“Bill O’Reilly has connected the dots to identify me as being behind the occupation,” said Frances Fox Piven. “I’m sorry to say that’s not true.”
We were talking, by phone, about the continuing protest on Wall Street -- what it meant, how it was developing, and where things might go next. Piven, a professor of sociology and political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, had gone downtown to join the protests a couple of times. Now in its fourth week and endorsed by several unions (most recently, the Communication Workers of America), Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has spun off hundreds of similar demonstrations around the country, including one outside the Federal Reserve building in Chicago.
We had a lot to discuss. But at some point, I was duty-bound to ask about the craziness. Or rather, it might be better to say, about the latest craziness. Over the past few years, Piven has emerged as Public Enemy Number One for the U.S. right wing, which believes that an article in The Nation 45 years ago that she wrote with her late husband Richard Cloward laid the groundwork for Obama’s plans to turn the U.S. into a somewhat larger version of North Korea, or something.
The whole thing makes about as much sense as one of those diagrams Glenn Beck used to put up on his chalkboard. Which is, as they say, no accident. It was the former Fox News celebrity who made Piven the focus of rage by attacking her repeatedly on his program.
“It was going on for almost a year before I knew about it,” she told me. “My students pointed it out to me on YouTube. I paid attention for a while but stopped. It’s boring.”
Well, apart from the death threats. She says they’ve started coming in again over the past week, since another Fox talking head played a clip of her remarks in support of Occupy Wall Street. It seems as if death threats would be anything but boring. But Piven sounded unfazed, if a bit weary of the subject. What really gets her going, by contrast, is talking about the dynamics and possibilities of the occupation movement. (More on that later.)
Other scholars I’ve contacted discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement as analysts, not advocates. They’ve been spared Piven’s drama. But insofar as they consider OWS to be a response to actual economic and social problems -- rather than the work of dirty hippies and commie sympathizers -- they may yet risk serving as fodder for somebody’s boosted Nielsen ratings.
David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine, has offered a running commentary on the occupations through his blog Politics Outside, and discussed the movement’s relationship to the Tea Party in an op-ed for The Washington Post. He is an associate editor of the University of Minnesota Press series Social Movements, Protest, and Contention and has chaired the American Sociological Association’s Section on Collective Behavior and Social Movements. We discussed Occupy Wall Street (and its spin-offs) via e-mail.
“The people who've assembled in Zuccotti Park” near Wall Street, he said, “have a wide range of reasons for being there; some of them explicitly say that they are not political. But the growth of the campaign, the emulative efforts across the country, and the kinds of responses it’s generating, are all a function of this political moment, which is characterized by an economic (and political) crisis where their interests are woefully underrepresented.”
I asked Meyer to imagine that he’d received a proposal for a book on the movement for the Minnesota series. What would he want it to cover?
“One interesting project,” he said, “would be to trace the origins and politics of the different Occupy efforts around the country, which will vary depending upon who gets involved in the efforts. I'm sure they're different, in terms of style and issues and militancy.” The author would need to situate the movement in the context of “a decades-long increase in economic inequality, supporting -- and being supported by -- decreased regulation of business and dramatically increasing costs of political campaigns. It would note the 2008 collapse, the election of the first black president, the Tea Party mobilization, and the shift of balance in governance dramatically to the right. The Occupy movement is an attempt at redress, and it needs to be seen that way.”
Comparisons between OWS and the Tea Party are inevitable, if hardly inarguable. My impression as a supporter of the occupations (albeit one averse to sleeping bags) is that the young protesters have been inspired by the Arab Spring in a way that the older conservatives in the Tea Party haven't been -- and that the occupation movement has been more spontaneous, and considerably less well-funded, than the Tea Party.
“I make a lot less of the international dimension than you suggest,” Meyer replied. “I completely believe that Tahrir Square was inspirational to some of the Occupiers, but there were plenty of other inspirational events around the world that didn't provoke a comparable response in the U.S. (think, for example, about the revolutions of 1989, plus Tiananmen Square). It was the current context that made that inspiration viable. And, I suspect, if it wasn't Egypt it would have been something else in these circumstances.”
