Sunday, February 12, 2017

"The People Out of Doors," American Exceptionalism, and the American Dream

            We are still in San Miguel de Allende. It is February, and we have moved from a house in centro to a gringo condo on the outskirts of the city. The two residences are not more than two kilometers apart, but worlds apart in culture and life style. In our centro house, the noises of everyday living intruded all of the time. Just outside our door, people talked and shouted, children played and laughed and screamed. Evenings were filled with human street sounds until eleven or twelve every night. Over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, festivities, piƱatas, songs, even out of doors religious services occupied the time of our immediate neighbours
            On the outskirts of town, I did not see or talk to any neighbours in the condo complex until ten days into our stay, and then the people we spoke with made our conversations as short as they possibly could. It is not only a gated "community," it is a private community. It reflects the psychological norm for North America. Many of us not only want to live enclosed behind gates, sharing our community space only with those who share our values and status, we want to be left alone by those inside the gates as well. Inside our enormous houses, we often strive to avoid our immediate families as well, hiving ourselves off from those supposedly closest to us. The effects have been devastating. We no longer know how to speak with one another, let alone converse politely, or debate ideas openly. We are fixed in our own opinions and ideas -- challenges to those ideas are seen as both alien and dangerous. Discourse is dead.
            I have been especially struck by this because of the events of the past three weeks. The most outrageous of the current American president's actions has brought people "out of doors" in great numbers, talking together about women's rights and immigration. It can be said, of course, that the Tea Party movement began the practice, albeit on a generally smaller scale, helping to cause the devastating earthquake of the presidential election. Still, whether left or right, it is good to see "the people out of doors," rather than simply putting up with the decisions made by the totalitarian corporate world order, indoors, out of sight, in private, secretly. Maybe "the people out of doors" will lead to conversations and, eventually, even discussions, that can lead to push back against the anti-democratic forces that slowly and quietly have made us into "one dimensional" people employed only in the furtherance of inhumane and inhuman ideology.
            Having said this, I am troubled by how the new political protests in the United States are being contextualized, both in regard to the far right and the moderate centre (the only two categories left in American politics). We are all too familiar with the far-right contextualization:  they embrace Donald Trump's desire to "Make America Great Again." That context is, of course, nothing less than a call to empire, and all of the ugly things that go with empire. The call to greatness is fascistic and jingoistic. Combined with the "America First" thrust of the Trump campaign, it suggests arrogant, bullying ethnocentrism at its worst. American ethnocentrism declares bluntly, that they are the world; they lead it, they protect it, they govern it, and they see the cultures of Europe, Asia, or Latin America, and Africa as too inferior to offer any guidance in how societies in general might improve.
