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Review of Thomas A. Foster, 'Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past'

The men who established the republic were no plaster saints of Red State moral uplift. Only one of the half-dozen figures Thomas A. Foster writes about in Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple University Press) would escape denunciation by the Traditional Values Coalition if the Founders were around today.

Accusations of adultery or of fathering children out of wedlock (or both) were made against George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton; the last two admitted the truth of the charges. Gouverneur Morris managed to draft the Constitution between rounds of frequent, strenuous fornication -- exercise he pursued despite having a severely mangled right arm and amputated left leg.

Only the the tightly wound John Adams seems to have escaped any hint of scandal. By all evidence, he and Abigail were strictly monogamous and not averse to finger-wagging at the other Founders' morals -- especially Franklin's, which were particularly relaxed. Besides writing a notorious essay on selecting a mistress, Franklin lived with a common-law wife; later, he conducted a good deal of his work as ambassador to France either in bed with well-born Parisian ladies or trying to get them there.

He was also broad-minded in ways that would be fodder for cable TV news today. He seems to have been on friendly terms with one Chevalier d'Eon, a French diplomat who preferred to dress in women's clothing. Poor Richard's ventriloquist was, as it's put nowadays, straight but not narrow.  

Tabloid history? No, though much innuendo about the Founders did appear in frankly sensationalist publications of the day. (Negative campaigning goes way back.) Foster, an associate professor of history at DePaul University, is innocent of any muckraking intent. Everything in Sex and the Founding Fathers is a well-established part of the historical record, and in the case of Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, you'd have to have spent the last 20 years on a desert island not to have heard about it by now.

The author isn't interested in revealing the character or psychology of the early American statesmen. Rather, the book is a metahistory (not that Foster uses such jargon) of how their sex lives and their public roles were understood during across the past 200 years or so. The biography of a major political figure is itself a political act. Historians and others writing about the Founders have dealt with their peccadilloes in different ways over time, the shifts in emphasis and judgment reflecting changes in the national political culture.

George Washington, for example, seems the most austerely virtuous of the country's early leaders, thanks especially to the moralizing fables of Parson Weems. Recent biographies suggest that he had a number of romantic relationships, consummated and otherwise, before marrying Martha. Writers of historical fiction depict the six-foot-three, athletically built military man as exerting powerful animal magnetism upon the colonial womenfolk. (Like Fabio, but with wooden teeth.) In real life, Washington addressed passionate letters to a married woman. If no further improprieties occurred, it was not for want of trying.

Foster notes the tendency to assume that earlier images of the first president were "disembodied" idealizations which have "only recently been humanized." But the record is more nuanced: "Even the earliest images emphasize both his domestic life and his military and government successes," Foster writes, with some 19th-century biographies and paintings "establish[ing] Washington as the romantic man" as well as "head of a prosperous household." But on that last point, one fact was somewhat problematic: Martha, who was a widow when they met, had a number of children by her first husband but never conceived with George.

"No early account hides the fact that he had no children of his own," Foster notes. "But 19th-century writers do not dwell on this aspect of his life, leaving some readers to their own devices to determine this aspect of his private family life." Biographers in the Victorian era "could not anticipate that readers would ever expect an answer to the very personal question of why he had no children."

Refusing to acknowledge the question did not make it go away, however. The lack of progeny was a seeming defect in Washington's status as embodiment of masculine ideals. One answer to the problem was sentimental: The couple could be depicted as blissfully compatible yet saddened by their plight, even without any evidence of it. ("Americans," Foster remarks, "have never hesitated to speak definitively about the loves and inner lives of the Founders, despite a lack of documentation.") Unfortunate as the situation was, Washington finally transcended it by becoming "father of his country." Another solution was to deny that Washingon's virility was compromised at all, by claiming that he had an illegitimate son by the widow of one of his tenant farmers. See also the rumor that Washington died from a cold he caught "from leaping out a window, pants-less, after a romantic encounter with an 'overseer's wife.'"

No other figure in Sex and the Founding Fathers occupies so markedly paternal a role in public life, but in each case Foster brings out the complex and tightly knit relationship between sexual and political life. Even with Benjamin Franklin -- whose flirtatiousness is well-known, as is his earthy advice about the benefits of dating older women -- the author finds aspects of the record that add some nuance to the familiar portrait. I never appreciated just how disturbing a figure he was to his countrymen in the 19th century, when a senator struck his name from a list of candidates for a proposed national hall of fame on these grounds:

"Dr. Franklin's conduct of life was that of a man on a low plane. He was without idealism, without lofty principle, and one side of his character gross and immoral.... [His letter] on the  question of keeping a mistress, which, making allowances for the manner of the time, and all allowance for the fact that he might have been in jest, is an abominable and wicked letter; and all his relation to women, and to the family life, were of that character."

