How Austerity Killed the Humanities

Not long ago, the Right fought viciously over the teaching of the humanities in American universities. Now conservatives are trying to eliminate them altogether.

BY ANDREW HARTMAN

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Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, debates over the humanities were a major component of American political discourse. On the one side were conservative traditionalists who believed that all American college students should read the Western Canon—the greatest books of the Western mind since Aristotle—as a foundation for democratic living. On the other side were academic multiculturalists who believed that a humanities education should be more comprehensive and should thus include texts authored by minority, female, and non-western writers.

Those debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s were heated. Indeed, they were a major front in what came to be known as “culture wars” between merciless foes. Yet all sides in these culture wars believed a humanities education—history, literature, languages, philosophy—was inherently important in a democratic society. In short, the humanities were taken for granted. In our current age of austerity, this is no longer the case. Many Americans no longer think the humanities worthy of public support. This is especially true of conservatives, who in their quest to cut off state support to higher education have abandoned the humanities entirely.

Take the state of Wisconsin, for example. In early February, Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker drafted a draconian state budget that proposed to decrease the state’s contribution to the University of Wisconsin system by over $300 million over the next two years. Beyond simply slashing spending, Walker was also attempting to alter the language that has guided the core mission of the University of Wisconsin over the last 100 years or more, known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” Apparently Walker’s ideal university would no longer “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and would thus cease its “search for truth” and its efforts to “improve the human condition,” as his proposed language changes scrapped these ideas entirely; the governor’s scaled-back objective was for the university to merely “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

When a draft of Walker’s proposed revisions to the Wisconsin Idea surfaced, outraged Wisconsinites (including some conservatives) compelled the governor to backtrack. Yet Walker’s actions are consistent with recent trends in conservative politics. Republicans today are on the warpath against education—particularly against the humanities, those academic disciplines where the quaint pursuit of knowledge about “the human condition” persists.

In 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a law making it more expensive for students enrolled at Florida’s public universities to obtain degrees in the humanities. As Scott and his supporters argued, in austere times, they needed “to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy,” as Florida Republican and State Senate President Don Gaetz put it. In other words, a humanities degree, unlike a business degree, was a luxury good. Even President Obama joined this chorus when he half-joked recently that students with vocational training are bound to make more money than art history majors.

Such anti-intellectualism, a strong animus against the idea that learning about humanity is a worthy pursuit regardless of its lack of obvious labor market applicability, has deep roots in American history. President Theodore Roosevelt advised that “we of the United States must develop a system under which each individual citizen shall be trained so as to be effective individually as an economic unit, and fit to be organized with his fellows so that he and they can work in efficient fashion together.” Contemporary conservatives are thus merely following the crude utilitarian logic that has informed many politicians and educational reformers since the nation’s first common schools.

But it was not always thus. During the 1980s and 1990s, prominent conservatives like William Bennett, who served in the Reagan administration as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, argued that every American should have an education grounded in the humanities. This surprising recent history is largely forgotten, and not only because most conservatives now dismiss the value of the humanities. It is forgotten because the arguments forwarded by Bennett and his ilk came in the context of the traumatic culture wars, when left and right angrily battled over radically different visions of a humanities education.

Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

As a leading conservative culture warrior, Bennett held a traditionalist vision of the humanities. He believed the Western canon—which he defined in the terms of Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience”—should be the philosophical bedrock of the nation’s higher education.

“Because our society is the product and we the inheritors of Western civilization,” Bennett matter-of-factly contended, “American students need an understanding of its origins and development, from its roots in antiquity to the present.”

Most academics in humanities disciplines like English and history, in contrast, took a more critical stance towards the Western canon. They believed it too Eurocentric and male-dominated to properly reflect modern American society and thus revised it by adding books authored by women and minorities. Toni Morrison was to sit alongside Shakespeare. As literary theorist Jane Tompkins told a reporter from The New York Times Magazine in 1988, the struggle to revise the canon was a battle “among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself.”

Many college students agreed with the canon revisionists. In 1986, Bill King, president of the Stanford University Black Student Union, formally complained to the Stanford academic senate that the university’s required Western Civilization reading list was racist. “The Western culture program as it is presently structured around a core list and an outdated philosophy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-America is wrong, and worse,” he contended, “it hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.” Stanford students opposed to the Western Civilization curriculum marched and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” and the academic senate approved mild changes to the core reading list that they hoped would satisfy the understandable demands of their increasingly diverse student body.

A sensationalist media made Stanford’s revisions seem like a proxy for the death of the West. Newsweek titled a story on the topic “Say Goodbye Socrates.” University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal editor in 1989—two years after his book, The Closing of the American Mind, made a rigorous if eccentric case for a classic humanities education rooted in the Western canon—in which he argued the Stanford revisions were a travesty: “This total surrender to the present and abandonment of the quest for standards with which to judge it are the very definition of the closing of the American mind, and I could not hope for more stunning confirmation of my thesis.”

Bloom believed that a humanities education should provide students with “four years of freedom,” which he described as “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Liberals and leftists might have been sympathetic to such an argument had Bloom not dismissed texts authored by women, minorities, and non-westerners as lacking merit compared to the great books authored by those like Socrates who composed the Western canon.