            The moderate centre contextualization is not much different. Last week, I read a column by David Brooks in the NYTimes in which he baldly said that President Trump should not be embracing a culture of negativity but should, like all former presidents, appeal to American exceptionalism, and understand that the rest of the world needed a sane America because the U. S. was the leader of the free world.
            A few days before this, I attended a lecture by the renowned American journalist, Hedrick Smith, whose current book is entitled "Who Stole the American Dream." I estimate that 300 people attended that lecture (I got the very last ticket). Smith surprised us by saying little about recent presidential politics in the U. S. He admitted that it was an "earthquake" but, claiming inherent optimism, said he was willing to wait-and-see regarding the progress of the new administration. He made his pitch to revive the "American Dream" through renewed democracy (ending gerrymandering, for example), through reducing stockholder shares in profits and enhancing re-investment and worker wages, and through a renewed partnership among governments and the private sector economy, as is done in Germany. It was a tour de force presentation, one in which he cited statistics, remembered history, and referenced previous scholars and leaders with ease.
            Nevertheless, sitting there as a Canadian and as an American historian, I was uncomfortable as Smith's intoned an argument about re-capturing the "American Dream," a mythic constant in American culture, to which the nation could return. Mircea Eliade's concept of ancient societies as ones seeking an "eternal return" to some early, unique, and elemental origin came to mind as he spoke. The implication seemed to be that Americans need not seek new understandings about themselves and the greater world around them. Instead, it is argued or implied, they need to employ methods to get back to who they should be, basking in the warmth of the "American Dream," re-establishing American "exceptionalism," and making the U. S. the "city upon the hill" for all to see once again. The absence of any mention of the new, big factor that "changes everything" (to quote Naomi Klein) -- the effects of man-assisted climate change -- made this "eternal return" motif even more striking to me.
            The "American Dream," American "exceptionalism," and the belief in the U. S. as a beacon for the rest of the world are all ahistorical constructs, just as Eliade's "eternal return" societies were pre-historic constructs. Indeed, they were constructs intended to deny history and the quotidian deficiencies of the present. All societies, American society not excluded, need to recognize how their real historical pasts have led them to where they are now. All need to respond in ways that are possible and practical. Many of Smith's proposals were just that, practical and do-able, but they were offered in the spirit of returning to a special condition. An "American Dream" might have been an inspirational concept in earlier eras of the American past, but in a mass, urban, post-agricultural, post-industrial society it is hard to give it a proper function. Americans can congratulate themselves for establishing freedoms in the 18th century, in creating democratic governments, and in giving a broad range of its citizens the opportunity to succeed economically, but freedom, democracy and opportunity are goals equally promoted by other nations today, making American "exceptionalism" an idea that may be appropriate to the past alone, if at all. A persistent quest for the "American Dream" and American "exceptionalism" today and in the future, will simply leave the U. S. isolated and remote, always feeling as though it is going-it-alone, resentful of others or insisting that others comprehend the world and history as Americans do.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Make Us Good Again

