Greenwald Derangement Syndrome And Political Mind Reading

by Freddie deBoer

Edward Snowden is a hero, in the truest sense. At the age of 29, he sacrificed a comfortable, fulfilling life, working a stable and well-paid job in Hawaii, and exposed himself to great risk—most certainly including risk to his life—out of personal conviction. Even if I were not convinced that Snowden had made the United States a more informed, more democratic, and in fact, safer country through his controlled leaks to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gelliman, I would admire his commitment to principles above self-interest. As it stands, I think that he has done a tremendous service for his country, in a way that the apostles of patriotism constantly invoke, and for his troubles he has been forced from his home and family, under a state of constant legal and physical threat, and reviled by many.

Many or most of my fellow travelers on the left, in my experience, support Snowden. It’s not hard to imagine why, given that he has exposed the inner workings of a key cog in the violent, invasiveGERMANY-US-RUSSIA-INTELLIGENCE-NSA-PARLIAMENT apparatus of American empire. Yet there has also been a strain of leftism that has been deeply suspicious of Snowden and sought to question, or out-and-out discredit, his work. I don’t mean natural skepticism, which we should bring to bear on any public figure, but active hostility and fear-mongering. (I’m also not talking about die-hard Democratic partisans, who object to Snowden under the simple logic that Snowden has harmed a Democratic president and is thus the enemy. I’ve spent far too much of my life debating that kind of partisanship, so I’ll just set it aside—that’s their logic, they stick to it, fine.) My interest here is instead focused on those who criticize Snowden neither because he’s undermined the national security state, as is typical of “terrorism experts” and various imperial stenographers, nor because he’s hurt Obama and Congressional Democrats. I’m talking about those who think Snowden should be distrusted or rejected because he’s, alternatively, a secret libertarian, an open libertarian, a quasi-libertarian, a crypto-libertarian, or similar.

You can find this argument all over. For a balanced, fair take, here’s Salon’s Andrew Leonard. On the other side of the ledger is this piece by Sean Wilentz of (of course) The New Republic, still the go-to magazine for establishment whining and the fetish for “legitimacy,” which at TNR tends to refer to those political opinions that have had the blessings of establishment power.  But a little Googling will show you that the subject of Snowden’s libertarianism, whether real or imagined, has attracted a great deal of attention from those who identify as part of the broad left-wing.

My response to the claim that Edward Snowden is a libertarian is simple: I don’t care. At all. It’s simply immaterial to me. I have no particular interest in his broader ideological or political beliefs. Snowden is not a candidate for President or Congress. He’s not my political czar or my personal friend. What has distinguished Snowden has been his actions, the action of releasing a small portion of a vast trove of secret government documents to the public, in order to reveal to us the extent to which our national security system has trod on our rights and on our freedom. It is of little consequence to me whether he believes in socialism or fascism or anything in between, so long as the fruits of his efforts leave us more informed and better able to at least understand how the military state has harmed us. I don’t know why that indifference to his broader politics would be surprising to anyone. I respect and value his actions, and I feel that we owe him a great debt. If he proposes political ideas that I find immoral or unwise, I will say so. There is no contradiction there.

When we’re discussing Snowden, of course, we’re also discussing Glenn Greenwald.

Since he first burst onto the scene as a vicious critic of the George W. Bush administration and its War on Terror, Greenwald has been a divisive figure, capable of moving ordinarily reserved writers into fits of anger. Like Snowden, Greenwald has been cast as a libertarian many times, and as with Snowden, this is frequently represented as a reason for a socialist like myself to fear and mistrust Greenwald. I will admit that, with a political writer and journalist like Greenwald, there is a greater reason to consider his broader politics than there is with Snowden. It’s never been clear to me that he remotely fits the libertarian profile that he has frequently been assigned. But more, Greenwald has always been a writer who has restricted his professional work to a small range of issues, involving foreign policy, surveillance, and civil liberties. On those topics, I substantially agree with him. If he turns around and writes against universal health care or union rights, I’ll register my disagreements with him, in print, as I do with any other issue or any other writer. I don’t see anything complicated about that.

