1992, the US Congress designated Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated black schools in Topeka, Kansas, a National Historic Site because of its significance in the famous case, and the National Archives include several documents from the case in its digital classroom.

Brown occurred in the wake of World War II, in the wash of that reenergized sense of freedom. The decision followed incessant and increasingly intense demands by African-Americans that the country live up to the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment. And, importantly, Brown coincided with clear white interests that had nothing to do with black well-being: avoiding a revolution led and defined by subjugated African-Americans; transforming the feudal South and integrating it into a repositioned capitalist juggernaut; removing a blatant and embarrassing fact of American life that was being effectively wielded against the US in the escalating Cold War. White power needed Brown—but only a bit of Brown.

Brown was, importantly, the result of relentless action and activism from below—whenever I read an account that begins with something like, “As a result of Brown, America experienced a wave of activism for justice…,” I want to offer an amendment: “As a result of a wave of activism for justice, America got Brown…”

In any case the promise of Brown was not simply about ending segregation in public schools; the promise, rather, rested on a profoundly democratic aspiration—that all individuals will receive equal education and opportunity, and that each will be afforded full dignity and equal respect. The most radical possibilities of Brown are that the country might recognize black people’s full humanity, their complete membership in the nation. Ralph Ellison wrote at the time that “the court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship and another battle of the Civil War has been won.” Another battle won, perhaps, but not the last.

Brown embodies a fundamental, even a fatal, flaw that runs deep in the American racial narrative. The argument in the case turns on the specific harm suffered by black children and the feelings of inferiority that are a result of segregation, rather than the despicable, immoral, and destructive system of white supremacy itself. Black people—not racism—were the acknowledged concern; black pathology, however, not white privilege, became the focus of action. And the institutions of white supremacy live on: mass incarceration and massive school closings in black communities, home foreclosures which disproportionately erase black wealth and the gutting of voting rights for black people. On and on and on.

And so Brown, the widely celebrated and lofty statement of principle, was followed immediately by its lesser-known brother, the betrayer and assassin, Brown II, the implementation, or remedy phase, and here again—consistent with the long tradition of all things racial—the remedy fit neither the crime nor the injury. In fact Brown II gave the local school districts, the parties defeated in Brown, the power and responsibility to construct the solution—to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The fox—far from being banished from the hen house—was given the only set of keys.

“With all deliberate speed” turned out to mean “never.” The activity in the courts over the decades following Brown went decidedly south: racially isolated black communities were denied the right to draw students from adjoining white suburbs; children were denied the right to equal school funding; the concept of “neighborhood school” was reinforced and reified even if the result was re-segregation. School segregation is alive and well, more firmly entrenched than ever, and each year schools are more racially divided.

Monroe Elementary—that iconic temple in Topeka elevated as a National Historic Site—may as well be turned from a museum into a mausoleum: Here is one more place where African-American aspirations and struggles for decent and equal education were laid to rest.

With minimal imagination and a bit of thought the struggle for “equal education” and Arne Duncan’s “collective obligation to take action” might extend to include the impact of concentrated poverty on children’s health and well-being and educational opportunities, or the consequences of skeletal budgets, overcrowding, and school closings, or the failure of Brown to remedy what it claimed it would fix.

And now comes Judge Treu using the lofty language of Brown to attack teachers, but without a word about the reality of districts continuing to herd black children into unnatural, chronically underfunded and inferior schools, build ever higher walls, and no mention of the policy interventions championed by Duncan and the corporate “reformers”—things like the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, massive school closures and school “turnarounds,” the stripping of needed resources, and inadequate scripted and “teacher-proof” curricula—that have disrupted and hurt urban districts for years. As usual, white supremacy is hiding in plain sight.

Judge Treu’s decision is not an isolated event; it’s part of a pattern and an intentional strategy that begins by positing education as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screw driver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity—and schools as businesses run by CEOs with teachers taking the role of assembly line workers and students playing the part of the raw materials bumping helplessly along the factory floor as information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads. In this metaphoric strait-jacket it’s rather easy to suppose that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that once belonged to the public is a natural event; that teaching toward a simple standardized metric and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately-developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes,” is a rational proxy for learning; that centrally controlled “standards” for curriculum and teaching are commonsensical; that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior as a stand-in for child development or justice is sane; and that “accountability,” that is, a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on law-makers, foundations, or corporations—is logical and level-headed. This is in fact what a range of noisy politicians, and their chattering pundits in the bought media call “school reform.” And this is what Judge Treu just bought and affirmed.

The magic sauce for this reform recipe has three ingredients: replace the public schools with some sort of privately-controlled administration; sort the winners relentlessly from the losers—test, test, TEST! (and then punish)—and destroy teachers’ ability to speak with any sustained or unified voice. The operative controlling metaphor for these moves has by now become quite familiar: education is an item for individual consumption, not a public trust or a social good, and certainly not a fundamental human right. Management, inputs and outcomes, efficiency, cost controls, profit and loss—the dominant language of this kind of reform doesn’t leave much room for doubt or much space to breathe.