In retrospect, these culture wars over the humanities are rather remarkable artifacts of a history that feels increasingly distant. Whether Stanford University ought to assign John Locke or the anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1988, would be nonsensical in today’s neoliberal climate marked by budget cuts and other austerity measures. Now Locke and Fanon find themselves for the first time on the same side—and it’s looking more and more like the losing one. On the winning side? Well, to take but one example, Winning, General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy management book, which is widely read in American business schools. Sadly, even the almighty Western canon, revised or not, seems feeble up against Winning and the cult of business. Conservative defenders of the humanities are voices in the wilderness. The philistines are on the march.

The culture wars over the humanities that dominated discussion of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s had enduring historical significance. Shouting matches about academia reverberated beyond the ivory tower to lay bare a crisis of national faith. Was America a good nation? Could the nation be good—could its people be free—without foundations? Were such foundations best provided by a classic liberal education in the humanities, which Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said”? Was the “best” philosophy and literature synonymous with the canon of Western Civilization? Or was the Western canon racist and sexist? Was the “best” even a valid category for thinking about texts? Debates over these abstract questions rocked the nation’s institutions of higher education, demonstrating that the culture wars did not boil down to any one specific issue or even a set of issues. Rather, the culture wars often hinged on a more epistemological question about national identity: How should Americans think?

But in our current age of austerity, Americans are not asked to think about such questions at all. Neoliberalism is fine with revised canons—with a more inclusive, multicultural vision of the humanities. But neoliberalism is not fine with public money supporting something so seemingly useless. American conservatives have abandoned their traditionalist defense of the Western canon in favor of no canon at all.

ANDREW HARTMAN

Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and author, most recently, of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.

 

http://inthesetimes.com/article/17962/how-austerity-killed-the-humanities

When the world was reinvented: Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin & the end of World War II

Historian Michael Neiberg tells Salon about the perils of the postwar era & the limits of the what great men can do

When the world was reinvented: Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin & the end of World War II

Winston Churchill, Harry S.Truman, and Josef Stalin pose in Potsdam, Germany, July 23, 1945. (Credit: AP)

Up until the second decade of the 20th century, Europe had been home to magnificent feats of cultural brilliance, architecture splendor, and a central hub of cosmopolitan ideas. By May 1945, however, following the surrender of Nazi Germany, most of the continent lay in ruins. Food and fuel were extremely scarce. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. Germany, meanwhile, had been reduced to a giant pile of rubble.

Millions of refugees roamed the continent in search of a future that looked extremely bleak: They were often hungry, homeless, and stateless. For some, there wasn’t even a single relative left alive to try and pick up the pieces with. The greatest war mankind had ever witnessed threatened to wipe out western civilization, and replace it instead with a utopian barbarism that had no time for human empathy.

In July 1945, three of the world’s leading statesmen from the Allied side — Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin — all met up in a quiet Berlin suburb: The aim of the Potsdam Conference was to negotiate a lasting global peace to a conflict that had essentially begun in 1914. If Europe was to have any sort of lasting stability — economically, politically, and militarily — it needed an immediate solution. All the delegates arrived determined to learn from the mistakes their predecessors had made when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris in 1919.

In Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe,” the historian Michael Neiberg captures in a dramatic fashion the numerous twists and turns of what was to become the most historic and important diplomatic meeting in 20th century global geopolitics.

I caught up with Neiberg recently to ask him about the book. Over an hour long interview, we discussed the limits of “the great man theory” of history;  debated the pros and cons of the Pax Americana vision that emerged from the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944; we were both equally surprised that the Holocaust never even got a passing mention among the delegates of Potsdam. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.

How much did the shadow of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 loom over Potsdam in 1945? 

Well it was the First World War that had shaped all of these men. So at Potsdam they were trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Paris 26 years earlier. They were also asking what were the basic fundamental mistakes that those who had gone before them had made? And they did a pretty good job: they had reset the boarders of Europe so that the political/ social/ ethnic lines matched up pretty well. They had more or less fixed the problem about what to do with Germany, settling the reparations issue, albeit in a controversial way, by dividing the country up. But fundamentally, they understood this was a problem that stretched back not just to 1939, but to 1914.

This book argues for some limits to be called on the so called “great man” theory of history. And yet many powerful and important men appear in it. What do you mean by this? 

History is always a mixture of what the individual can do and what circumstances constrains them to do. For a historian, Potsdam is almost like a laboratory. Because the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought in Harry Truman. And the British election in the middle of the conference removed Winston Churchill and brought in Clement Attlee.

So you had people who, (a) never thought they were going to be in that position; and (b) lacked the kind of world presence/dominance that their predecessors had. And yet everyone who watched Attlee and Truman made the same observation: The change in personalities didn’t change the fundamental economic, geopolitical, and historical reality.

A New York Times reporter, Ann O’ Hare McCormick, wrote at the time that Berlin was like a graveyard. I would also add to that: The graveyard was setting the limits on what the undertakers could do. That’s not to say that individuals aren’t important in history — I think they are — but it’s important to understand the way that larger structural factors shape just what those individuals can do.

The Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 reflected many American post-war goals: namely global free trade and the creation of worldwide markets. Many on the left, especially today, would argue that Bretton Woods actually created a global economy where many vulnerable countries lost their autonomy and merely became slaves to a new world order — where global institutions like the World Bank and the IMF dictated their terms. Would you agree with this thesis? 

Well, there are two things going on here. Firstly, American officials at the time were drawing parallels of 1944 to 1919: When Woodrow Wilson went to Europe with a lot of ideals, but with very few instruments of power. And Bretton Woods is one way Americans wanted to fix that. Secondly, the United States had an awareness that it was the only county that had the economic resources to rebuild Europe in the post-war era. This is where the Marshall Plan essentially came from. There was obviously an enormous amount of self-interest here too.