Peter Frase wrote a brilliant piece on these issues at the socialist magazine Jacobin, where I have also been a contributor. As Frase writes, “there seems to be an instinct among some on the Left to suppose that defending the possibility of government requires rejecting any alliance with libertarians who might criticize particularly noxious aspects of the existing state. Or, to be a bit more subtle, that any critique that emphasizes government authoritarianism merely distracts us from the critique of private power.” Like Frase, I find that a reductive misunderstanding of the nature of the state and the purpose of socialist practice. But beyond the specific political questions involved, I become frustrated and impatient with this line of thinking because of what it implies about political behavior. To a degree, politics will always involve finding alliances and building coalitions. But those alliances are also necessarily conditional and limited. With all the endless contentious political issues people argue about, the odds of any two people agreeing on every issue are very slim. So we work together on what we can and we disagree on what we disagree about. I could never vote for Rand Paul, for any number of reasons. But when he writes an op/ed calling for the de-militarization of America’s police force, that’s useful and valuable, and I can say so without being a member of the Rand Paul fan club. The notion that we obligate ourselves to permanent alliances with everyone we find common cause with is a juvenile, destructive vision of politics—and one, incidentally, that makes meaningful change nearly impossible, in a country where the rich dominate politics on both sides of the aisle.

More, there’s the seemingly growing phenomenon of people involved in political arguments arguing about what one side or the other truly believes, rather than about what’s true, what’s moral, or what’s best. Every day, I read people insisting that they believe one thing while their interlocutors insist that they secretly believe something else. Someone misspeaks, or someone else misunderstands them, and suddenly the argument is over what that someone really thinks instead of the merits of the argument. Awhile back, I realized that I had come to hate my own political writing, simply from an aesthetic standpoint. I had grown to spend so much time defending myself about things I didn’t say and don’t believe that I had no time or energy to argue the things that I did say and do believe. So I’ve come to lard so much of my writing with statements about what I’m explicitly not saying that it’s a stylistic mess. I feel like I have no choice. But even so, I constantly get commenters and emailers saying “You believe X,” when I have directly and unambiguously said “I’m not arguing X.” It’s exhausting and pointless.

Trying to define what the other side thinks, or trying to read their minds to find the evil hiding within, is a road that has no ending. There is no way for anyone to prove what they really believe. And while we are busy trying to define our own beliefs, we are leaving the important work of politics undone. I know how to argue. I know how to press my case. I know how to advocate for what I believe in. I don’t know how to prove to someone that I’m not secretly harboring beliefs that I say I don’t have, and I have no patience for hunting secret libertarians. The issues that the Snowden affair has brought up concern the most basic questions of democratic society, of individual rights and collective responsibility. We have plenty to argue about already. So let’s just argue. It’s a lot less aggravating, and a lot more useful for all of us.

(Photo: Outside the Reichstag building in Berlin on May 8, 2014 a demonstrator holds a poster depicting fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden during a demonstration in favor of an appearance by Snowden as a witness in German NSA hearings. By Adam Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

We Made Police Misconduct Inevitable

by Freddie deBoer

 

Protest over death of black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson

The ongoing protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, is in many ways a long simmering set of problems brought to a boil. Most acutely, there’s the perfectly justifiable anger and resentment from a black population that, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, still struggles to overcome centuries of entrenched and systemic racism. Black America’s status as a permanent underclass is baked directly into the foundations of our economic and social system, and piecemeal reforms have proven utterly inadequate to the task of fixing the problem. In particular, the criminalization of black young males makes angry conflict with police inevitable. Under such circumstances, the surprise isn’t that protests and civil disobedience have broken out in Ferguson. The surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Beyond the racial dynamics, there’s the growing public realization that the police in America are out of control. It’s a problem that only we, the broad  public, can fix. And we are responsible for fixing it because we’re all to blame.