The forces fighting to create this new common-sense are led by a merry band of billionaires—Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, Eli Broad—who work relentlessly to take up all the available space, preaching, persuading, and promoting, always spreading around liberal amounts of cash to underline their fundamental points: dismantle public schools, crush the teachers unions, test and punish. When Rupert Murdoch was in trouble in the summer of 2011, it came to light that Joel Klein, a leading “reformer” as head of the New York City public schools for years (and whose own kids, of course, attended private schools), was on Murdoch’s payroll; according to the New York Times, the two saw eye to eye “on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors (the now-famous “lazy incompetent teachers”) should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed.” The trifecta!

And, of course, these imaginary reformers create a fictional opposition—in a flattering portrait of Arne Duncan in the February 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker the author claimed that in the contemporary school reform battles “there are, roughly speaking, two major camps.” The first he called “the free-market reformers,” the second, “the liberal traditionalists.” The reformers have the vitality and the energy, the big ideas and the grand plans, the troops and the momentum and all of the ready money; the traditionalists accept the schools just as they are, and they embrace the status quo as embodied in the colleges of education and especially in the big teachers unions.

This caricature leaves out a huge range of approaches and actors, including those who argue, as John Dewey did a century ago, that in a democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons), and so did Mayor Daley’s, Mayor Emmanuel’s, and President and Mrs. Obama’s children, where they had small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the farthest limits—oh, and a respected and unionized teacher corps as well. Good enough for the Obamas and the Duncans, good enough for us—and good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of Dewey, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”

Before teachers were organized, women were paid less than men, African-Americans were last hired and first fired, and teachers were routinely dismissed for their political opinions without any hope of due process. Fact: in those states where teachers are denied the right to organize, student achievement on the measures favored by the corporate group do much worse; fact: good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and good teaching conditions are good learning conditions—good working conditions can only be developed if teachers are collectively in the conversation.

The moguls may be drinking champagne, Breitbart and company may be having a late-night orgy, and Judge Treu may imagine himself a freedom fighter, but none of this is the last word.

 

 

 

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Remembering Helen Tartar

Haun Saussy

Helen Tartar, in memoriam

If she had not been killed in an absurd traffic accident earlier this month, the great editor Helen Tartar would almost certainly be at a conference now, listening to papers, talking to authors and showing the latest books from Fordham University Press. She was a regular at ACLA and MLA meetings, as she was at the gatherings of the philosophers, the phenomenologists, the media scholars, and the religious-studies people. She was on her way to the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy meeting in Denver when she died. At these meetings, her calendar was always full. Many of our readers will have had the enlivening experience of telling her about a project or an idea and receiving in return a flash of enthusiasm and insight: her eyes lit up and her voice rose in the anticipation of what that idea could become if it were realized in all its potential glory. Whether or not one went home and wrote that book, whether or not one published it with Helen, that moment of intellectual warmth was not easily forgotten. It wasn’t a professional trick: she loved framing arguments and she loved tugging them into shape—a job for at least four hands. Being an editor was the full, but not the only, expression of her own powers. We at Critical Inquiry mourn her loss, a loss for American letters and for the worldwide circulation of ideas.

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I first met Helen thanks to Cathy Caruth. Helen was visiting Yale, the site of her own graduate work in English and East Asian Studies, and Cathy had given her some names of people who were finishing dissertations and might have something worth publishing down the line. I had written only two and a half chapters by then and was nervous as a cat: a real-live editor coming to call? What was I getting myself into? I invited her to lunch and was so jumpy I broke a plate in the kitchen. She listened to me telling her where I thought the dissertation was going and asked to see a chapter. I sent her one, by mail, and promptly got it back with one of the most thoughtful letters I have seen, before or since, about the tasks of establishing my foothold, wielding my evidence, engaging the reader, moving things along. This attention was deeply flattering. She did not, however, flatter me as an author. “When I read this argument,” she said at one point in that first letter, “I felt I needed to take hold of it like a twisted sock and pull it inside-out.” The simile involving woven material—the sock—was characteristic of her as someone who wove and knitted and sewed. It was part of her daily regimen to untangle fuzzy strands and bind them to each other in structures of knots and empty spaces, so as to turn mere lines into planes and then into volumes, volumes that would maintain the warmth of a body when the garment was complete. She saw things in their intersections, ordinal and cardinal. I don’t remember if I did turn that argument inside-out after all, but I can’t forget the humor, the modesty and the forthrightness of her request. It wasn’t: “I think you could modify a little detail here and there.” But: “Even if you have all your elements in a structure, you need to completely invert and redirect every element of that structure, or you’ll be out there with one bare foot.”

On Helen’s tall frame, clothes that looked hand-woven and probably were of her own making made one think of self-sufficiency, a do-it-yourself ethos, a readiness to plunge into work with wool, cotton, metal, glass, and make something of it. It was the femininity Homer describes when he says of Athena that she took on the appearance among mortals of “a woman, tall and beautiful and skilled at making fine things.” As in the case of me and my sorry sock, her engagement with physical making gave a vivid immediacy to her way of taking hold of refractory intellectual issues.