Many economic historians argue that the reason Bretton Woods came apart a couple of decades later was because it had served its purpose. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was the only economy that was capable of doing something like the Marshall Plan, as well as building parts of China, and being able to offer money to the Soviet block, even though they turned it down.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes famously used the words “swindle” to talk about Bretton Woods. So everybody understood that it was going to benefit the United States tremendously. That said, Americans argued that it was the only way to avoid the economic crisis that had drastically occurred during the 1930s. And it was the memory of Versailles that was driving that.

How to deal with Germany was obviously a crucial aspect of  the Potsdam conference. Was there a general consensus among the Big Three?  

The real problem in 1945 regarding Germany was, (a) who is really to blame for this? Is it the German people? That is to say: If you devastate Germany are you in fact punishing the wrong people. And, (b) what is best way going forward to try and re-build a peaceful Europe?

Again you have to go back to Versailles in 1919, where the Allies devastated Germany. However, they also left Germany strong enough to do something about it. And that was a fundamental mistake. So what they did at the end of the Second World War was to apply hard power — they divided Germany, reduced the size of it, occupied it, and kept the army down.

But they also applied liberal solutions too: They tied western Germany into the international economy, and into a wider alliance like NATO, which allowed it to have a military force. But at the same time they didn’t allow Germany to operate that military force independently.

What was the reasoning behind this?

They thought that if you give Germany enough time, hopefully enough Germans can come to the fore who won’t believe [the Nazi ideology] that their parents and grandparents believed. And that worked. Germany may be the most dominant power in Europe today; but most Europeans — outside of Athens of course — aren’t particularly worried about Germany as they might have been in, say, the 1930s.

But presumably you have an interest as a historian in understanding why the Germans voted for the Nazi party in the first place? 

Well it’s a tough question to deal with because you are contrasting rationality with emotion. Did the Germans vote for the Nazis because the Germans are a wicked evil people? Or did they vote for the Nazis because the economic and political circumstances made Germany such a pariah that they really had no other choice?

And all of the leaders of Potsdam were wrestling with that question, and also asking: What is the best way to go forward?

There was something called The Morgenthau Plan [proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, in 1944], which argued for making the central government of Germany almost powerless. It wanted to take away the industrial power and utterly devastate it. But there were others, mostly the British in fact, who said, no, what you want to do is to rebuild Germany, and by extension, they can then run the economy of Europe. Questions many asked at the end of both World Wars included: What is the fundamental problem? Is it German people? Is it their form of government? Or is it an economic problem?

Is this is a distinctly American way of looking at international relations, though, because they had a certain distance from the emotive elements of the war in the eastern front. And I guess the Russians didn’t, right?

Yes, I think so. Americans are more likely to say, look, this is the government’s fault, not the people’s. The Russians had a very different approach to that. When 20 million of your citizens have just been killed by a country that remains on your boarder, things are, naturally enough, going to look very different.

Why was the conversation about the Holocaust so carefully avoided in Potsdam? Was anti-semitism an issue and did this come from the Soviets?

Actually, it seems the anti-semitism was predominantly created in the American State Department, where there was a real desire to avoid talking about what happened to the Jews across Europe. It appears that each country had its own vested interest for not talking about what happened. For the Russians, Stalin was quite clear: He didn’t want the suffering of any Soviet citizen taking precedent over any other Soviet citizen. His view was that 20 million people died, therefore they were not going to be separating their suffering apart from the other deaths. There is a certain logic in that, I suppose. The British didn’t want to talk about it of course because of Palestine. They saw Palestine as a British issue, and they really wanted to avoid the United States and Russia at Potsdam advising them on what they ought to do.

Is there lessons of Versailles also coming into the equation once again here too?

Yes. In Paris in 1919 every country that had a grievance came to to lay it out for the Big Three. But at Potsdam in 1945 they decided that wasn’t going to happen. Their main priority was to deal with the issue of Germany and Poland. This surprised me enormously when I started doing the research for this book. I just automatically expected that they would have talked about the concentration camps, and about the barbarity of the thing they had just defeated. But they didn’t.

How important was the discussion of the Manhattan Project at Potsdam, in terms of how it would shape the paranoia and fear that would stoke Cold War politics for the coming decades? 

It appears Truman tried to present the subject of the atomic bomb very casually.

He was saying: We have this new weapon and we are going to use it on Japan. But it seems quite clear that the knowledge of the atomic bomb scared the Soviet leaders the most. They knew despite their victory, and all of their sacrifice, the atomic bomb could negate everything. It was the American use of two nuclear weapons, though, rather than anything that happened at Potsdam, that really reinforced Soviet paranoia about their own security. This began a cycle of real mistrust during the Cold War. And of course it forced Stalin to increase the speed and tempo of Soviet research also.

How important was the fate of the Russian casualties in World War II in accelerating the paranoia of Cold War politics? 

The talk of just how much the Russians actually suffered only got multiplied during the Cold War. And the Americans and the British tended to downplay what World War II did to Russia. The figure of 20 million people is almost impossible for a British person or an American to get their heads around.

The numbers are just mind boggling. Every time Poland was brought up, Stalin would slam his fists and say: Did your armies liberate Poland, Mr. Churchill? Basically what Stalin was getting at was this: It was our blood that made Poland possible, so don’t come in here and tell us what kind of Poland it’s going to be. The Americans and British didn’t like it. But they really had no choice but to accept it.