Abominable? Well, he wasn't a hypocrite, and that's always a risky thing not to be. Consider also Alexander Hamilton. When accused of financial improprieties involving public funds, he denied it but admitted to having had a fling with a married woman whose husband then tried to blackmail him. "He chose to discuss the affair, in print, publicly, and in the greatest of documented detail to save his public honor," writes Foster. "He was not divorced. His wife did not denounce him. [George] Washington publicly supported him, as did others."

For a long time, biographers treated the matter evasively. They airbrushed the details out of his portrait as much as possible. Nowadays, Foster says, we get "warts-and-all hagiography -- ones that present failings only to dismiss them or have them overshadowed by an overarching theme of national greatness." Either way, he argues, the statesmen of the early republic stand apart from more recent politicians embroiled in sex scandals in one important way. Our contemporary lotharios can skulk off the public stage after a while, while the Founders never can. Their dirty linen hangs out for everyone to see, forever.

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Why replacing humanities with '7 Habits' isn't wise (essay)

As Inside Higher Ed reported last week, the newest round of curricular mayhem instigated by Bruce H. Leslie, the chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, is to replace his district’s second three-credit humanities course requirement with a class based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (Leslie might have suggested Machiavelli’s The Prince, which seems closer to his style of governance.

The FranklinCovey Company plans to release a textbook specifically for EDUC 1300, Learning Framework, which will be required for every student taking the course. Perhaps Leslie read the 2013 version from Save Time Summaries, whose motto is “Save Time and Understand More”! The lengthy list of short takes in the Save Times Summaries series includes Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Tim Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, and, most puzzling of all, Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander III (surely, reading this proof doesn’t require saving time -- presumably we have all of eternity). All that remains, for some enterprising individual, is a proposal for “7 Effective Habits for Dummies.”   

And the new core course can’t be too intense; work place seminars on the book generally run around two days, and after all, as Colleen Flaherty reported for Inside Higher Ed, Leslie’s inspiration was a kindergarten class that he visited, where one young scholar shook his hand. Chancellor Leslie, in fact, seems fixated on the handshake, something even my mother’s succession of poodles has mastered.  

It came up again in his rationale for revising the core: According to Flaherty, “Leslie said the proposed course is a measured response to calls ... to ensure that students graduate with ‘soft skills’ -- leadership, knowing how to shake a hand, how to manage time effectively -- and from his own personal experience. Several years ago, Leslie realized that some graduates hardly looked him in the eye or knew how to shake his hand... .” Perhaps they just weren’t all that into him.                                   

As for eye contact, that can happen just as easily in a humanities course as in a class centered on a self-help book. I’ve encountered it hundreds of times: maybe it’s sparked by a line from a Seamus Heaney poem, or the final chapter of a novel by Zadie Smith, or a passage from  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave: it’s the look of learning, the look that says, “I get it.” 

Perhaps in the chancellor’s dream course there will still be time for a short poem or a snippet from history or a mini lesson in how to say “Hello!” in different languages -- in weekly “Show and Tell” sessions, scheduled in between nap and snack times.  

And there may be additional reading. While the logical companion text would seem to be All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, other equally frightening supplemental possibilities include Who Moved My Cheese? and Fish! My recommendation is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, if only because it includes the word Think in the title. 

Instructors at the Alamo Colleges are limited in terms of selecting their own texts, but they might also want to sneak in Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, if only for Gatsby’s Franklin-like self-improvement list, or what the little boy who so inspired Leslie on his fateful visit to that kindergarten class called his “data book.”  

Time permitting, students might also benefit from reading Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” a concise and precise lesson in perception; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a reminder of the dangers of procrastination, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, a reminder of what highly effective people know: “Be kind.” Or, as Mr. Rosewater actually said, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” 

The Save Time Summaries version of 7 Habits cut the original accompanying anecdotes, in the interests of time and space; this isn’t surprising, coming from a venture that also includes Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller on its list, with the promise of “From Start to Finish -- 20 minutes!”  