I published a first book with Helen. Then came other books: a critical edition, an anthology, a book series, an as yet uncompleted book that she read and commented on as the chapters crept forth. Not everything I did matched her interests; some things I published with other editors; but I trusted her judgment and I prized her encouragement. We disagreed about some things, but as friends do. I liked to see the circle of people who had benefited from her attention grow and grow.

Helen had what some would call expensive tastes. I don’t mean diamonds and champagne. I mean that she thought it was important to commission translations of books from abroad—with a subsidy when possible, but to do it at any rate; and that she insisted on publishing the first books of younger scholars. To do this is an act of faith in the profession on the part of a university press, because most first books take a long time to earn back their costs, if they ever do. But without first books, careers will founder and the later books will never be written. To lessen the burden on publishers, Helen played a primary role in devising the Modern Languages Initiative, an agreement between the Mellon Foundation and a number of US university presses to support publishing first books in literary and cultural studies. To speak up for these loss-leading first books was an act entirely characteristic of Helen.

To take the measure of her determination, let us consider the role of a university press editor. In one way, these editors are powerful people, gatekeepers to the reward system of academia. They do the first reading, the triage, the consultation with experts, the developmental work a manuscript may need. They solicit the peer evaluations that result in books being accepted or declined. They present cases, i.e., manuscript reports, to a board, which judges and disposes. This power of theirs is however highly conditional. Unlike most of the faculty members who write the reports and vote on manuscripts, the editors do not have tenure or any of the protections of academic freedom. They have to reckon with budgets and sales figures. They must do the bidding of their boards, to whom they are finally responsible. Their power, even when used wisely, can always be turned against them by opinionated and better-protected faculty colleagues.

Helen used to tell me a story from her very first year as an editor. Some author was not listening to advice and she had written a Strongly Worded Memo laying down the expectations that the author was to fulfill. She showed it to her senior editor at Stanford, who recoiled in horror. He said to her: “You can’t write it like that. You have to understand, we editors are little girls.” Little girls?, she said, and I can imagine the young Helen reddening. University press editors, her senior editor explained, have no power to make anyone do anything. They can suggest and cajole, but they’re going to get in trouble if they start to command. – I have never thought of Helen’s as a little-girl style (quite the contrary: hers was confident and free), but she knew the narrow margin of maneuver an editor has. Aside from its imparting of professional wisdom, the story stays in my mind because of Helen’s hilarious parody of a large older man parodying a little girl: irony to the third power, at least.

Editors, then, if they are going to take risks, put themselves on the line. I found myself on the board of Stanford University Press at a moment when Helen’s priorities—critical theory, Continental philosophy, translations, and above all first books—came into conflict with the wishes of an extremely powerful administrator who later went on to roles of national importance (and who will be remembered for attempting to mislead Congress about the national intelligence estimate’s assessment of the likelihood of a terrorist attack in September 2001).[1] That administrator challenged proposals Helen brought to the board, saying, “I can’t understand this stuff and I don’t see how anyone else is going to.” These exchanges were acrimonious. Helen tensed up. Her patience was less than perfect. But she held her ground and defended the kinds of books that she felt it was her mission, and Stanford’s mission, to continue to produce: difficult philosophy, inventive interdisciplinarity, counter-intuitive interpretations. Her defense of these things came at a high cost to her personally and, eventually, professionally. But I think Stanford has every reason to be proud of the dozens of titles Helen acquired or developed for them, just as Fordham can be proud of the list Helen built up in the ten years since moving to be their editorial director.

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Helen kept her balance and strength through a steady engagement with the martial arts. I described her as a knitter but it would be unfair to leave out her qualifications as a swordswoman. The next to last time I saw her, we attended a dinner in honor of the global health care advocate Paul Farmer, who was to be presented with the “Sword of Loyola” for his social-justice work. The sword was a real broadsword, of steel, engraved, and heavy. After the presentation, Helen took it in hand, weighed its heft, and quickly made a few gracious passes. An archbishop leapt backward, startled. I wish I had caught it all with a camera. For in traditional Western imagery when a woman wields a sword, it is almost a guarantee that she is not herself, but an allegory: Justice, or the Motherland, or Truth. Helen, slicing the air with lateral figure-eights, was completely and comfortably herself. Maybe a Chinese martial-arts romance would have been her true home after all.

I would give almost anything to be calling up these moments of Helen’s life a few years hence at her retirement party or seventy-fifth birthday celebration. Instead, here we are baffled by the chance events that leave her life—a good life of dedication, courage and generosity—as an incomplete project. Who, I wonder, will continue it?

(This is the fuller text of a speech delivered on my behalf by Eric Hayot at the American Comparative Literature Association meeting in New York.)


[1] See Steven Strasser, ed., The 9/11 Investigations: Staff Reports of the 9/11 Commission (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), pp. 222-228. The common point of these two anecdotes: incuriosity raised to the level of principle.

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