The Small Fires: reflections on the Baltimore uprising

By Steven Leyva On May 14, 2015

Post image for The Small Fires: reflections on the Baltimore uprisingFollowing the city’s uprising against oppressive poverty and racism, Baltimore poet Steven Leyva reflects on the experience in a heartfelt lyrical essay.

I remember every time I’ve been pulled over by the police. The litany of reasons reads like a child’s primer: tail light, move-over law, a suspicious swerve, no turn on red, should have turned, failure to control speed, failure to yield, failure to yield, failure…

Watching Freddie Gray’s arrest on an endless news media loop I am confronted by how he does not yield, but runs. Could I enact such agency? I’ve never had to, relying instead on my professional dress, my quick code-switch to non-threating “proper” speech—I teach composition and basic rhetoric to undergraduates—or just neutral silence. And after taking my license, and reading my name, taking my registration, and reading my name, the officer still asks, “Is this your car?”

Freddie did not have the comfort of a car. The questions of ownership are directed at his body. Failure to yield.

I remember watching a kid no older than fourteen throw one of the first rocks at the police line surrounding Mondawmin Mall and thinking, “Kids got an arm.” It didn’t register as violence somehow, and I am unsure why. He’ll probably never play baseball.

I remember driving down North Avenue, the panoply of boarded and vacant homes slipping in and out of the passenger side window frame like some desolate slideshow, and wondering if a riot is the last radical art left to the poor.

What if citizens approached a protest the way a viewer approaches abstract art, with a sense of openness about how the experience might change the viewer? Would the first rhetorical move made be one of honest curiosity instead of judgement? One of my grad school teachers, Kendra Kopelke, reminded me after a poetry reading that “art doesn’t need our judgement, it needs our attention”.

I remember a full ten minutes when my face will not unscrew itself from a grimace as a CNN Anchor attempts to act omniscient about race relations. He iscorrected cogently, with a question, “Are you suggesting broken windows are worse than broken spines?”

I remember a week where everyone’s pronouns are out of control. “They” becomes a rhetorical Leviathan. A student asks, “Why are they burning their own stores?” and I ask “Who is the they?” and he can’t look me in the face.

I remember rubbing my son’s cowlick down with one hand and attempting to sling my daughter’s hair into a ponytail with the other while the sound of dual helicopters—the real one outside our home and the one broadcast on WBAL—form an odd echo chamber. This is a moment when I must explain to both my children that though Momma is not black, they are.

I remember wishing I could unfriend anyone who quoted David Simon.

I remember one of my students saying that the mayor always looks like she’s about to fall asleep.

I remember the poet Jack Gilbert writing “Love is one of many great fires” as I watch a five-alarm blaze char what looks like a whole city block.

Earlier, that same afternoon, someone I thought I knew responded to the looting by posting on Facebook, “Don’t we use Napalm anymore?”

I remember the Orioles playing for an empty ballpark and thinking what a metaphor for “trickle down” economics.

I remember the gentle reminder that I am at my most arrogant when I attempt to tell an oppressed person the appropriate ways to respond to oppression.

I remember falling in love with Marylin Mosby for the fierce look she gave to a reporter who asked her the same question she’d just answered. I remember that she did not stutter when she read the charges for each officer.

I remember, I remember that remembering can be a radical act of healing.

Steven Leyva is a poet, teacher, and freelance writer living in Baltimore. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He is the  author of the chapbook, Low Parish, and editor of Little Patuxent Review.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/05/steven-leyva-baltimore-riots/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

RIP BB King

The great bluesman Blues Boy King has passed. Not unexpected, for he has been critically ill and in hospice care. I have had boundless respect and love for this amazing musician since I first saw him perform when I was in my teens. My favorite Pandora channel is named after him.

The blues have fueled my musical passions since I was a boy. My musical tastes have always been defined by my love of the blues. I have often said that were I to have my life to live over again I would play sax in a blues band. BB King has been an important part of my musical soul and I will miss him.

“I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old. With a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold. I had a guitar hanging just about waist high. And I’m gonna play this thing … until the day I die.”

Drone warfare in Good Kill

And a roundtable interview with writer-director Andrew Niccol and actor Ethan Hawke

By David Walsh
13 May 2015

Good Kill opens in theaters in the US on May 15 and will also be available fromvideo on demand. This comment and interview originally appeared September 26, 2014 as part of the coverage of the Toronto film festival.

* * * * *

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

Drone strikes carried out by the US military and CIA have killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries. The barbaric strikes, which have increased sharply under the Obama administration, are illegal under international and US law and amount to war crimes.

According to Reprieve, the British human rights organization, “To date, the United States has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’ drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA.”

Good Kill

An April 2014 article in Rolling Stone observed, “The people of Yemen can hear destruction before it arrives. In cities, towns and villages across this country, which hangs off the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the air buzzes with the sound of American drones flying overhead. The sound is a constant and terrible reminder… Over half of Yemen’s 24.8 million citizens—militants and civilians alike—are impacted every day.”

New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Niccol has taken on the subject of drone warfare, with mixed but often intriguing results, in Good Kill, featuring Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, Zoë Kravitz and January Jones.

Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) is a former fighter pilot and Iraq war veteran, now operating drones over Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere from a trailer on a US Air Force base near Las Vegas. After killing people by remote control 12 hours a day he returns to his house and family in the tidy, slightly unreal suburbs. “Now I’m going home to barbecue,” he explains sardonically after one murderous shift.

