Cap and gown, helmet and uniform

Anthropologist David Price contributes an article (subscriber-only link, sorry) to the latest issue of Counterpunch.  Under the title “Resistance’s Half-Life: Militarization and the Growing Academic Silence,” Professor Price contrasts the widespread refusal of American anthropologists to join military-sponsored research projects during the 1960s with the far more compliant attitude of their counterparts today.  Professor Price’s narrative begins in 1965, when sociologist Johan Galtung, then director of  the Institute of Peace Research in Oslo, publicized Project Camelot, a plan under which social scientists would work under the direction of US military and intelligence officials to produce a study of insurgent movements and counterinsurgent operations in Latin America and elsewhere.  In response to Professor Galtung’s efforts, both Latin American public opinion and US academic associations demanded, and received, official assurances from the Johnson administration that Project Camelot would be canceled and that the warmaking organs of the Washington regime would not use scholarly research as a pretext for activities “which in the judgment of the Secretary of State would adversely affect United States foreign relations.”

Later attempts by the military and intelligence agencies to press social science into the service of covert operations met with equally strong resistance.  Professor Price illustrates the resistance defense contractors were likely to encounter from social scientists with a series of highly amusing quotations from an exchange between sociologist Pierre van den Berghe and the late Hans Weigert, in which Professor van den Berghe patiently explains why he would regard it as unethical for a scholar to conduct intelligence work for the United States in the Congolese Republic, while Weigert responds with name-calling.

Professor Price reports:

Because I have written about the militarization of anthropology since the mid-1990s, after the post-9/11 recruitment renaissance began, I often received copies of recruitment emails forwarded to me along with the angry replies that scholars had sent to the unwanted solicitors. I have a file of these forwarded angry replies from 2004-2008, when these feelers from the military and contractors were seen by many as shocking. Sometimes a single recruitment emailing would be forwarded to me by a dozen concerned scholars. These were then new, previously unthinkable proposals, shocking that they were made so openly and broadly circulated. In many cases, the approached anthropologists vented spleen in ways reminiscent to Van den Berghe’s above response, giving history and ethics lessons to would-be recruiters – who I’m sure generally did not read past the first few lines of anger and deleted the replies, or perhaps deleted the sender from an e-list. Certainly no minds were changed from these responses, but the reaction measured the outrage many anthropologists felt over these disciplinary border intrusions. In some instances it is possible to deduce having obviously taken the contract.

In the last four years, these messages have ceased to come Professor Price’s way.  He draws an ominous conclusion from this silence.  US society has become thoroughly militarized; “there has been a shift in the acceptance that these military and intelligence intrusions into our daily lives are now a normal feature of our world. These military advances into academia have become regular features of our social fabric. These are the social facts of a militarized society.”  Perhaps it no longer occurs to scholars that they have an obligation to something other than the dictates of the national security apparatus.

Professor Price quotes a phrase coined by anthropologist Catherine Lutz: “the military normal.”  Professor Price describes the military normal as “the ubiquitous spread of the military into all aspects of American daily life and consciousness, advancing at such a rate that we internalize the militarization of everything from police departments, hiring practices, educational processes, discussions of healthcare, workplace regimentations, to an extent where the militarization of everything becomes a normal part of our cultural fabric in ways we hardly notice anymore.”  Professor Lutz herself described it in these terms in the abstract of the paper where she introduced the phrase:

Prevailing mainstream media discussions of the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a deeply restricted kind of range, focusing on how the wars are being .fought, or should be fought – with what tactics, for how long, and with what level of “success.” The pundits, with the populace in tow, debate whether the military is stretched too thin, well-enough resourced or not, or in need of tens of thousands more troops to do the job. They do not ask more fundamental questions about the US military, history’s most powerful and most globally expansive in its positioning. This talk considers the emergence of what can be called the military normal in World War II and its wake, the contemporary political economy of the military, as well as the cultural understandings that currently legitimate it.