And the force of circumstances makes the occupation movement and the Tea Party resemble each other more than either would care to think. “That's not to suggest they're the same or symmetrical,” Meyer said. “….To oversimplify, they were both angry about the Wall Street bailouts: Tea Partiers were angry that government was giving out money; Occupiers were angry that it was going to the extremely rich. They're also both marching through the trajectory of protest movements in America, generating responses from mainstream politics that end up defining them.”
For all its journalistic convenience, the term “populism” is less a political label than an incitement to endless debate -- not to mention the cause for some heavy theoretical lifting, of late. That the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike are called populist shows how fluid it can be as a category. In both cases, the movement identifies itself as an effort to mobilize “the people” against “the elite.” Rhetorical similarities notwithstanding, they articulate their grievances in very different ways -- in part because each has its own understanding of the composition (not to say complexion) of “the people.”
In the 1990s, Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, offered an analysis of the common ideological denominator among variants of American populism. Each had inherited elements of a 19th-century conception of political and social conflict as a struggle between the many people who produced wealth (farmers, craftsmen, industrial workers, entrepreneurs) and the smaller group of exploiters who manipulated it (speculators, bankers, monopolists, bureaucrats). This “producerist” ethos could manifest itself in otherwise contrasting versions of populism, depending on how immigrants and racial minorities were regarded – whether as producers (in left populism) or exploiters (for the right variant).
The OWSers have identified themselves as defending 99 percent of the population against the speculation and corruption of the top 1 percent. But Tea Party rhetoric has been much more overtly producerist, it seems to me, than the Occupy Wall Street movement has been. I wrote to Kazin to ask what he thought.
“You're right,” he replied; “the TPers employ producerist rhetoric far more than have the OWSers, although if labor keeps promoting the latter, that could change.… From what I've seen and read, OWS discourse is populist in the majoritarian sense (99% vs. 1%) and in the focus on high finance, which has been a villain since Jefferson's day. The old figure of the pot-bellied, top-hatted banker (sometimes straight from the Monopoly game) has staged a comeback, from protest signs to a recent New Yorker cover.”
Kazin’s latest book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (Knopf), appeared shortly before the occupation began. Its subtitle might be taken by the movement as an encouraging word. But he is concerned that the protesters have used only half of producerist symbolism.The porcine plutocrat in spats makes for an easily recognizable image, but it's not enough.
“The antithesis,” Kazin pointed out, “in the form of the moral worker/wage-earner/producer, isn't much present, in part because most demonstrators have never seen themselves that way and in part because it's become associated with the Palin-esque right."
Here, I take Kazin to mean that her salt-of-the-earth, just-folks manner has enabled Palin to take on the role of spokesperson for the hard-working American. Be that as it may, "producerist" morality is just about the last set of values embodied in her career; she is as purely a creature of consumerism and celebrity culture as any figure in American politics. But the right's positioning of itself as the voice of the silent majority has been effective enough to make populist language sound almost intrinsically conservative.
And this is a problem for Occupy Wall Street, "as it has been for the left since World War II," said Kazin. "In a sense, the evocation of 99% is a sign of discursive weakness: it calls up a unified ‘people’ that everyone knows doesn't and can never exist.”
It may be that more nuanced ideas about the economy and social structure will emerge -- or already have. Keeping track of the movement even a week ago was much easier than it is now. Type the single word “occupy” into Google News and the results include reports from Boston, Atlanta, San Jose, Des Moines, and Austin. But speedy dissemination is one thing and sustained momentum, or real impact, something else altogether.
After reading his first post on OWS at Orgtheory -- a group blog on the study of movements, networks, and organizations -- I wrote Brayden King to get a better sense of how the movement looked to someone who studies group structures and processes. King is assistant professor of management and organization at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
For a movement to have be “potentially transformative,” he explained, it needed to meet three basic conditions. One is “movement capacity, such as resources and organization,” while another is “public attention, usually transmitted through the news media.” The third element is a vulnerable target. (It is not difficult to see how each might tend to reinforce the others.)