Good Kill

His superior, Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Greenwood), is resigned to the endless conflict: “Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. It’s just war.” Two of the four-member team parrot, in an especially vulgar fashion, the US government line, something to the effect that “the ‘terrorists’ hate us because of our freedom and our way of life.” The fourth member, Airman Vera Suarez (Kravitz), is different. She comes to see through a good many of the lies.

The film is set in 2010 and centers on the stepping up of drone strikes by the Obama administration and the transfer of control of the attacks to the CIA, represented by a disembodied voice (Peter Coyote) from “Langley [Virginia].”

The atrocities accumulate. The crew, aiming for a bomb factory, kills two children. “Keep compartmentalizing,” Egan is told. But “I pulled the trigger,” he responds. The CIA, once it takes over, begins ordering “signature strikes,” i.e., bombings based on what US officials believe to be suspicious behavior or simply on the association of the intended victims at some point or another with alleged “terrorists.”

Good Kill

When a strike goes wrong, the CIA official blandly tells the crew, as the US government repeats to the public, “No one regrets the loss of innocent lives more than us.” After one deadly bombing, he orders a “follow-up,” the notorious “double tap,” in other words, a strike on those responding to the first attack. “In our opinion, it’s proportionate.” He explains, “preemptive self-defense is ordered by the administration.” The voice and the commands it gives are coldly monstrous.

Following this attack, Suarez leans over and asks, “Was that a war crime, sir?” She suggests “that’s what terrorists do,” and points out bitterly that this is apparently what “they now give Nobel Peace prizes” for.

In a later scene, the CIA orders the bombing of a group of men near a market. Johns asks incredulously, “You want us to kill a crowd?” The men, he is informed, represent “an imminent threat.”

There is a good deal of this, quite powerful material. As the film’s publicity suggests, Egan starts “to question the mission. Is he creating more terrorists than he’s killing? Is he fighting a war without end?” It becomes increasingly difficult for him to carry on, both at work and at home.

In perhaps Good Kill ’s most moving sequence, out in the backyard at home, Egan asks his wife, Molly (Jones), “You want to know about my job?” He proceeds to describe how he and his crew blew up a house, although the supposed Taliban official was not there. “I watched as neighbors started carrying bodies,” then we “blew up the funeral.” A tear runs down her cheek and she puts her head on his shoulder.

There are weaker sides to the film too. A subplot about Egan’s desire to return to flying actual warplanes is not especially compelling. The crisis in the Egans’ marriage that develops, while no doubt—or perhaps precisely because it is—based on the real-life accounts of military personnel, has something a little formulaic and predictable about it.

Most significantly, the recurring presence of a Taliban-rapist character is an obvious concession to the official propaganda campaign. Opposition to the horrendous war crimes committed by US imperialism is not predicated on support for Islamic fundamentalism or any of the regimes the American government sets out to bring down. Dealing with these reactionary elements is the responsibility of the Afghan, Pakistani or Yemeni people; it cannot be subcontracted to the US government, military and CIA, which have, in many cases, incited and funded such movements or regimes.

Writer-director Niccol’s invention of this Taliban “bad guy” in Good Kill forms part of the rationale for arguing, as he did in the round table interview included below, that US drone warfare has certain “beneficial aspects.”

Nonetheless, it’s to his great credit that Niccol (the writer of The Truman Show and writer-director of Gattaca, S1m0 ne and In Time ) undertook this project, in the face of considerable odds. This is the first major US feature film that has attempted to represent this criminal policy and its consequences both for the targeted populations and for the American people, even if the filmmakers (also see below) are not inclined to work out the full implications of their own effort.

A conversation with Andrew Niccol and Ethan Hawke

I participated, along with a number of other journalists, in a roundtable interview in Toronto September 9 with Andrew Niccol and Ethan Hawke. The following is a slightly edited version of that conversation:

Journalist 1: Was it [Good Kill] hard to get made?

Andrew Niccol at the 2014 Toronto film festival [Credit: WireImage/Getty]

Andrew Niccol: Yes. It’s hard to make a military movie without the support of the military. So it means that all of the machinery you have to come up with yourself. I had drone consultants who I would speak to, and I was very lucky to get those ex-drone pilots.

Journalist 1: So did you approach the US military, and they presumably said, ‘No, thanks’?

AN: They just said no. They were polite, but they politely declined.

Journalist 2: In the film, there are “signature strikes.”

AN: This is well documented. I didn’t make up the language, that’s the language of the CIA. To go, as the character says, from a “personality strike” to a “signature strike.” All that means is, if you’re standing next to a terrorist, you’re most likely a terrorist, so you’re fair game. That’s your signature.

Journalist 3: There is a parallel between his [Egan’s] home and his work. Was there an attempt to show how detached we are from the consequences?

AN: This is the new reality for our pilots, our soldiers. They have this schizophrenic life. We’ve never asked soldiers to do this before in the history of warfare, to go to war from nine to five, and then go home. You have no decompression time, you’re going to get up the next day and do the same thing again. So what that does to a pilot’s psyche is unimaginable to me.

Journalist 1: Did you talk to drone pilots who had done what Ethan portrays in the film?

Ethan Hawke at the 2014 Toronto film festival [Credit: WireImage/Getty]

AN: Yes.

Journalist 1: And what sort of effects did they say it had on them?

AN: There’s an interesting aspect to it. I spoke to one sensor operator [who works in tandem with the pilots] who definitely has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and admits it.