Professor Price complains of a growing silence that has resulted from the rise of “the military normal.”  Both of these descriptions make it clear that the silence is a natural consequence of this process.  The heart of the process itself is the reverse of silence.  The military and the intelligence agencies can carry on their operations and the moneyed elite that controls the US political system can reap profits from those operations untroubled by public opposition even if scholars speak out against them, if the public is not in the habit of listening to critical voices.  Silence is what we experience when we listen in quietness; what our warlords wish on us is not quietness, but noise, constant, deafening noise, noise sufficient to knock all impertinent questions and inconvenient qualms out of our heads.  Cable television, talk radio, the internet, and other outlets of prefabricated opinion produce a great deal of noise, and often suffice to drown out the unfamiliar voices that present us with complex, closely reasoned, ethically challenging arguments.

Surely, however, that sort of noise is not adequate by itself to drive scholars to abandon ethical standards based on ideals of disinterested inquiry and service to a truth that exists independently of national allegiance or corporate profit  and take up positions as functionaries of a warmaking regime.  A different kind of noise is necessary to bury those ideals so deeply that they no longer trouble the mind of the potential recruit.  Professor Price touches on this kind of noise at the end of his article.  Listing the developments that have discouraged scholars from holding to principles that would lead them to refuse war contacts and speak out against them, he includes “three decades of neoliberal programs’ impacts on student loan debt, campus austerity programs, and new promises of military funding.”  Scholars working in American universities from the 1960s through the 1990s may have had many realistic possibilities of making a living.  A scholar who would not subject his or her research project to the warmaking ambitions of the power elite might in those days have been confident that other, more peaceful opportunities would present themselves.

Today, the noise that rings through the halls of the American academy is the noise of desperation.  Every year, graduate schools produce more Ph. D.s; virtually every year, universities hire fewer faculty members.  The newly minted doctors of philosophy generally enter the glutted labor market saddled with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.  Therefore, the alternative facing an academic today is rarely between ethically acceptable and ethically unacceptable work.  Rather, the academic must choose, on the one hand, to making himself or herself agreeable to whoever might be in a position to grant the favor of a career, or, on the the other hand, to vanish from the academic world and sink into a life of poverty.   When noise like that is battering away at one’s mind, it can be difficult indeed to hear the voice of conscience.

Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?

A couple of days ago, I found a mass mailing from the libertarian Independent Institute in my inbox.  It included these paragraphs:

The 150th Anniversary of the Outbreak of the U.S. Civil War

April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, when Confederates fired on U.S. troops holding Fort Sumter, in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. Although people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor (e.g., to the slavery issue or to “states’ rights”), the cause was more complex. Independent Institute Research Fellow Joseph R. Stromberg discusses one causal factor that often gets short shrift in public discourse (although he cites many historians who support his analysis): interest groups with material, rather than ideological, stakes in promoting the war.

Antislavery, Stromberg writes, “was one of many themes generally serving as the stalking horse for more practical causes.” The Republican Party Platform of 1860, for example, focused less on antislavery grievances than on proposals designed to benefit northeastern financial and manufacturing interests and Midwestern and western farmers–policies that would have become harder to implement if southern states were allowed to secede. Lest he overgeneralize, Stromberg hastens to add that northern trading and manufacturing interests that bought from the suppliers of southern cotton–“the petroleum of the mid-nineteenth century,” as he puts it–were aware that they would face severe disruptions if war broke out.

In a post on The Beacon, Independent Institute Research Editor Anthony Gregory argues that April 12, 1861, also marks the date of the federal government’s repudiation of the Founders’ vision of the American republic and the birth of Big Government. “The war ushered in federal conscription, income taxes, new departments and agencies, and the final victory of the Hamiltonians over the Jeffersonians…. Slavery could have been ended peacefully, to be sure, but ending slavery was not Lincoln’s motivation in waging the war–throughout which this purely evil institution was protected by the federal government in the Union states that practiced it, and during which slaves liberated from captivity by U.S. generals were sent back to their Southern ‘masters.'”