“The OWS faces prime conditions,” King explained, “because they have great capacity for action due to all of the people they've mobilized and their masterful ability to coordinate large-scale protest. The public is paying attention, allies and foes alike. And their targets are extremely vulnerable to attack given the poor reputation of politicians and financial institutions.”
But the three conditions do not, in themselves, generate either structure or strategy.
“If I were researching the OWS,” King wrote, “I'd want to be a fly on the wall and observe their strategic decision-making and see how they arrive at decisions about which targets to go after, what specific goals they're going to pursue, etc.” Calling the occupations “well-positioned to be tactically successful,” King said that “once they've collectively decided to do something, they will be carry it out because of the enormous resource capacity and organization they've created.” That leaves open an enormous question, though: “How do you arrive at strategic decisions when there is no hierarchy and when you're trying to keep together a broad coalition of diverse groups?”
The problem he poses is an old one, and difficult to solve through strictly procedural means:
It also leaves open the question of what the intended effect of the movement ought to be.
One possibility is that OWS might, like the Tea Party, emerge as a factor in electoral politics. The protesters “could become the barb in the side of the Democratic Party and force them to move further left in their policy agenda,” said King. “They could reawaken an interest in labor issues. They could put pressure on Democrats to become tougher on financial regulation and loosen the grip that the elite financial network has on Democratic economic policy making.…” That would mean settling on particular campaigns or pieces of legislation to support or oppose, “as the Tea Partiers did when they aggressively attacked Obama's health care program and galvanized Republicans to resist those reforms.”
Legislation and campaigning have not been the focus of OWS thus far. Another possibility is that it might have an impact over the much longer term. The protesters "may instead decide to never pursue a specific policy agenda,” King said. “Instead, they may be content to serve as a base for the mobilization of the left and as a platform for solidarity-building. The long-term benefits of this kind of mobilization could be great, especially if it eventually fosters a coherent philosophical vision of the future, but the short-term benefits might be muted. Without a clear set of targets and goals, the OWS might not be able to generate the same political influence that the Tea Party did.”
The movement's sudden growth and present course probably reflect the fact that the pull of electoralism is at its weakest just now. And simply at the level of logical consistency, being anti-Wall Street and pro-Obama is not really feasible. As a candidate in 2008, he received more money from the financial sector than John McCain did. The list of people in the administration with strong ties to Goldman Sachs is not short. But lesser-evilism will be on the rise soon enough.
Decisions about the next step for the movement will need to be made. And it's a matter of time before OWS's short-term maneuvers are influenced less by ideological debate than by meteorological necessity. But with a whole generation of people facing the prospect of long-term joblessness, it's not hard to picture things on Wall Street becoming very rowdy indeed in, say, March.
“This isn’t going to be over very quickly,” according to Frances Fox Piven. “Picking Wall Street was brilliant, and it was absolutely right to conceive the action as an occupation, not the usual protest. It’s reinventing the demonstration. With a protest, the target just has to sit it out, knowing that you won’t be there tomorrow. The young people who are involved in this are going at it with some tenacity.”
The most interesting part of the conversation came when Piven began to discuss what she called the “very acute moral sensibility” of the movement. This choice of terms bothered me a little. Too much sentimentality pervades our political discourse, whether of the left or right. Acute moral sensibility counts for less, in social conflict, than a feel for strategy and tactics.
But Piven went on to cut right through these reservations. “The central moral issue of American political economy now is inequality,” she said. It had been growing before the economic downturn, and the past few years have driven awareness of it home.The people involved in the occupations “are trying to find different ways to expose what extreme inequality is doing to us," she continued. "They’ve reached out to all sorts of allies. They’ve been reaching out to labor unions and the unions have responded with support. When was the last time that happened?"