There are others who almost feel ashamed admitting that they’re affected by it. They claim that they can compartmentalize. There are younger drone pilots who would use a joystick, perform their mission over Afghanistan, they’re obviously not in Afghanistan, which is another point, then they go back to their apartments in Las Vegas and play video games at night. How do you possibly separate the two? I couldn’t do it. Then you’re really desensitizing yourself to war.

Ethan Hawke: What’s interesting to me is that this film is about something real. Perhaps the next movie Andrew and I will do together will be a video game. That’s where it’s going.

I’m always very interested in where movies are going, where they will be 30 years from now. And where warfare will be. Will all major countries have drones? Will Obama be scared to walk out of his house? Where is this game going?

No one is talking about these issues. I think it’s a very good moment when Zoe [Kravitz] says, ‘So, they’re handing out [Nobel] peace prizes for this now?’ A very good moment.

David Walsh: I think it’s important you’ve raised these issues. The scene where the CIA official says, ‘These operations never happened,’ that’s an acknowledgement that these are criminal activities, that these are illegal activities.

AN: It’s not necessarily that. The military will say that it’s ‘national security.’

DW: They say that, but your film, whether or not you’ve worked out all its implications, is saying these are or may be criminal activities.

AN: It’s well documented that the US has struck funerals intentionally. For me, that’s a step over the line. Of course, they justify it by saying, ‘Who goes to a terrorist’s funeral except other terrorists?’ For me, that’s beyond. Also, to strike first responders, something the IRA used to do, that Hamas does, is beyond the pale for me. That’s too much.

I try to tread a straight line, because there are also beneficial aspects to the drone program. The fact that they are so precise, we’re not carpet-bombing people any more. If we get the right address, and hit a legitimate target, I understand that.

If you look at ISIS, for instance. There’s probably nobody sitting here that would say that the guy who beheads somebody, if you get the right guy…would you not order a drone strike on him?

DW: But who created ISIS? Who incited Islamic fundamentalism for 50 years, going back to the Muslim Brotherhood?

AN: Right. That’s the other thing that really interests me; Afghanistan is the US’ longest war, 13 years. Vietnam was 10. The Iraq war was eight.

DW: Now there’s a new Iraq war.

AN: Exactly, there’s a new one coming. When are we going to decide that we shouldn’t be in that part of the planet? Or are we ever going to decide that? Is this going to be an endless war? It’s a very complicated question and I don’t have the answer, but at least we will discuss it, which I think is important. To know what’s being done in your name is important.

EH: With the so-called “war on terror” you really get into Orwellian territory, because who’s defining what freedom is and freedom for whom? The people there certainly don’t feel free.

I have a brother who’s in the military, and my mother was in the Peace Corps and she works in Bucharest fighting racism against gypsies, trying to get kids in school. One of the things she often talks about is that if you just took all that money, and you just taught all the kids over there, you’d end terrorism so much sooner than by bombing them. That’s the kind of peacenik dialog that a lot of people don’t want to hear.

AN: When you speak of the “war on terror,” we are terrorizing to achieve those aims. In Waziristan [in northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan], people won’t gather together in groups, even for town hall meetings, because it could be perceived that they’re plotting against Western interests.

So when Ethan’s character talks about people being afraid of blue skies because that’s when the drones fly, it’s true. People don’t want to step outside, they don’t want to rescue people from a strike… They don’t show up, because they’re afraid they’re going to be hit again.

DW: That raises the question, is it about “terrorism,” or is it about terrorizing an entire population?

AN: Right.

EH: Or holding an entire population guilty for what a few have done, which is oftentimes what people there do to us as well.

AN: Every time you kill one terrorist, if you give birth to ten more, it’s surely counterproductive.

DW: Can I ask, is it difficult to make critically minded films? Is there something emerging, or is it just as difficult as ever?

AN: Oh, it’s probably more difficult. Ethan and I were just discussing Gattaca[1997 science fiction film, written and directed by Niccol and starring Hawke], we couldn’t get that made today at a studio. No way.

EH: No way. You couldn’t even begin to try. It wouldn’t matter who was involved in it.

Journalist 1: Why is it so difficult?

AN: It’s so much easier to make money, big money, by making comic books.

EH: It started with Jaws [1975]. Much has been written about this. They’ve learned how to inundate and saturate… It’s funny, these Transformer movies make a ton of money, and I’ve never met anyone who liked one. There’s a case to be made about the power of advertising, and the power they have to create this sense that this is what we’re supposed to see.

There’s an essay by [Czech writer Milan] Kundera, in which he says during his lifetime he witnessed the birth of an art form and then he saw it eaten by big business. He makes a joke that what qualifies for an art film today is far inferior to what qualified as an art film in 1960.

In 1960, they were pressing the boundaries of realism and storytelling; it was a thrilling art form. Whereas literature has found avenues for this. The film industry hasn’t found a place… I’m a dramatic actor so I’ve almost been feeling run out of the business over the last ten years because there are action movies and there are thrillers. Most studios don’t make dramas any more. They’ll make a drama if they think it might win an Academy Award, if you have [Steven] Spielberg directing it or something.

DW: And yet when I go to the movies, I don’t find a lot of satisfaction in the audience itself.

EH: I don’t either. They all leave the movie unhappy. You don’t feel good after. I have to try to do enough things that make money so that if Andrew wants to hire me for this he can. If Andrew could get the guy who was in the last Marvel [comic] movie in it, he would get more money.

Journalist 1: Have you been offered one of those?