“Civil War and the American Political Economy,” by Joseph R. Stromberg (The Freeman, April 2011)

“The Regime’s 150th Birthday,” by Anthony Gregory (The Beacon, 4/12/11)

“The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Debate,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas J. DiLorenzo (5/7/02)

“The Civil War: Liberty and American Leviathan,” an Independent Policy Forum featuring Henry E. Mayer and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (11/14/99)

“The Bloody Hinge of American History,” by Robert Higgs (Liberty, May 1997)

It’s true enough that “people routinely succumb to the temptation to reduce the cause of the war to a single factor… the cause was more complex.”  Though I would not disagree with this statement, I would go on to say something subtly different as well.  Much public discussion of the US Civil War turns on a rather odd question.  This question is, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?”

As the press release above suggests, libertarians tend to say that the war was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.”  Anthony Gregory’s description of the powers which the federal government first exercised during the war, and never renounced, gives an idea of the structure of this narrative.  Right-wing libertarians like Gregory focus on the conflict between the growing power of the nation-state and the unregulated operations of the free market, while left-wing libertarians like Joseph Stromberg point out that no unregulated free market has ever existed and focus instead on the role of the nation-state in forming the economic elites that actually have wielded power throughout history.

Most other Americans tend to say that the US Civil War was a chapter in a narrative titled “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery.”  In this narrative, the United States figures as the champion of Emancipation and the Confederate States figure as the champions of Enslavement.  This story elides the facts that Gregory and others point out, that six slave states remained in the Union, that federal forces enforced slavery in the South throughout 1862, and that President Lincoln took office vowing to leave slavery alone.  However, it is undoubtedly true that all the Confederate states were slave states and that its leaders bound themselves time and again to defend and promote slavery, while the United States did eventually move to abolish the institution.

It should be obvious that the question, “Of what narrative is the US Civil War a chapter?,” is a meaningless one.  Of course the Civil War is a chapter of “The Growing Power of the Nation-State in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” of course it is a chapter of “The Rise and Fall of Human Slavery,” of course it is a chapter of any number of other narratives.  Why, then, is this nonsensical question agitated so intensely?

I blame the schools.  More precisely, I blame the tradition of presenting history to students as a grand narrative.  It’s natural for people who have spent a decade or so of their early life hearing history presented as a single grand narrative to go on assuming that every story is part of one, and only one, larger story.  Perhaps schools must present history this way; if so, I would say that it is a point in favor of a proposal left-libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock made early in the last century.  Nock recommended that schools should teach mathematics “up to the quadratic equation,” Greek and Latin, and a course in formal logic.  Equipped with this training, students would be able to educate themselves in everything else, with some here and there finding it possible to benefit from association with some advanced scholar.

Be that as it may, in US schools, the grand narrative of history is usually packaged under some label like “The Story of Freedom.”  The word “freedom” in these labels raises the question “freedom from what”?  For libertarians, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from state bureaucracy.  In the story of that freedom, the US Civil War cannot but figure as a vast reverse.  For others, the freedom most urgently needed today is freedom from white supremacy.  In the story of that freedom, the war may appear as an advance, albeit a rather problematic one.  For still others, the freedom most urgently needed today is the individual’s freedom from domination by irresponsible private interests, whether employers, families, or other groups in civil society.  In the story of that freedom, the war stands as a moment of triumph, perhaps the supreme moment in American history.

Few would say that the freedom most urgently needed by the United States today is freedom from foreign domination, but I would point out that if the war had ended differently this need might very well be felt very keenly indeed.  When the war broke out, Southern leaders claimed that their cause was the defense of slavery, while Lincoln disavowed any plan to interfere with slavery.  By the end of the war, Southern leaders were discoursing earnestly about the theory of state sovereignty, while Lincoln declared that “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another, drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”  What remained constant through all this flip-flopping was the Northern intention to protect the domestic US market with a high tariff, while the South wanted to trade on equal terms with the industrial centers of the North and those of Britain.  The world economy being what it was in the mid-nineteenth century, a nominally independent Confederate States of America would likely have been drawn into Britain’s economic sphere, and thus into the orbit of the British Empire.  We should therefore add “US Resistance to the British Empire” to the list of narratives in which the US Civil War figures as a chapter.