With the occupations movement, something has changed. "As you know," Piven said, "a lot of politics on the left for many years has been about identity as ‘us and them.’ Realizing and recognizing our differences was necessary, but it also caused a lot of damage. With Occupy Wall Street, there's no identity politics in it at all. It’s all kinds of people -- old, young, very diverse, very open. Nothing the demonstrators have said is offensive to potentially allies. And I don’t think that’s just a tactic. It’s a new mood or feeling, it's deeply solidaristic.”
By contrast, the hostility directed at Piven -- the hostile messages, the cyberstalking, people following her around with cameras – sounds much less important to her. It’s a sideshow. She’ll keep participating in the occupations, and speaking in support of them.
As for her detractors, she imagines they, too, will carry on. "They attend my lectures and write everything down,” she said. “Then they publish distorted quotations on their blogs. It’s what they do.”
Poor and ethnic-minority students selected through what is called "positive discrimination" are thriving at an elite French university, according to a report by one of its academics.
L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris – better known as Sciences Po – was criticized when it announced it would drop entrance examinations for 10 percent of its intake in 2001 to recruit more poor students. Schools in deprived areas put forward their most promising pupils for admission via interview, with those chosen eligible for financial aid to cover fees.
Even with the anniversary approaching, reading about 9/11 feels like a matter of duty, not desire. Especially with the anniversary, in fact: Magazines and PDF printouts devoted to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 accumulated on my desk for more than a week before I found the will to do more than stare at them. Eventually, the work ethic asserted itself, and this column will digest some of the recently published material on 9/11.
But this spell of hesitation bears mentioning, because a temporary failure of nerve was probably more than my idiosyncrasy. The event itself is hard to think about -- just as it was at the time. My recollection of that day has is not primarily one of fear, though there was plenty of that. (We live in Washington; according to a news report that morning, a car bomb had gone off downtown; this proved false but it stuck with you.) Rather, it was a state of extremely vivid confusion -- of being keenly aware of each passing hour, yet unable to take in the situation, let alone to anticipate very much of anything.
Who could? The experience was unprecedented. So much of the past decade of American life can be traced back to that day: wars, drones, security, surveillance, detention, “enhanced interrogation,” torture porn, the extremes of public emotion about having a president whose middle name is Hussein…. One thing that changed after 9/11 was that, after a while, people quit saying that “everything changed” on that date. But something did change, so that it is difficult to consider the way we live now without returning, sooner or later, to 9/11.
It is a date that names an era. Melvyn P. Leffler’s essay “9/11 in Retrospect,” appearing in Foreign Affairs, tries “to place the era in context and assess it as judiciously as possible.” That means from the perspective of an unexcitable centrism, with an eye to calculating the long-term effects on U.S. power. Leffler, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, is co-editor, with Jeffrey Legro, of In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy After the Berlin Wall and 9/11, published this summer by Cornell University Press. (At the time of this writing, his article is behind the journal’s paywall.)
Against those of us who believe that George W. Bush came into office with the intention of taking on Iraq, Leffler maintains that the administration was overwhelmingly preoccupied with domestic policy before 9/11 and improvised its doctrine of “anticipatory self defense [or] preventative warfare” out of “a feeling of responsibility for the public and a sense of guilt over having allowed the country to be struck.” In shifting gears, Bush and his advisers “had trouble weaving the elements of their policy into a coherent strategy that could address the challenges they considered most urgent.”
The combination of tax cuts and increased military expenditures “seriously eroded” the country’s “financial strength and flexibility,” even as occupations and counterinsurgencies undermined U.S. credibility as a force in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. “Iraq was largely eliminated as a counterbalance to Iran,” writes Leffler, “Iran’s ability to meddle beyond its borders increased, and the United States’ ability to mediate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations declined.” Meanwhile, “China’s growing military capability” began “endanger[ing] the United States’ supremacy in East and Southeast Asia” -- which was probably not high on Osama Bin Laden’s agenda, but history is all about the unexpected consequences.