Now Chancellor Leslie’s lose/lose plan (see the discussion of Habit #4 of highly successful people) will do something similar for the students in his district. They’ll just have to wait for grad school curriculums in medicine, law, and business to find another course on the value of storytelling.  

Planners of those programs have recognized that storytelling -- both the telling and the listening -- are important. Narratives convey information and facilitate learning. Besides, it’s helpful to have a good tale to go along with that firm handshake.

But you don’t have to take the word of curriculum planners at Columbia University or Saint Louis University or Penn State University on the significance of storytelling -- just ask any five-year-old.

Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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Review of Goran Therborn, 'The Killing Fields of Inequality'

In one of those cases where satire cannot trump cold hard fact, the power brokers and heavy thinkers who gathered at an Alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month expressed great concern about the danger that growing inequality poses to social stability everywhere. As well they might.

Strictly speaking, "widening income disparities" was only one of 10 issues flagged by the Forum's Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 report, along with "a lack of values in leadership" and "the rapid spread of misinformation online." But a couple of concerns on the list -- "persistent structural unemployment" and "the diminishing confidence in economic policies" -- were variations on the same theme. Two or three other topics were related to income disparity only a little less directly

In case you didn't make it to Davos last month (my invitation evidently got lost in the mail this year ... as it has every year, come to think of it), another gathering this summer will cover much of the same ground. The 18th World Congress of the International Sociological Association -- meeting in Yokohama, Japan, in mid-July -- has as its theme "Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology." The scheduling of their events notwithstanding, it was the sociologists who were really farsighted about the issue of growing inequality, not the "Davos men." The ISA announced the theme for its congress as early as December 2010.

And the conversation in Japan is sure to be more focused and substantive. A lot of business networking goes on during the World Economic Forum. By some accounts, the topic of inequality figured more prominently in the news releases than in actual discussions among participants. It's almost as if all of Bono's efforts at Davos were for nought.

Available a solid six months before the sociologists put their heads together in Yokohama, Goran Therborn's The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) ought to steer the public's thinking into deeper waters than anything that can be reached with a reductive notion like "widening income disparities." Money provides one measure of inequality, but so do biomedical statistics, which record what Therborn, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, calls "vital inequality." (Income disparities fall under the heading of "resource inequalities," along with disparities in access to nutrition, education, and other necessities of life.)

A third, less quantifiable matter is "existential inequality," which Therborn defines as "the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development." A big-tent concept of Therborn's own making, existential inequality covers the limitations and humiliations imposed by racism, sexism, and homophobia but also the experience of "people with handicaps and disabilities or just the indigent overlorded by poorhouse wardens or condescending socio-medical powerholders," among others.

While analytically distinct, the three forms of inequality tend to be mutually reinforcing, often in perfectly understandable but no less miserable ways: "Nationwide U.S. surveys of the last decade show that the lower the income of their parents, the worse is the health of the children, whether measured in overall health assessment, limitations on activity, school absence for illness, emergency ward visits, or hospital days."

The differences in health between the offspring of well-off and low-income parents "have been measured from the child's age of two, and the differentials then grow with age." A study of mortality rates among men in Central and East European countries shows a pattern of higher education corresponding to a longer life; men with only a primary education not only died earlier but were more prone to longstanding illnesses. (The patterns among women were comparable "but differentials are smaller, less than half the male average.")

Such inequalities within countries look small compared to those between countries, of course -- and Therborn piles up the examples of so many varieties of inequality from such diverse places that it becomes, after a while, either numbing or unbearable. Generalization is hazardous, but the pattern seems to be that a considerable variety of inequalities, both inter- and intranational, has sharpened over the past 30 years or so. Not even the author's own country of origin, Sweden -- so long the promised land for social democrats -- has been spared. Therborn's study of income developments in the Stockholm Metropolitan area between 1991 and 2010 showed that "the less affluent 80 percent of the population saw their income share decline, while the most prosperous 10 percent had their share augmented from 25 to 32 percent."

Furthermore, the share of the income that top tenth earned from playing the Stockholm Stock Exchange grew 282 percent over the same period. In Sweden as elsewhere, "the top side of intra-national inequality is driven primarily by capital expansion and concentration, and that at the bottom by (politically alterable) policies to keep the poor down and softened up to accept anything."

It seems unlikely that the CEOs, financiers, and politicians at Davos ever had it put to them quite like that. But Therborn seems equally unhappy with his own discipline, which he thinks has somehow managed to dodge thinking about inequality as such.