A place for everyone

Laws against prostitution are usually supported by people who want to help women break free of men who are coercing them into that line of work.  When one asks why it is that such laws usually include criminal penalties for the very women they are supposed to help, the answer is often that only when police and prosecutors have such penalties to use as threats can they be sure that women will turn against their exploiters. 

In practice, those laws often seem to have the opposite effect.  Arrested, a woman needs money to make bail.  If she is under the influence of a pimp, she will likely call him or an associate of his.  Labeled a criminal, she will find it no easier than it was before the police picked her up to find other employment.  So, the law which may have been advertised as a way of helping her find a way out of prostitution may in its actual operation push her deeper into it.  The law marks prostitution as her place and acts to keep her in that place.

What reminded me of this was a column by Katha Pollitt in the 14 June 2010 issue of The Nation.  Pollitt does not mention prostitution, but mentions a set of proposed laws that seem to be designed to work the same way: bills pending before the French and Belgian parliaments that would prohibit Muslim women from wearing headscarves, face veils, or other garb traditional to women of their persuasion.  Like laws against prostitution, these bills are marketed as means to pry women loose from men who are coercing them into a demeaning way of life.  Also like those laws, the bills include penalties against the women themselves.  Pollitt expresses the fear that men who are in fact coercing women who live with them into covering up more than they would like would respond to a ban by keeping them from going out at all; surely this fear is well-founded.  Moreover, whether a woman wears the veil freely or under compulsion, the threat that if she does go out the police will arrest and search her, then take the men of her family into custody and threaten her with criminal sanctions unless she gives information against them will hardly convince her that France is her home and the Franks are her ancestors.  Quite the contrary, I should think; with such a threat looming in the background, even a woman who would not have been likely to cover up otherwise might feel herself a traitor to the only community that really wants her unless she does put on traditional Muslim attire. 

In the same issue, a number of experts argue that the direction education policy has been taking in the USA in the last 20 years has been gravely counterproductive.  I only wanted to note one of these, by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University’s education school.  Darling-Hammond looks at the country-by-country league tables for average student achievement in various subjects, pointing out that American students were not performing especially well in 1989 and that their average performance has been declining ever since.  In some subjects, the decline has been steady, in others catastrophically rapid.  Meanwhile, American schools have become more thoroughly segregated by race, the number of subjects offered has shrunk, and the prison population is booming.  Darling-Hammond not only points out these evils; she also  gives examples of countries where the same years have seen movement in the opposite direction.  While the current system tends to lock students into whatever social position they inherited from their parents, Darling-Hammond argues that it is still possible for public education to open doors for social mobility.

Movement from one social status to another often comes in tandem with physical movement from one place to another.  A review of a couple of books about African American history, under the title “Movement and Rootedness,” discusses ways in which the theme of migration has reshaped thinking about that subject in recent years.  It includes a quote from scholar Ira Berlin: “The history of the United States rests upon movement, and then embrace of place.”  The new scholarship on which the review focuses finds ways in which African Americans managed to embrace some places that would strike most of us as quite unembraceable.  While the integrationist story that has been the academic orthodoxy since the 1960s tends to reduce African American history to the relationship between African Americans and whites, so that relationships among African Americans are pushed into the shadows, the new scholars want to find out what sort of communities African Americans built for themselves even during the grimmest days of slavery and Jim Crow.

Dictionary Too Sexy for Grade-Schoolers

Grade-schoolers learn sexy words on the street corner instead.

How to choose a college

John Zmirak

John Zmirak

Today I received a promotional email for a site where I read this:

Question: I am a Bucky-Badger graduate. I am considering having my high school junior son apply to UW Madison. Am I risking changing my Christian conservative son into a communist radical?

John Zmirak: The short answer is Yes.

In all fairness, I should point out that Zmirak goes on to give a longer answer, which is much more nuanced.  And I should probably mention too that Zmirak has written some good stuff, like this book.