The attacks on 9/11 “alerted the country to the fragility of its security,” Leffler concludes, as well as “the anger, bitterness, and resentment toward the United States residing elsewhere, particularly in parts of the Islamic world. But if 9/11 highlighted vulnerabilities, its aftermath illustrated how the mobilization of U.S. power, unless disciplined, calibrated, and done in conjunction with allies, has the potential to undermine the global commons as well as protect them.”
“It’s been a sad, lost, and enervating decade,” says the editorial note introducing the discussion of 9/11 in Democracy, a quarterly journal calling for “a vibrant and vital progressivism for the 21st century.” With contributions by 11 academics and journalists -- running to 35 pages of the fall issue -- there is too much to synopsize, but the title sums things up reasonably well: “America Astray.” (The symposium is currently posted online, in advance of the print edition.)
But two interventions stand out from the prevailing tone of frustration and worry. Being the gloomy sort myself, I want to emphasize them here, just to see what that’s like.
Elizabeth Anderson, who is a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, writes with evident disappointment that Bush’s legacy lives on: “Overall, Obama’s record on executive power and civil liberties diverges little from his predecessor. In certain respects it is even worse....” She refers to continued domestic spying, huge expenditures for the National Security Agency, the prosecution of leakers “on an unprecedented scale,” and Obama’s targeting of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, for “extrajudicial killing … even outside any battlefield context.”
“The traumatic experience of 9/11 lies behind all of these [actions and policies],” Anderson writes. But the revival of “public demand for privacy, civil liberties, and greater transparency is likely -- one hopes, anyway – to override the fears that underwrite state violations of constitutional rights.” The profound demographic shifts of the coming decades means that political parties “will soon see that they have more to gain by integrating immigrants and their American children into society than by pandering to anti-immigrant prejudice.”
Well, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra said, or should have) but the notion of moving beyond the post-9/11 rut is certainly appealing. The other Democracy contributor to offer an encouraging word is Fawaz A. Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, who recapitulates some of the argument from his book The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, just published by Oxford University Press.
“The Arab Spring reinforced what many of us have known for a while,” he writes. “Al Qaeda’s core message is in conflict with the universal aspirations of the Arab world…. Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, neither speak for the umma (the global Muslim community) nor exercise any influence on Arab public opinion.”
The organization has shrunk from three or four thousand fighters to perhaps a tenth of that, with its best cadres now either dead or “choosing personal safety over operational efficiency.” While Zawahiri is dangerous, Gerges says, he lacks Bin Laden’s charisma or strategic sense. The best way to undermine what remains of the organization would be to withdraw American troops from Muslim countries.
Far bleaker is Michael Scheuer's assessment in “The Zawahiri Era,” published in the new issue of The National Interest, a conservative policy journal best known as Francis Fukuyama's venue for proclaiming “The End of History” in 1989. Scheuer is a former CIA analyst and the author of Osama Bin Laden (Oxford University Press, 2011). While noting Zawahiri’s “potentially debilitating personality traits and leadership quirks,” Scheuer also calls him “a rational, prudent, brave, dedicated and media-savvy leader,” fully capable of rebuilding the movement.
But that assumes Zawahiri can attract new fighters. Whatever recruitment spike Al Qaeda enjoyed after 9/11 has long since exhausted itself, to judge by the excerpt from The Missing Martyrs by Charles Kurzman appearing in the September-October issue of Foreign Policy (which is something like Foreign Affairs' younger, better-dressed sibling). Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As with Gerges and Scheuer, his book is from Oxford University Press. “By my calculation,” he writes, “global Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter century and fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11.” (The article is available to subscribers.)
Mohammad Atta and his associates were not riding the wave of the future, then: “There aren’t very many Islamist terrorists,” Kurzman says, “and most are incompetent. They fight each other as much they fight anybody else, and they fight their potential state sponsors most of all. They are outlaws on the run in almost every country in the world, and their bases have been reduced to ever-wilder patches of remote territory, where they have to limit their training activities to avoid satellite surveillance.”