"Among the fifty odd Research Committees of the International Sociological Association," he writes, "there is not one focused on inequality." The closest approximation is the one on "Social Stratification," which he says "has mainly been interested in intergenerational social mobility."

That mobility having been, for the most part, upwards. But the distance from the bottom of society to its top verges ever more on the dystopian. In a rare flourish, Therborn invokes the alternative: "the positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her abilities."

To reach it, or even to move in that direction, implies a battle. "Nobody knows how it will end," he concludes. "Which side will you be on?"

I don't think he's asking just the people who will be there in Yokohama this summer.

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Book argues for Christian higher education to play role in educating adult students

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Author discusses new book arguing that Christian adults should consider Christian colleges and that those institutions should embrace the nontraditional market.

Penguin-India Pulls Chicago Scholar's Book on Hinduism

The Indian arm of Penguin Random House has agreed to pull from the market all copies of a University of Chicago scholar's 2009 book on Hinduism that came under attack from some conservatives in the country, The Wall Street Journal reported. The book, "The Hindus: An Alternative History," by Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at Chicago, was withdrawn as part of a settlement (obtained by the Journal) with a nationalist group that had complained about the book. In a statement, Doniger said she was "deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate."

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Review of 'Zizek's Jokes'

Nothing sharpens memory quite like regret, so I cannot help noting the anniversary of a tossed-off phrase that has come back to haunt me many times over the past 10 years.

In early 2004, I began writing an occasional series of two- or three-paragraph squibs on the latest publications and doings of the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where it ran under the title "Žižek Watch." In the subhead for one such mini-article, I referred to him as "the Elvis of cultural theory." The expression took wings and has been repeated on more occasions than any sane person could track. (As of this writing, it gets 79,000 returns from Google.)

The phrase will outlive me. Last year it appeared in an article in the journal Critical Inquiry, as well as in a Canadian dissertation on the concept of totalitarian evil in the work Hannah Arendt. Someone will eventually write a book using it as a title. Remembering the line always make me cringe, as if from mild food poisoning. For the most salient quality of "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- judged, by any standard, as a characterization of Žižek's work or career -- is its near perfect meaninglessness, verging on hopeless and absolute stupidity.

Unless you know the inside joke, anyway. By my count, roughly two people in the world are in on it. So to mark the anniversary, it is time finally to put the backstory on the record.

The idea for "Žižek Watch" came from my editor at the time, Richard Byrne, an estimable playwright and cultural journalist with family roots in the Balkans. These days Rich is at the helm of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's UMBC Magazine, of which he is the founding editor.  We shared a fascination with Žižek's close but complex relationship with the Slovenian post-punk band Laibach and the avant garde movement around it. Given the pace of his output (two or three books a year, just in English) and the growing frequency with which he had begun appearing in odd corners of the mass media, it felt like a matter of time before he graced The National Enquirer, or at least Weekly World News.

So it was that through a chain of associations that "Žižek Watch" alluded -- very much in passing -- to the definitive song about the improbable ubiquity of a tabloid phenomenon: "Elvis is Everywhere" by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper.


And the rest is, if not history, at least a decade-long lesson in the sliding of the signifier across the greased skids of digital-age publicity.

A footnote in one article from 2005 did trace "the Elvis of cultural theory" back to its first appearance, albeit without identifying the origins of the phrase as such. But by now, context is irrelevant. The expression has long since escaped meaning. And even though nobody seems to get it, does not the very circulation of my remark participate in what Žižek identifies as the "mystery" of jokes -- that they seemingly appear "all of a sudden out of nowhere," produced by "the anonymous symbolic order" through "the very unfathomable contingent generative power of language"?

So writes Elvis, or somebody, in the introduction to Žižek's Jokes (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?), published by MIT Press. It is an anthology of the theorist's shtick, not an analysis of it. The cover describes it as "contain[ing] every joke cited, paraphrased, or narrated in Žižek's work in English (including some in unpublished manuscripts), including different versions of the same joke that make different points in different contexts." The sources of the collected passages are given in the book's endnotes, followed with a brief yet oddly repetitive afterword by a novelist and songwriter from Scotland who lives in Japan and writes under the pen name Momus.