A novel interpretation of academic freedom

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for linking to this column by Stanley Fish.  I’ve copied four excerpts below:

My assessment of the way in which some academics contrive to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom has now been at once confirmed and challenged by events at the University of Ottawa, where the administration announced on Feb. 6 that it has “recommended to the Board of Governors the dismissal with cause of Professor Denis Rancourt from his faculty position.” Earlier, Rancourt, a tenured professor of physics, had been suspended from teaching and banned from campus. When he defied the ban he was taken away in handcuffs and charged with trespassing.

What had Rancourt done to merit such treatment? According to the Globe and Mail, Rancourt’s sin was to have informed his students on the first day of class that “he had already decided their marks : Everybody was getting an A+.”


Rancourt is a self-described anarchist and an advocate of “critical pedagogy,” a style of teaching derived from the assumption (these are Rancourt’s words) “that our societal structures . . . represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet” (Activist, April 13, 2007).

Among those structures is the university in which Rancourt works and by which he is paid. But the fact of his position and compensation does not insulate the institution from his strictures and assaults; for, he insists, “schools and universities supply the obedient workers and managers and professionals that adopt and apply [the] system’s doctrine — knowingly or unknowingly.”

It is this belief that higher education as we know it is simply a delivery system for a regime of oppressors and exploiters that underlies Rancourt’s refusal to grade his students. Grading, he says, “is a tool of coercion in order to make obedient people” (, Jan. 12, 2009).

It turns out that another tool of coercion is the requirement that professors actually teach the course described in the college catalogue, the course students think they are signing up for. Rancourt battles against this form of coercion by employing a strategy he calls “squatting” – “where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.”

And then:

Rancourt first practiced squatting when he decided that he “had to do something more than give a ‘better’ physics course.” Accordingly, he took the Physics and Environment course that had been assigned to him and transformed it into a course on political activism, not a course about political activism, but a course in which political activism is urged — “an activism course about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.”

Clearly squatting itself is just such a “defiant or non-subordinate assertion.” Rancourt does not merely preach his philosophy. He practices it.

How did Rancourt’s supervisors respond to his activities?

The record shows exchanges of letters between Rancourt and Dean Andre E. Lalonde and letters from each of them to Marc Jolicoeur, chairman of the Board of Governors. There is something comical about some of these exchanges when the dean asks Rancourt to tell him why he is not guilty of insubordination and Rancourt replies that insubordination is his job, and that, rather than ceasing his insubordinate activities, he plans to expand them. Lalonde complains that Rancourt “does not acknowledge any impropriety regarding his conduct.” Rancourt tells Jolicoeur that “Socrates did not give grades to students,” and boasts that everything he has done was done “with the purpose of making the University of Ottawa a better place,” a place “of greater democracy.”

The Nation, 29 December 2008

nation-29-decIn this issue, Patricia Williams rakes up one of the celebrities made by Campaign 2008, claiming that in the gap between the actual Sam Wurtzelbacher and the imaginary Joe the Plumber lies the deadliest part of the American Dream.  Joe the Plumber is a man who labors ceaselessly, gets his hands dirty, is looked down on by the people who rule the country, and earns over $250,000 annually.  Sam the non-Plumber is a man who labors ceaselessly, gets his hands dirty, is looked down on the people who rule the country, and can barely pay his bills from month to month.  Americans work the longest hours and enjoy the fewest social protections of any industrialized population.  The “Joe the Plumber” story is the myth that keeps us from supporting reforms that would help us get rid of this system. 

An editorial urges readers to support Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond for US Secretary of Education.  Currently head of President-elect Obama’s working group on education policy, Darling-Hammond is identified with a group of educational thinkers whom The New York Times calls “professionalization advocates, ” believers in the idea that “the policy emphasis should be on raising student achievement by helping teachers improve their instruction.”  The school of thought which opposes the professionalization advocates, and which has in fact claimed a virtual monopoly on the title of “education reformers” in recent years,  are called “efficiency hawks,” who want ever more emphasis on standardized tests and centralized bureaucratic control of schools.  The editorial starts with an irresistible quote from Darling-Hammond: “If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”

A short piece details anti-Russian bias at the Washington Post.  There’s also a review of a couple of new slang dictionaries.