So much of the discussion leading up to this anniversary looks to the present or the future – as if 9/11 were not in the past, but rather something that still abides. As Jurgen Habermas said in an interview a few years ago, 9/11 may have been the first event to be experienced, as it was happening, on a really global scale. That may have something to do with the way it seems to have irradiated everything, and to linger in the air.
In their article “The September 11 Digital Archive,” appearing in the fall issue of Radical History Review, Stephen Brier and Joshua Brown seem to echo the philosopher’s point. “One difference demarcating September 11, 2001, from previous epochal historical moments,” they write, “was its status as the first truly digital event of world historical importance: a significant part of the historical record – from email to photography to audio to video – was expressed, captured, disseminated, or viewed in (or converted to) digital forms and formats.”
To preserve these traces for the future was an undertaking both urgent and vast. Within two months of the attacks, the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University began working to gather and store such material, as well as thousands of recollections of the day submitted by the public. (Brier was a co-founder of the ASHP and Brown is currently its executive director.)
While still under development – adding adequate metadata to the files, for example – the September 11 Digital Archive is available online and should be taken over by the Library of Congress in 2013. It should not be confused with the LoC’s September 11, 2001, Web Archive, which has screen shots of websites around the world that were taken, according to the library’s description, between September 11 and December 1 of 2001. Unfortunately the collection is rather primitive and unreliable. A number of items are actually from late 2002 and have no bearing on 9/11; some entries in the register turn out to have no corresponding webpage.
No doubt a much better digital archive for 9/11 is on an NSA server somewhere. It may be some while before historians get to see it – maybe by the centennial? In the meantime, the rest of RHR's special issue "Historicizing 9/11" can be downloaded here.
Normally I would be averse to going public with the internal affairs of the Flat Earth Society. But this is not the time for silence or misguided diplomacy. The failure of our leadership to throw the Society's full support behind the Academic Bill of Rights is little short of scandalous.
It is time to put an end to the constant stream of indoctrination in America's college classrooms on the part of "scholars" only too willing to serve the interests of the globe-manufacturing lobby. Students should be given a chance to use their own rationality and powers of observation. Remember, the so-called "theory" of spherical-earthism is just that -- a theory. (I mean, come on! It's just a matter of common sense. The world can't be round. The people in Australia would fall off.)
At the same time, the Society has nearly liquidated its treasury in placing a bulk order for a new book by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, called The World is Flat. The cover is, to be sure, very impressive. It portrays two ships and a small boat sailing dangerously close to the edge of the earth. However, I am now reading the book, and am sorry to report it is not nearly as good as we all had hoped.
Friedman argues that the rapid spread of high-speed digital communication has created conditions in which skilled labor in now-impoverished countries can be integrated into a new economic order that will end extreme disparities in wealth and development. The world will be less uneven, and in that sense more "flat."
It's a book about globalization, in other words. Which makes the title (not to mention the artwork, which has given me nightmares) very sneaky indeed.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that the Flat Earth Society is still active. (It has a Web page, though that doesn't mean much.) But a recent reading of Martin Gardner's classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is a reminder that it was in 1905 that the Rev. Wilbur Glenn Voliva became General Overseer of Zion, Illinois -- a town in which church and state were, at the time, pretty much identical. Voliva ministered to the Christ Community Church and enforced strict blue laws, while also carrying on the scientific research necessary to prove that (as Gardner puts it) "the earth is shaped like a flapjack, with the North Pole at the center and the South Pole distributed around the circumference."
He offered a reward of $5,000 to anyone who could prove otherwise, and never had to part with what any of his money. It is good to know that, 100 years later, Voliva's scholarly efforts may yet win a hearing in the American academic life -- thanks to the tireless efforts of David Horowitz.
As for Thomas Friedman .... well, his version of flat-earth doctrine is bound to have an impact on academe, even if no professor ever opens his latest volume. The people flying in business class read Friedman's books -- and that includes plenty of university administrators, those acting CEOs of the knowledge economy.