EH: I’ve been doing this since I was thirteen. They’ve offered things here and there. When I was younger, I was incredibly cocky and I thought those offers would always come. If you don’t make people money, they don’t like you.

Projects like this are worth trying. There’s so much pull toward mediocrity your whole life. Everybody just wants you to follow the rules and cash out. It’s worth it to try. We showed the movie at Venice [the film festival] and it was way more work than anybody wanted it to be, but this is the movie Andrew wanted to make and it exists, and it’s hard to get people to want to talk about serious subjects. It’s a lot of work.

There’s a great pull…if Andrew would just use his imaginative mind to have it be, instead of a drone pilot, [someone] who could fly himself and have super-powers… My point being that I feel very blessed and grateful, and I believe at this moment in my life, I believe again, that it’s worth trying. Sometimes the world beats you down, and you feel like nothing could ever work.

Journalist 2: I don’t know if all the drone pilots are in Nevada. Could you tell me something about Las Vegas?

AN: There’s a very practical reason why the military put a military base near Las Vegas. The reason they do it is because the mountains near Vegas look very much like Afghanistan. And that’s how they can train. Also, when you are driving to Vegas from Los Angeles, they actually use your car just for fun, in practice, just to follow it. You can’t see the drone, but they can see you.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/05/13/good-m13.html

Porn and video game addiction leading to ‘masculinity crisis’, says Stanford psychologist

 A leading psychologist has warned that young men’s brains are being ‘digitally rewired’ by unprecedented use of video games and pornography

A leading psychologist has warned that young men are facing a crisis of masculinity due to excessive use of video games and pornography.

Psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University Phillip Zimbardo has made the warnings, which form a major part of his latest book, Man (Dis)Connected.

In an interview on the BBC World Service’s Weekend programme, Zimbardo spoke about the results of his study, an in-depth look into the lives of 20,000 young men and their relationships with video games and pornography.

He said: “Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation – they are alone in their room.”

“Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week.”

Zimbardo says there is a “crisis” amongst young men, a high number of whom are experiencing a “new form of addiction” to excessive use of pornography and video games.

Zimbardo gave a TED talk in 2011 outlining the problems facing young men’s social development and academic achievement, which he puts down to excessive use of porn, video games and the internet.

He cited the example of a mother he met while conducting the study whose son does not see the problem in playing video games for up to 15 hours a day.

Zimbardo said: “For me, ‘excess’ is not the number of hours, it’s a psychological change in mindset.”

Giving an example of the mindset of a gaming and pornography-addicted young man, he says: “When I’m in class, I’ll wish I was playing World of Warcraft. When I’m with a girl, I’ll wish I was watching pornography, because I’ll never get rejected.”

Zimbardo claims that this relatively new phenomenon is affecting the minds of young men.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02qyfc7/playerCiting the research he and his team conducted for the book, he says: “It begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain, and produces a kind of excitement and addiction.”

“What I’m saying is – boys’ brains are becoming digitally rewired.”

He also mentioned the growing problem of a disputed phenomenon called ‘porn-induced erectile dysfunction’, or PIED: “Young boys who should be virile are now having a problem getting an erection.”

“You have this paradox – they’re watching exciting videos that should be turning them on, and they can’t get turned on.”

An article from Psychology Today, however, argues that there are no demonstrable scientific links between porn consumption and erectile dysfunction.

In his opinion, the solution is to accept that the problem is serious – parents must become aware of the number of hours a child is spending alone in their room playing games and watching porn at the expense of other activities.

He also blamed negative images of men in the American media, which show men as being “slobs, undesirable, only wanting to get laid and being inadequate in doing that.”

He also called for better sex education in schools – which should focus not only on biology and safety, but also on emotions, physical contact and romantic relationships.

The pressing issue of male mental health is now a much more prominent concern than it once was. Last year saw the first Male Psychology Conference at University College London, intended to encourage the British Psychological Society to introduce a male specialist section, to sit alongside its female equivalent.

Zimbardo believes that excessive, solitary use of video games and porn is seriously stunting boys’ social development

The charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, or CALM, was started in 2006 and has gained a high profile in recent years, for its efforts to encourage men to discuss mental health problems and bring down the male suicide rate.

Phillip Zimbardo is famous for the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which 24 students were asked to play the roles of ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ in a mock prison at Standford University. Intended to last for two weeks, the experiment was abandoned after six days, after the previously normal ‘guards’ became extremely sadistic and the ‘prisoners’ became submissive and depressed.

The experiment is believed to demonstrate the extreme impressionability and obedience of people when they are presented with a supporting ideology and power.

READ MORE: IS MASCULINITY IN CRISIS?
CELEBRITIES SPEAK OUT ON MASCULINITY PROBLEM
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT MENS’ MENTAL HEALTH

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/porn-and-video-game-addiction-are-leading-to-masculinity-crisis-says-stanford-prison-experiment-psychologist-10238211.html

In kitsch we trust: lies, euphemisms and politics

By Chris Wright On May 8, 2015

Post image for In kitsch we trust: lies, euphemisms and politicsCollateral damage, regime change, right-to-work: nice words covering up nasty truths, depoliticizing social reality and camouflaging power structures.

Artwork by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung

In a popular video on YouTube, George Carlin aims his caustic wit at the dread political scourge of euphemisms. “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language,” he kicks off his rant.