The claim to be exhaustive is difficult to credit, and so is the rationale offered for its existence: "The larger point being that comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness." Along with his frequent digressions into popular culture, Žižek's use of jokes has lent his books an appearance of accessibility that accounts for his fame with a broad audience. But that quality is misleading. Žižek practices a form of what Freud called "wild psychoanalysis," with contemporary culture as the analysand. The remarks, quoted earlier, about the free-floating and anonymous nature of jokes are just Žižek's paraphrase of a point made in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where Freud interpreted the erotic and aggressive drives manifested through manipulation of the funny bone.

By spelling that out, I've just told you more about why "comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness" than Žižek's Jokes ever does. In the afterword, Momus speculates that "the joke has become for Zizek what algebra is for his old ally and rival Badiou: the most concise way Žižek knows how to sum up a universal situational shape." The idea might well be developed further,  preferably by someone who knows that Badiou's interest is in formalized set theory rather than algebra. But as formulated it is more a gesture than an insight

A gesture serving mainly to distract attention from two striking things about the book. The first is that Žižek's Jokes makes unavoidably obvious something that it was still possible to overlook 10 years ago: the dynamic role of cut-and-paste in Žižekian production.

Žižek once said that his completed theoretical edifice, spanning several volumes, would amount to a Summa Lacanica rivaling Aquinas's Summa for both scope and cohesion. But along the way, he has met the growing demand for his work from the editors of books, magazines, and newspapers by tearing off suitably sized chunks of whatever manuscript he had in progress. Sometimes he tweaked things to make it appear like freestanding  essay or topical news commentary. And sometimes he did not, though publication was almost certain either way. (I know of one case where the author of a book tried, without success, to have the introduction commissioned from Žižek removed since it had nothing to do with the volume in question.)

Over time, reading Žižek became an experience in déjà vu, with passages from one volume reappearing in others or, in one case, twice in the same book. Žižek's Jokes takes this to a new level. He wrote nothing new for it. Even his two-page introduction consists of one long paragraph from an earlier book. It is a remarkable accomplishment and I do not imagine he will be able to surpass it.

The other striking feature of Žižek's Jokes is how grim the experience of reading it quickly proves to be. In accord with Freudian principles, they revolve almost entirely around sex and/or aggression, often involving racist or misogynist sentiments. All of which is fine when they appear as specimens in a cultural critique  --  where they might even elicit a laugh, given the incongruity of seeing them in a context where Hegel or Heidegger have set the terms for analysis. But running through them one after another, in the service of no argument, is deadening. It ceases to be shocking. It just seems lame. Maybe he should be known as "the Jay Leno of cultural theory?" (If, you know, Leno had Tourettes.)

Of course it's also possible that Žižek has a hidden agenda -- that he's sick of being considered hilarious by people who aren't really interested in Hegel, et al., and so has decided to destroy that reputation in the most efficient way possible. And I'm not even joking about that. It makes a certain amount of sense.

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Essay on 'Creditocracy' by Andrew Ross and 'The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame' by David J. Blacker

Intellectual Affairs

Two great models of eloquence in the English language are The Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the Bible usually called the King James Version. A memorable passage that appears in both volumes crossed my mind while thinking about a couple of recent works of social criticism. (It also happens that Princeton University Press recently brought out The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University, which a couple of readers have highly recommended.)

The text in question appears a couple of times in the New Testament as part of what's usually called "the Lord's Prayer." The Book of Common Prayer, the older of the two volumes, renders one line of the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The KJV rendering says, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

To my ear, "trespasses" works better rhythmically, and it expresses the notion of "sin" or "offense" in a slightly more elegant manner. By contrast, "debt" or "debtor" expresses the same thought in a blunt and harsh way, and even conjures the old cartoon image of St. Peter recording good and evil deeds in a big ledger at the gates of heaven. Puzzled by the contrast, I consulted an extremely literal translation by J.N. Darby -- a Victorian Biblical scholar of uncompromising severity -- who suggests that "debt" is indeed what the original text says.  

Around the time Darby was working on his translation, Friedrich Nietzsche fleshed out an argument about the interrelationship among guilt, debt, and memory. Bringing up an atheist philosopher pretty well guarantees someone is now offended. But The Genealogy of Morals spells out in bleak and somewhat lurid terms a point left implicit in the prayer: The debtor is at the mercy of the creditor, who has the right (or at least the power) to inflict suffering -- even bloody revenge -- when payment is not made.