            It was Ignacio Allende's birthday a couple of days ago, and his home town, San Miguel de Allende "celebrated" the day with bands (those off-key military drum and bugle bands that thankfully exist only in Mexico). There was a big parade, military displays, and several fly-overs of military plane trainers. Allende, with Father Miguel Hidalgo and two others, were the authors, in September, 1810, of Mexico's revolt against Spain -- a revolution that took over a decade to complete. As is so often the case in Mexican history, heroism in a good cause precedes tragedy by only a few steps. Allende, Hidalgo, and the two others were caught (in different locations) and killed before firing squads, after which their heads were cut off and displayed for over four years on the four corners of the armory in Guanajuato. By 1821, the revolution was a success, but in Mexico success always seems to be blended with tragedy and, ironically, with defeat as well. Despite the democratic impulses and constitutional initiatives of Benito Juarez, Mexico's first native president, later in the 19th century, Mexico suffered from the internal forces of class, wealth and corruption versus the people. Externally, it encountered an aggressive U. S. under President Polk, which contrived a war against Mexico, defeated Mexico, and under the guise of "purchasing" New Mexico and Arizona and part of California, essentially stole the northern properties of that country. I have recently been given a red hat a la Trump with the message on top:  "Make America Mexico Again." The losses to the U.S. are never forgotten here.
            The worst was not over for Mexico. In 1910, Mexicans were again compelled to revolt against a corrupt Porforio Diaz government, and had to suffer U. S. meddling once again before establishing a democratic and more equalitarian nation. But the history of Mexico continues to be one of struggle -- a struggle against profound poverty, a struggle against a newly capricious U. S., a struggle for better health care (they have universal health care, at least, which is more than the U. S. can claim), and a struggle for better education.
            Tragedy and struggle are ubiquitous in this country. As the bands and the military organized to march in celebration of Allende's birthday, a protest of some 200 or so men, women, and children temporarily blocked their path, surrounded by a large and hostile police force. The protest had to do with an incident this last week just outside of San Miguel. Reports have it that the police were attempting to apprehend a fleeing criminal. They entered a compound and apparently engaged in a gun battle with someone. After the shoot-out, three children were found dead in the compound. Protesters suspect the police were somehow involved in the killings, but that was not the official version of events. Instead, the police arrested the father for the killings, after his wife accused him of the killings (she has since recanted that accusation). He now grieves in jail. Who knows if we will ever know the truth about this incident? But the double tragedy of this case is emblematic of the struggles this country always seems to suffer.
            What is the point I am trying to establish here? I suppose some might simply say that we should all be thankful that we have not had to live Mexico's history or through its present problems. I would contend, however, that we North Americans -- especially Americans -- have much to learn from the interrelationships of struggle, tragedy, and the humility that follows, with which so many Mexicans have lived over time.
            After the mid-twentieth century, we North Americans unconsciously assumed that a kind of inevitable social and economic progress would continue forever. Americans basked in the victories of WWII, and the positive international order they helped to create after the war. Americans also assumed even more unconsciously that the rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment, which they embraced in the American Revolution and through the establishment of the U. S. Constitution, would somehow continue forward as America's legacy to the world. And, North Americans generally assumed that the vast middle class created for a brief time in the mid to late 20th century would also last forever.
            All of these formerly solid foundations seem lost forever or appear badly crippled. Democracy still exists, in name, but money now controls politics almost completely, and instead of economic prosperity for people, the global economy, a fictive monster, simply feeds itself.
            What resources are left? A compelling desire for freedom and equality remains, but it is based more on a passive "freedom from" than an active "freedom for," while equality before the law has narrowed its focus to matters of race and sex and identity rather than matters of economic equality.
            In some ways, therefore, we might look at our future as a tabula rasa. Enlightenment principles are hard to re-establish (although they must be in relation to Climate Change, or what June now calls, World Wide Death). For Americans, popular mythologies need to put to rest as well. Americans must abandon the myth of exceptionalism. They must stop talking in terms of being the "leader of the free world." In short, they must begin to recognize the myriad of tragedies that they have encountered, especially since Vietnam. They need to accept the grief that the recent federal election has imposed upon them. Suffering and struggle must be seen as part of the American experience as it always has been in the Mexican experience. Americans must get out of the slumber of being politically ignorant and culturally arrogant. They need to become attentive and engaged on a continuing basis. Casual assumptions about a prosperous and free future need to be abandoned.