If I sat down to summarize even a year’s worth of police misconduct and brutality, it would take hours and hours. Those of us who follow the news closely know that outrageous behavior by the cops is a daily occurrence. Sites like Gawker and journalists like Radley Balko have spread word of this misconduct regularly, but all it usually takes is a brief visit to Google News. And people, finally, are starting to notice. When even National Review is running a piece like “It’s Time for Conservatives to Stop Defending Police,” you know that the issue is becoming too acute to ignore. What the American poor have been experiencing for decades has become too obvious for affluent America to ignore.

Like so many of our national problems, our deep, perpetual problems with police behaving badly stems in part from 9/11 and the post-9/11 world.

I don’t want to oversell this; certainly, we’ve been living in a culture of deference towards police for far longer. But as we did with the presidency, the military, the intelligence services, and soldiers, we responded to 9/11 by buffeting our police officers with obsequious respect and endless displays of extreme gratitude. We feted them at football games and through parades in their honor. We plastered stickers celebrating them on our cars. We exhorted each other to “thank a first responder today.” We set about to create a culture of unwavering, unquestioning, credulous support for our police, and that has everything to do with today’s problems.

None of this should be surprising. In times of crisis, people often retreat to militarism, nationalism, and extreme respect for authority. This is part of why an aggressive foreign policy is so counterproductive; every time we rattle our saber at Iran, for example, we empower the theocracy and the establishment government and hurt the resistance. Our showy disdain for Russia, the way we layer disrespect on their displays of national pride and celebrations of their history– like we did during Sochi– only causes them to embrace Putin and his narrative more. You might find that foolish, but we did the exact same, affixing flags to our cars and writing our national security state a blank check in the form of the PATRIOT Act and similar legislation. And we told the cops, more or less explicitly: you can do whatever you want. The results are unsurprising.

After all, when you give any group carte blanche to do what they want, and make it clear that you will support them no matter what, how can you be surprised when they abuse that generosity? It’s human nature: people who are subject to little or no review will inevitably behave badly. No group can be expected to police itself; that’s why the foundation of our democracy is the separation of powers, the way in which different parts of government are expected to audit each other. Ultimately, though, the most important form of audit comes from the people themselves. Only the citizenry can ensure that our systems remain under our democratic control, and this function is especially important concerning the conduct of those who have the capacity to legally commit acts of violence– and to define for themselves what acts of violence are legal, whether those definitions are official or merely ad hoc. Well, we have abdicated that responsibility, and in that vacuum, misconduct, brutality, and corruption have rushed in. The problem is endemic. I don’t believe that all cops are bad, or even the majority, but I also don’t believe that this is a “few bad apples” problem. A few bad apples could not cause a problem as widespread and constant as the one we’re witnessing now.

You may not agree completely with the protesters in Ferguson. You may find their tactics unhelpful or misguided. But you should recognize: they are the front lines in a long-overdue process of reversing this problem and slowly dragging the police back under community control. It’s going to be an enormous task, one that has to occur on both the national and the local level. The acrimony and recrimination that will attend this project will be enormous, as the “law and order” brigades deride those working to rein in the police as radical, soft on crime, or worse. But we have to do it. This problem will never fix itself. The police cannot be expected to reform themselves. And since we as a people had a hand in creating these conditions, it’s our responsibility to change them. If you find the size of the task daunting, you need only think of the alternative, an ever-more unaccountable and entitled gang of men with guns and batons. Or think about an 18 year old black body, lying for four hours in a Missouri street.

(Photo: Police forces intervene protesters, who took to the streets to protest the killing of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014. U.S. Missouri State Governor Jay Nixon Saturday declared a curfew and a state of emergency in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. By Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Academics, Public Work, And Labor

by Freddie deBoer

Last July, I attended the Council of Writing Program Administrator’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois. While there, I watched a keynote address given by Duane Roen, a vice provost and professor at Arizona State University. Roen’s speech addressed the great need for academics and scholars to be publicly engaged, to share their work with a general audience and to endeavor to make the work we produce in our universities more accessible to the public. Roen referenced Nicholas Kristof’s famous (or notorious) column complaining that academics are too cloistered, our work too obscure to be of use to the general public. At the time, I and others complained that Kristof’s perspective was willfully narrow, failed to recognize a whole host of academics who make their work public every day, and ignored structural economic reasons for why academics can’t or won’t engage publicly. But Roen’s speech made clear that, despite these real reservations, we must continue to press ourselves to be more engaged, accessible, and open in our teaching and our research. Whether the perception that we are inaccessible and secluded from public life is fair or not, that perception must be combated through rigorous public engagement. Roen discussed academics who had, he felt, done an exemplary job of making their work available to a wider audience, and laid out the many benefits of this type of scholarly work.