Whatever else it may signify, the brutal connotations of "debt" make forgiveness sound much more demanding and consequential than "trespass" would imply. (Awkward recollection: Learning the prayer as a little kid, I pictured God being unhappy that people were ignoring a sign on His lawn.)

Homo economicus never spent all that much time on moral accounting. But at least the old bourgeois virtues included restraint and a residual belief that self-interest was justified insofar as it served a larger good. The issues that concern Andrew Ross in his new book Creditocracy (discussed in last week's column) unfold in a world where debt itself is a kind of demigod, answerable to no higher power of any kind -- and certainly not to the state.

As the example of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages in the go-go '00s made clear, the alchemists of finance are able to create profitable investment opportunities out of the risk (i.e., the degree of likelihood) of non-repayment -- making possible the creation of enormous fortunes from loans that cannot be repaid, at least not in full. That is but one link in a complex chain of debt-creation. Should the speculative bubble burst, the job of preventing economic meltdown falls to the government (which already has its own deficits, of course) at whatever risk to allocations for education, infrastructure, etc.

Add to it an average household debt that, Ross notes, grew from 43 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 97 percent in 2008 -- across three decades of stagnating wages. Throughout that period, 60 percent of income gains went to the country's wealthiest 1 percent -- a trend that changed dramatically when the economic crisis hit. Since then, 95 percent of income gains have gone to that debt-creating (if not job-creating) sliver.

David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware, characterizes the situation with a simple image in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books):

"Imagine a casino in which you play with the house money and if you win you get to keep all the winnings to yourself, whereas if you lose, the house covers your bets. The literally astronomical public sums required to continue this arrangement for the minutest percentage of the population is the proximal cause of the squeeze on public resources. Schoolchildren, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly etc., must all sacrifice so elites no longer have to undergo the risks that are officially supposed to be inherent in their role as fearless capitalist risk-takers. ..."  But genuine competition and risk are reserved "for small businesses and other little people like private and public sector employees."

Ross responds to the debt-driven status quo by challenging a whole series of moral reflexes that have traditionally accompanied debt: the feelings of obligation and culpability, of shame and implied weakness, that the prayer rendered in the King James translation take as a given. When access to socially necessary goods (particularly higher education) is restricted or undermined by an economy making debt all but inescapable for countless people, someone ought to feel guilty when students default on their loans -- just not the students themselves. The next step is to call for large-scale fiscal disobedience: a social movement of millions of people pledging to default on their student loans. On the far side of that and other radical confrontations with the debt machine, Ross conceives the possibility of morally sound, humanely responsible systems of finance, based on communitarian social forms. Not utopia, perhaps, but a long way from here.

Massive default is a strategy I find it easier to admire, or at least to daydream about, than to recommend. It is not impossible that a million people might make such a pledge. Carrying out the action is another matter -- and if only a fraction see it through, the result is bound to be martyrdom of an uninspiring and ineffectual kind. In any case, I have no student debt to default on in solidarity, and calling for others to do so would be a case of telling them, "Let's you and him go fight."

Like Creditocracy, David Blacker's book was written in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. But where Ross occasionally sounds like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon -- with his vision of a mutualist society of small producers, exchanging goods and services with a new form of money that doesn't promote inequality -- Blacker thinks along much more classically Marxist lines. The predatory forms of financial speculation that led to the crisis five years ago will not be regulated out of existence, nor are they deviations or tumors growing on a fundamentally healthy economy. The casino will keep rewarding the high rollers when they win and shaking the rest of society down when they lose. Such investment in manufacture as continues to be made will need workers with skills and the capacity to adapt to technological developments -- but ever fewer of them.

Most of the population will be an object for social control, rather than Schooling proper. At some level most of us sense this already, making the whole notion of "education as investment in the future" an ever more problematic principle. Blacker has written probably the gloomiest book I have read in years, but in some ways it seems like a practical one. He is not a survivalist. He thinks pedagogy still has a role, provided it's geared to understanding the dire probabilities and finding ways to respond to them. It helps that Blacker is a sharp and forceful writer, giving his analysis something of the  vividness and urgency of an Old Testament prophet delivering warnings that nobody really wants to hear.

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Mold Endangers 600,000 Books at U. of Missouri

About 600,000 books from the library of the University of Missouri at Columbia -- stored at an off-campus facilities -- have been damaged by mold, The Columbia Daily Tribune reported. The university plans to remove the mold from some of the books, but the high cost of that process (about $3 per book) probably means that all of the books can't be saved.