            The U. S. and Canada are not Mexico but without vigorous political engagement, economic inequality will continue to rise, plutocracy will increase, education (perhaps the most important advantage to Americans and Canadians) will decline badly, and our values will continue to be eroded. The answer, at least for me, is to be more attentive in all ways, not just in politics but in charity and thought and deed. It is to be outraged, and to say so loudly to all who will listen and to those who at first will not listen, when outrage is the proper response to events. For all of their setbacks and through all of the repressions they suffer either directly or indirectly, many Mexicans do not hesitate to express outrage. And, it is to be loving, kind and caring whenever it is necessary and however we can. These are my New Year's resolutions, and they will be hard to maintain, but if, in the long history of Mexico, Mexicans have continued to strive, I can at least make my own personal effort.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Perfect Storm

   [This blog was written before the one that follows it, and is intended for a non-academic audience. As in the case of the one that follows, it was written with the hope that it might be made public in some fashion. And, like the one that follows, it is unlikely to see any publication either than here.]

   The higher education crisis in Alberta has become the perfect storm. A provincial government trying to prove how tough it can be to the province’s right-wing voters constitutes one element of that storm. A public that does not seem to understand what universities are or should be is another. The abandonment by universities of an academic model in favor of a corporate business model is yet another.
   In regard to the ruling government and the public, both seem to think universities are inefficient and its members over-privileged. At worst, both seem to want universities that are mere job employment centres, where all courses and programs are directed at current job opportunities and current applied research needs. Even if the task of universities was this narrow, no institutions of higher education could flexibly adapt on-the-fly to perceived needs. If they tried, education would be a disjointed shambles of incoherent programs and incompetent instruction by under-qualified staff. In reality, universities have a larger task, much of it beyond employment training -- to educate students to think critically, to create good citizens, and to improve the quality of our lives, not just add to the cash in our billfolds.
   University professors are privileged, as every one of them would admit. They are privileged to participate in the excitement of teaching and conducting research. But to get to that opportunity, they must go through tough competition. Fewer than half who begin graduate studies finish with a PhD. In most fields, fewer than half of them will ever get full-time university employment. Those adjuncts who scramble for a living by teaching sessional courses here and there, seldom make an income above the poverty line. In the U. S., one source claims that adjuncts now teach 76% of undergraduate courses. Those few academics who get a tenured position seldom have a job before they are thirty-one years old. Post-doctoral positions and adjunct teaching are the long residencies for academics. Even if they get a tenured position, they start at a modest salary (at the very age when many have young families). After tenure, good teaching and good research are absolute requirements to improve one’s salary. Only senior professors ever acquire a good income, and this usually occurs late in their careers. Few business or professional people in the “real” world have to face competition like this throughout their careers. On the other hand, most business and professional people receive higher remuneration for their work earlier on and throughout their careers. Almost all academics could prosper more financially by choosing another career path. Yet, they choose the academic life for its not remunerative benefits, especially the satisfaction of accomplishment. And, contrary to popular opinion, almost all university professors work more than a forty-hour week, year round.
   Worst of all, over the past thirty odd years, universities have themselves made an enormous error by embracing a corporate model of operation. On the one hand, this model encourages top-down management. Universities were born, and long existed, on the premise that higher education was a matter of students and professors, and that administrators and all others in the process were there to support the student-teacher process. Top-down management destroys this essential relationship. The corporate model further promotes the idea that students are customers and consumers while professors are only there to guarantee that the customers get what they want rather than what they need. The final stage of such a corporate model is to make universities into competitive institutions, ones where administrators spend their time “marketing” and “branding” the institution rather than fostering the academic and intellectual needs of the university.
   The prognosis is not good for the future, at least not until a sea-change occurs in North American culture. As it is, the perfect storm is overwhelming us.

Alberta's Budget and the Attack on Universities

[This blog was written for submission to the Lethbridge Herald. It is unlikely they will publish it. "The Perfect Storm" blog was written before this one.]

   It is time to be blunt. The provincial budget purports to be about “families and communities” and about supporting “health, education and infrastructure.” In truth, the lives of people, especially our most vulnerable, are not the object. Enhancement of infrastructure – buildings and roads, tangible testaments to the reigning government’s largesse – is the real object. Many weak cultures have lovely buildings.
   In regard to higher education, this government’s intentions are even worse. The budget declares that “we need to more closely align [sic] university research funding with the government’s economic diversification agenda.” Yet, Ms. Redford adamantly declared the opposite during the election campaign, rightly noting that “discovery is not a linear process” and the government has “a limited role to play” in directing the course of research (CAFA conference, 2011). The Minister of Higher Education charges our universities with duplication and restricted student mobility, yet the province has one of the best, well-thought-out, credit transfer programs anywhere. As for the enormous budget cuts, the Minister recently charged, in an interview with the Herald, that administrators’ salaries were too high, although, even if they may be (I do not have the figures to know), any correction to high salaries would be a mere drop in the bucket compared to the 7.3% cuts. In reality, these cuts are destructive of the whole integrity of universities. To paraphrase an old saying, the power to budget is the power to destroy, and that is the government’s purpose:  to cut university’s down to size, to put university’s in their place. And, what is this place – subservience to a controlling, micro-managing government.
  Finally, where are the public protests from this university and this community? Other universities and their members, as well as other mayors, long ago spoke out clearly and forcefully against this government’s absurd and destructive plans.