Roen was the perfect figure to deliver such an argument, given his long history as a leader and mentor within the WPA world. The night before his speech, my friend Marcy and I talked with Dr. Roen at length at a gathering for graduate students, and I was struck by his warmth and approachability. This, too, is a form of public work, engaging with early-career academics and making them feel like part of the scholarly conversation. I was happy to see that Roen’s speech displayed the same friendliness and openness.

But while I felt energized by Roen’s keynote, I also felt concerned. I had noticed that all of the academics Roen listed were late career, and enjoyed the benefits of both tenure and prominence. During the Q&A, I asked Roen about the dangers of engaging publicly as a grad student or untenured academic, given that public speech tends to be political speech. Roen admitted that the question for the untenured was complicated, and advocated a cautious approach. Afterwards, several other faculty members in the audience addressed the question, and argued that grad students should not fear political engagement. Why would someone want to join a department, one asked, if that department had such little regard for intellectual and political freedom that it wouldn’t hire someone with controversial views? I felt encouraged by that support. But it’s also the case that, after I spoke, I was approached over the course of the next day by perhaps a half dozen grad students, who confided in me that they, too, feel constrained in what they can say, and fear speaking out in public about issues of controversy. They appreciated the support of the faculty in attendance, as I did, but said that with the academic job market as demoralizingly competitive as it is, they could not help but feel pressure to keep their opinions to themselves. They want to engage publicly, but the risks seem to outweigh the rewards.

These questions have taken on particular salience recently. Dr. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American scholar who studies indigenous history and post-colonialism, had a tenured job offer rescinded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, thanks to a series of tweets he had sent regarding Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. To make matters even worse, Salaita had already resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, as his appointment at Illinois had already been confirmed. Adding insult to injury, Cary Nelson, a professor in the department Salaita was to join and the former president of the AAUP faculty union, vigorously defended the school’s decision, despite being a self-identified defender of academic freedom. (In fact, Nelson has displayed such intimate knowledge with Salaita’s tweets that it is fair to ask whether he had a hand in the decision.) I wrote a letter to UIUC’s chancellor to protest, as did many others, and as Corey Robin has documented at length, a great number of academics and public figures have condemned this action. (Robin’s blog, in general, has been an indispensable resource in covering this story.) But while I hope and pray that Salaita lands on his feet in a secure tenured job, the damage to academic freedom has been done no matter what the outcome: the millions of academics observing this situation, particularly those who are in the precarious position of being untenured—the vast majority—cannot help but be less likely to speak out on matters of controversy. Those at UIUC who are responsible for this decision are culpable for this chilling effect on free political and intellectual expression.

Nelson’s performance throughout this controversy has been an embarrassment to himself and to his university. He has made it clear that his objection is not procedural but rather based largely on his personal rejection of Salaita’s politics. He has stated, for example, that “he doesn’t consider Gaza under occupation,” which is absurd, and anyway should be totally irrelevant to whether or not Salaita should have been fired. Nelson has taken the typical tack of representing Salaita as anti-Semitic, despite the fact that Salaita has said (in the self-same medium) “My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of antisemitism,” ” I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God,” “I refuse to conceptualize Israel/Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs,” among other things.

What little procedural defense of Salaita’s firing Nelson was able to muster involved the notion of “collegiality.” As many have pointed out, Nelson himself has not always been a champion in this regard himself, referring to another academic in print as a vampire bat, among other outbursts. Beyond the palpable hypocrisy of Nelson’s take, there is the simply unworkable division between expression and tone. Arguments about tone are perennially utilized to forbid ideas that are controversial or disliked; there is no meaningful distinction between the two. Too often, notions of collegiality and tone become a catch-all complaint that cannot be independently verified. Would Malcolm X be able to serve in Nelson’s university? Would Eugene Debs or Jane Addams or Larry Kramer?