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Review of Andrew Ross, "Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal"

The golden age of unsolicited credit-card applications ended about five years ago. It must have been a relief at the post office. At least ten envelopes came each week -- often with non-functioning replica cards enclosed, to elicit the anticipatory thrill of fresh plastic in the recipient’s hot little hand.

For a while, I would open each envelope and carefully shred anything with my name on it, lest an identity thief go on a shopping spree in my name. But at some point I gave up, because there were just too many of them. Besides, any identity thief worth worrying about enjoyed better options than trash-diving for unopened mail.

Something started happening circa 2006 or ’07. More and more often, the very envelopes carried wording to the effect that approval for a new card was a formality, so act now! With the benefit of hindsight, this reads as a last surge of economic acceleration before the crash just ahead. But at the time, I figured that credit-card companies were growing desperate to grab our attention, since many of us were throwing the offers away without a second glance.

The two alternatives -- turbocharged consumerism on the one hand, the depleted willingness (or capacity) of consumers to take on more debt, on the other -- are not mutually exclusive. It was subprime mortgages rather than overextended credit cards that brought the go-go ’00s to an early end, but each was a manifestation of the system Andrew Ross writes about in Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books).

Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, was active in Occupy Wall Street, and Creditocracy bears a few traces of the movement, both in its plainspoken and inclusive expressions of anger (this I like) and its redeployment of old anarco-syndicalist ideas (that, not so much).

One commonplace account of the near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 is that it was the product of consumer hedonism at its most irresponsible. It was just deserts for people playing Xbox on jumbo flat-screen TVs in subprime-mortgaged houses they shouldn't be in. Whatever the limits of its explanatory power, this interpretation allows for a pleasing discharge of moralistic aggression. Hence its popularity. The most familiar argument opposing it places the blame, rather, on bankers, brokers, and other criminals “too big to jail.” It was they who were greedy and short-sighted, not average people.

Besides the more obvious similarities, what these explanations share is an implication that the disaster could have been avoided with some self-discipline and the understanding that hyperbolic discounting is a very bad habit.

Ross leans in the anti-plutocratic direction, but he proves ultimately less interested in the morality of anyone’s decisions than he is in the framework that permits, or demands, those decisions in the first place. The system he calls “creditocracy” turns out debt as fast and efficiently as Detroit once did automobiles, and just as profitably:

“Financiers seek to wrap debt around every possible asset and income stream,” he writes, “ensuring a flow of interest from each…. [T]he tipping point for a creditocracy occurs when ‘economic rents’ – from debt-leveraging, capital gains, manipulation of paper claims through derivatives and other forms of financial engineering – are no longer merely supplementary sources of income, but have become the most reliable and effective instrument for the amassing of wealth and influence.”

At that level of description, Ross has simply given a new name to what Rudolf Hilferding, writing a hundred years ago, called “finance capital.” But what Hilferding had in mind was the merger of banking and industrial capitalism – the marriage of big money and big factories, with monopoly presiding. Creditocracy, by contrast, “goes small,” insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of life. The relationship between creditor and debtor takes many different shapes, some more overt than others.

When you take out a student loan or a mortgage, your submission to the financial system is more or less deliberate, and in any event explicit. It runs deeper, and proves less purely voluntary, if you have to use credit cards in lieu of unemployment insurance. The credit relationship is much more efficiently disguised if it takes the form of an unpaid internship – the “exchange” of your time and skills for intangible and impossible-to-quantify  credit” toward a future job, if you’re lucky.

And if that doesn’t pan out, you might end up working in one of the less desirable positions at Walmart or Taco Bell, among other corporations that banks have persuaded, Ross writes, “to pay their employees with prepaid debit cards that are only lightly regulated.” The banks then “charge the users fees to make ATM withdrawls and retail purchases, along with inactivity fees for using their cards. Almost all of these are minimum or subminimum wage employees, compelled to fork over a fee to enjoy their paycheck." (The practice was described in a New York Times article a few months ago.)

In next week’s column, I’ll consider Ross’s analysis of how the impact of creditocracy on education amounts to a ruthless exploitation, not just of present-day society, but of the future. We’ll also take a look at the comparable argument in a new book called The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books) by David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware.    

Until then, I’ll sign off by mentioning that someone has just sent me an application for a $40,000 line of credit. This must be evidence of that “recovery” one reads about. If so, we’re in real trouble.

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