James Tagg, April 29, 2013

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's the Culture, Stupid

   The U. S. has once again proven that it is a culture in very bad shape, if not near collapse (taking the long historical perspective, in other words -- not tomorrow). The Newtown, Connecticut massacre reaffirms the “exceptionalism” of the U. S., especially in relationship to the grotesque possibilities of civil violence. Tortured miss-readings of the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution coupled with a machismo vision of rugged individualism have insured the continuance of dramatic acts of killing that no other modern nation has experienced, or likely understands. Most of the rest of the world, embarrassed by but resigned to the bizarre culture of the U. S., can only mourn the consequences of a culture that no longer carries the flag of humanity in regard to firearms. But the rest of the world does not matter to the U. S., unless historical events in other nations can be used to buffer the perverted violence that is so prolific in the U. S. A. To his great credit, Mayor Bloomberg of N. Y. C. alone has spoken truth to power and ignorance, pointing out that the repeated massacres in the U. S. are not found in such repetition in other countries. Politicians and media folk are often too timid to make this stark comparison.
   While the President of the U. S. wants to open a dialogue on what can be done to change things – which, given his record, may mean bargaining all effective action down to the level of ineffectualness, most other Americans likewise look to half measures to solve the problem of gun-based massacres. Restrictions on assault weapons and limitations on magazine capacities will lower the number of casualties – to a degree. Other measures, designed to restrict the use of guns, all pale in comparison to Chris Rock’s comic, but oddly more effective argument, that weapons should be freely allowed but bullets should cost $50,000 each. Sadly, Rock’s solution is better than some serious solutions we have heard and will hear.
   Part of the problem is easy access to weapons and ammunition, particularly in a country with 250 to 300 million firearms. A bigger part of the problem is a nation that misinterprets the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The Second Amendment was proposed and ratified only ten years after the American Revolution had ended. In most men’s minds, militias were an integral part of American success in the War for Independence, and memories of English restrictions of all sorts were also fresh in everyone’s memory. In fact, however, George Washington, and every other intelligent participant in the war, realized that an organized, regular army was the most important element in victory. Militias had been “irregular” in almost every way during the Revolution, including stability and success. Still, national myth held militias in high esteem, and individual valor, actually uncommon in the revolutionary war, was promoted as a means of self-congratulation, despite the fact that the winning of the war was largely a consequence of French intervention.
   No one in the early republic (1789-1815) that followed could imagine how “arms” would change in their nature and potency. Effective repeating rifles did not appear for another one hundred years. As an American historian I think I can say, and I think anyone can safely say, that none of the so-called “founding fathers” would condone 2nd Amendment protection for modern weapons, even pistols with clips of fewer than eight bullets. All would be appalled at the culture of weaponry protected by the 2nd Amendment today.
   The biggest problem, however, is a culture that has come to glorify a rare form of brutish individualism and an anarchistic definition of freedom. It is evident in everything from unrestricted capitalism to the banality of television to the celebration of violence in entertainment and sports. Kindness, gentleness, and a commitment to contentment are all but invisible in the U. S. Good young men – those who do not commit violence and resolutely resist the visceral culture of violence -- have little status in this society. Instead, they are encouraged to “man up,” which in some places means – buy a weapon and use it for something.
   Bill Clinton’s and James Carville’s declaration in the 1990s that “It’s the economy, stupid,” may have seemed a shrewdly focused political battle cry. It was ,in fact, a narrow vision of what was needed then, and now. For thinking persons to declare, “It’s the culture, stupid,” which is a more accurate understanding of where matters rest, throws up a challenge that currently appears impossible for Americans to meet, challenge, and change. As I have said before, twenty-five to thirty per cent of the American public know and understand America’s problems very well, including this problem of gun violence. They think critically and carefully, with an open generosity and kindness seen among few people on this earth. They are not the majority, however, in a society that too often lives by vaguely understood precepts, myths and slogans.