Someone once wrote that “claims about collegiality are being used to stifle campus debate, to punish faculty, and to silence the free exchange of opinion by the imposition of corporate-style conformity.” That man was Cary Nelson. I would like very much for Dr. Nelson to grapple with this: when smart and committed young academics tell me that they are too afraid of the potential professional consequences to speak out publicly, as they have often, it is people like Nelson who are partially responsible. His conduct has directly and deeply damaged our sense of a right to intellectual freedom.

Earlier this year, I got myself in some trouble with my fellow leftists when I asked whether we might take pause at the firing of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich. I felt no personal sympathy for him, none at all, and I said so. Eich is a rich and powerful person, and I strongly disagree with his opposition to gay marriage rights in California. But I was disturbed at how casually my liberal friends disregarded his claims to free speech rights. “The first amendment doesn’t guarantee you the right to keep your job! It just means that the government can’t come arrest you for expressing unpopular views!” And yet consider what that attitude means. If workers have no expectation at all to the right to hold political views their employers don’t like, how do they enjoy basic democratic political rights at all? In a world in which you need a job to provide for your own material security, the notion that employers have the right to fire you for holding unpopular political views means that you have no right to hold unpopular political views. Indeed: in such a world, the only people who maintain the ability to hold unpopular political opinions are the independently wealthy. How that could be considered a liberal or progressive outcome, I have no idea, and yet those who self-identify as members of the broad left were the most aggressive in ridiculing my questions. Though they and I have little regard for Eich, the fact remains that rights must be universal if they are rights at all, and the procedural precedent set by Eich’s dismissal was, I thought, at least worth discussing.

Under labor conditions in the university system as brutal as we’ve faced, and with the cost of controversy as high as ever, how can academics and professors feel free to work through controversial and unpopular ideas, which is a necessary part of our work? Some defended the Eich firing by pointing out that, as a CEO, he had a special responsibility to be the public face of the company. Eich’s job, in this telling, was in part to be uncontroversial, and he failed in that task. Perhaps that’s true. But for us as academics, having and expressing controversial ideas is our job. A professoriate that feels that it cannot express impolite opinions is a professoriate that has no ability to cast new light on the human condition, no ability to truly grapple with the essential questions that confront the human race. Nor can they engage publicly if they are so busy teaching a huge course load as adjuncts that they have no time in which to research and teach, let along expand their work to the public sphere. My friend Anthony Galluzo, a brilliant Americanist, has written publicly about academics and research before, and I’d like to read more. But he’s been constrained, as so many other bright academics are, by his need to teach an unsustainable course load to survive. There is no way in which we can build the kind of public outreach we are asked to in a context where so many academics are so overworked and underpaid– and no way, incidentally, those academics can be the kinds of teachers they need to be.

All of this might seem like inside baseball, an obscure conversation had by members of a small, unusual industry. But the conditions that academics face are in fact not that different from those of everyone else. After all, it is not merely academics who have a responsibility to undertake public, political work, but all of us who are democratic citizens. By the most basic political philosophy of democracy, citizens are not required merely to vote and leave the debates to the politicians, but must actively engage in the messy work of self-governance. That means that they must feel free to express themselves politically without fear that their boss will fire them, leaving them unable to provide for themselves or their family. In a world where poor job quality, insufficient hours, insufficient pay, ever-expanding corporate rights and protections, sharp reductions in unionism, and the threat of automation all diminish the negotiating power of workers, controversial political engagement becomes a risk few can afford to take. Economic insecurity becomes political insecurity.