Our “public discourse” is, and to some extent always has been, polluted by an epidemic of euphemisms. This category overlaps with the category of political correctness, but it typically serves rightwing, not leftwing, ends. It also overlaps with kitsch, the category that Milan Kundera brilliantly analyzes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

The essence of this definition applies equally to euphemisms. Both kitsch and euphemisms serve to shield us from unpleasant truths — in other words to disguise reality.

Kitsch is everywhere where fake prettiness — or pretty fakeness — silences authenticity. It is at social gatherings, cocktail parties, academic conferences; it saturates interactions between salespeople and customers, and inspires the decor of every shop in the mall. It is the impulse that sustains the tourism industry. It is the regulating principle of institutional norms, whether in the intellectual, the political, the cultural, or the business world.

Kitsch is what coheres a consumer capitalist society, with its ubiquitous product-advertisements and self-advertisements (for the self has become but a product to be sold). In fact, power-centers in any advanced society will impose a regime of political and ideological kitsch on the population, for power has to lie in order to extract some semblance of consent from its subjects.

Kitsch, in short, while pretending to exalt all that is wonderful and pleasant in life, manifests the anti-human. Where social atomization happens, so does kitsch. Where power happens — and bureaucracy, and the state, and “the free market,” and atomizing totalitarian tendencies of whatever sort — so does kitsch. And in the realm of political kitsch, the use of euphemisms is indispensable.

George Carlin mentions a few. Consider the evolution of the old, honest, direct World War I concept “shell shock”. In World War II shell shock morphed into the more innocuous term battle fatigue, then during the Korean War it was called operational exhaustion, only to become post-traumatic stress disorder in the Vietnam era, or simply PTSD now. So, from shell shock to… an acronym.

This history exemplifies the role of power-structures in the ideological sphere, namely, to squeeze the life out of life — and out of language, and out of dissent, and out of anything that can potentially disrupt the smooth functioning of institutional relations. This is as true of academia as of politics. The imperative is to propagate appealing myths at all times; but if it proves necessary to acknowledge the existence of something negative, at the very least change its name so that it becomes inoffensive and boring. (Ideally, put a positive spin on it as well, so the bad thing magically becomes good.) Eradicate every vestige of humanity; that is the imperative.

We can all easily think of examples. Torture is enhanced interrogation; slaughtered children are collateral damage; a coup d’état is regime change; terrorism we carry out is counterterrorism; invasion of another country is self-defense; destroying a country is stabilizing it; and imposing reactionary regimes on hapless populations is spreading democracy.

Job-destroyers are job-creators; the right-to-scrounge is called the right-to-work; the destruction of public education is “education reform”; destroying social programs and the welfare state is “austerity”; massive corporate welfare is the free market; workers’ mutually destructive competition for jobs and wages is a flexible labor market; renting yourself to a corporation is finding employment; police terrorism is called unnecessary force. The list could go on for pages.

But it isn’t only current political realities that are whitewashed. Rather, a country’s entire history is effaced, replaced with a mess of kitsch and euphemisms. This may be a truism, and we may know it, but it remains very difficult to extricate ourselves from all the subtle wordplays and techniques of indoctrination that have been used to make us think well of our society and its history.

For instance, the recently published book The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist, at times may well strike the reader with the force of revelation, while simultaneously embarrassing him for having overlooked the truths it brings to light. Why do we use such bland terms as plantations and slaveholders? Because they’re euphemisms — though we don’t even know it.

Plantations were simply slave-labor camps, and we should follow Baptist in consistently calling them such. (The word “plantation” is actually appealing, quaint, pretty, conjuring images of a lovely countryside ruled benevolently by a paternalistic lord.) “Slaveholders” were enslavers, and we should call them such. Slaves were constantly tortured; that was part of their daily routine, to force them to work harder and submit to white supremacy. Half the country was a torture machine for slave labor, while the other half financed and profited from it.

The kitsch exists on a broader scale too. As Baptist makes clear — and as we all should have explicitly recognized long ago — slavery was not some marginal, economically backward thing; it was the very foundation of the modern American economy and the global industrial economy. It was an astonishingly efficient and effective way of producing cotton, such that from the perspective of economic logic it was irrational for slavery to be made illegal. Nothing is more modern than slavery and the economically productive dehumanization it entails.

The funny thing about kitsch, though, is that sometimes the truth is buried in it, peeking out ironically, only requiring a bit of excavation. Barack Obama, Marco Rubio and their ilk are right: America is an exceptional country. No other country was founded on, or owes its prosperity to, wholesale genocide of the native population together with centuries of enslavement of human beings. (It’s exceptional in other ways too, though they probably aren’t what Obama has in mind.)

It’s hard to look at one’s own country semi-objectively, because one is immersed in a miasma of kitsch and euphemisms. They are absolutely everywhere; they are the air we breathe as citizens, workers, and consumers. But if we can cut through the thick poisonous atmosphere of deceit and indoctrination, we may find that everything is upside down, and appearance is the opposite of reality.

We may find that in our society, as in a stagnant pond, the scum floats to the top. We’ll realize, with the historian Albert Prago, that “in an amoral society, the amoral man is best qualified to succeed.” Perhaps we’ll learn to look with contempt on the leaders and the “successful” — the institutionally obedient, the non-questioners, and the greedy, the vulgarly ambitious, the rich — and admire the downtrodden for their struggles and their stoic survival.

So, whenever a person in a position of authority opens his mouth, we should ask: “What is the reality that is being kitschified here?”

Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in U.S. labor history, and the author ofWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and Notes of an Underground Humanist. Visit his website here.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/05/kitsch-carlin-euphemism-politics-2/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29