In the academic world, there is simply no alternative to reinvesting in the human resource that is the professoriate, expanding the ranks of those who enjoy the protections of tenure. It is possible, even in a context in which we are finally taking the necessary steps to rein in the increase in tuition. Because universities have been so profligate in the recent past, building dorms and gyms and dining halls beyond all sense and employing an army of administrators whose work is tangential to the academic enterprise, there is ample room to cut while still restoring the professoriate, particularly if states decide to reinvest in their public universities, which have been the envy of the world. We must make the choice as a society to privilege teaching and research over fancy buildings and expensive amenities. A commitment to hiring more tenure-track faculty from the ranks of our contingent labor and graduate students will improve undergraduate teaching, as overworked adjuncts teaching five or six classes a semester to make ends meet cannot possibly reach their peak potential as educators, through no fault of their own. It will also revitalize our research mission, and it will empower scholars to do the controversial, political work that is such an essential part of the life of the mind.

In the broader societal view, we must recognize that we have endured four decades of declining workplace conditions for millions of Americans. Flat-lined real wages, periods of high unemployment, and the general casualization and deprofessionalization of our labor force have left us not merely a less prosperous and humane society, but a less free, less democratic one as well. Our people cannot perform their role as citizens in a working world where they have no leverage and no negotiating power. To restore civic participation and public life, we must restore our unions and reinvigorate collective bargaining rights, strengthen our social safety net, and transition to a system of market socialism through a guaranteed basic income. Then, workers of all stripes, academic or otherwise, will enjoy the ability to engage politically without fear that they will go hungry if they say the wrong things. In the end, the projects to improve humanitarian outcomes, to increase personal liberty, and to revitalize deliberative democracy are one and the same.

Hello There

by Freddie deBoer

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Hey guys, my name is Freddie deBoer, and I’m very happy to be filling in for Andrew this week.

For five years (exactly), I wrote a blog called L’Hote, which I named as a joke based on the fact that before I started blogging, I was a commenter on other people’s blogs. (L’hote, in French, means both the host and the guest.) For about a year or so now, I’ve been blogging under the title Interfaces of the Word at my professional website. I write about everything and anything, but I write a lot about education and education reform, professional writing and journalism as cultures, and artificial intelligence. I have also written for n+1, Jacobin, The New Inquiry, and a bunch of other places.

I’m an academic, from an academic family. My father was a professor and his father was a professor and his…. I’m currently a fourth year student and doctoral candidate at Purdue University, in the Rhetoric and Composition program. My academic work occupies the overlap between composition studies, applied linguistics, and education, with a focus on assessment and testing, second language learning, and program administration. If I’m pressed to name my field, I sometimes say educational linguistics, sometimes literacy education, and sometimes just composition. I’m not really caught up on labels. I care about writing, I care about language, and I care about teaching and researching both. That’s my field.

I consider myself a quantitative researcher, and a lot of my work involves corpus linguistics, computerized textual processing, and statistics. At the same time, I value qualitative, historical, and theoretical work as well. What I’ve gained from studying rhetoric and composition generally, and at Purdue’s program specifically, is freedom– immense freedom to define my own interests, my own methodologies, and my own path. I’m currently writing a dissertation on the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, a standardized test of college learning that is being adopted here at Purdue. My dissertation involves testing and assessment theory, empirical evaluation of piloting results, the history and rhetoric of the higher education assessment movement, and other issues, which suits my interdisciplinary interests very well. (I hope to write a post about the test for you guys this week.) I’m on track to graduate this coming May on a four year plan, and the academic job market is rushing up at me in the coming months.

I’m also a socialist, from a socialist family. In that, I mean that I believe in an economic system based on a societal obligation to secure basic material security for all of its people, and that this responsibility cannot be fulfilled by reforming capitalism. My personal preference is for the implementation of a system of market socialism through the vehicle of a universal basic income. What comes after that, I can’t say, but it should stem from the recognition that economic outcomes are the product of forces beyond the control of the individual, and that the market will never deliver moral outcomes unless it is forced to by society. I also reject the ideas of religion, intrinsic sexual identity, patriotism, and empire.

I have a cat, named Suavecito, and a dog, named Miles, who are both crazy in very different ways. You can see my neurotic dog and my sociopathic cat in the picture above.

I also have a reputation. Because I believe in being direct, and I like to fight, and more I believe it’s our democratic responsibility to fight. So when you think I’m wrong, write me an email, and let’s argue. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.