Nor will it hurt that The World is Flat is, in effect, one long plea to corporations, government officials, and any other policy-makers who might be reading to invest in higher education as the nation's top priority for the future. In a world where more and more jobs can be done more cheaply, in new places, people need constantly to update, refine, or change entirely their toolkit of knowledge and skills.
Friedman has a knack for harvesting the information, opinions, and gut instincts of some of the most powerful people in the world. He boils it all down into some catchy slogans, and voila! You've got a bouillon cube of the conventional wisdom for the next two or three years.
He is bullish on the long-term benefits of the global market -- with that congenital optimism tempered (occasionally, and just a little) by the experience of having served as a Middle East correspondent. And he shows a faith in the power of corporations to become good global citizens that is either inspiring or willfully obtuse -- depending on whether or not you are annoyed by the fact that The World is Flat contains exactly zero interviews with labor leaders.
It is his instinct towards globalization boosterism that gives the edge, so to speak, to Friedman's thesis on what he calls "flatism." In short, his argument is that the technological infrastructure now exists to make it economically rational for more and more kinds of business to be conducted in a way that is dispersed over networks that span the entire world. Outsourcing no longer means shifting manufacturing offshore -- or even having the less-skilled kinds of service-sector jobs (data keypunching, for example) done in another country.
Work requiring more sophisticated cognitive skills -- bookkeeping, computer programming, or the analysis of medical test results, for example -- can be done in India or China at much less expense. Jobs thus become more mobile than the people who do them.
Friedman's main point is that this is not a trend that will take shape at some point in the future. It is happening right now; the trend will not reverse. And the American political parties and the cable news programs are not telling the public what is happening. They are, as Friedman puts it, "actively working to make people stupid."
Instead, "companies should be encouraged, with government subsidies or tax incentives, to offer as wide an array as possible of in-house learning opportunities," thereby "widening the skill base of their own workforce and fulfilling a moral obligation to workers whose jobs are outsourced to see to it that they leave more employable than they came."
Friedman also favors "an immigration policy that gives a five-year work visa to any foreign student who completes a Ph.D. at an accredited American university in any subject. I don't care if it's Greek mythology or mathematics. If we cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world, it will always end up a net plus for America."
I n a way, Friedman has come to his own version of some of the ideas that Manuel Castells developed some years ago in the three large volumes of The Information Age. There, the sociologist worked out an account of how the "space of flows" between parts of a dispersed economic network would transform the "space of places" (that is, the real-world geography) in which people dwell.
As with Friedman's notion of "flatism," the increased productivity and ceaseless disruption of network society were basic to the picture that Castells drew. But he also stressed something that Friedman -- with his abiding cheerfulness -- tends to downplay: Skills, knowledge, and wealth accumulate at the dispersed nodes of an economic network, but some parts of the world fall outside the network more or less entirely.
Most of Africa, for example. Last year, a study found that 96 percent of the continent's population had no access to telecommunications of any kind. Given the unavailability of drinking water and medical supplies, that is probably the least of anyone's worries. But even with the recent increase in wireless access in Africa -- thereby potentially getting around the scarcity and unreliability of more traditional landline telecommunication -- it is unlikely that part of the world will be "flattening" anytime soon. (Some might see the glass as 96 percent empty, but I suppose someone encouraged by Friedman's book would consider it 4 percent full.)
Meanwhile, it is difficult to feel much optimism about Friedman's proposal for beefing up the resources for increasing the educational opportunities of the American workforce. At least for now, the public discourse on higher education is caught in a particularly narrow and regressive set of undercurrents.
It's possible to joke about how the Rev. Voliva's scholarship in flat-earth studies might finally start getting their due. But matters are serious when scientists are forced to resort to references to Lysenkoism to describe the government's science policy. And higher education itself is the focus of a barrage of ideologues who seem to have confused The Authoritarian Personality with a manual for self-improvement.
It would be good to think that the national agenda could change -- that the notion of "flatism," whatever its limitations, might help spur increased public commitment to continuing education. But then, as Friedman also says, certain politicians and media outlets are "actively working to make people stupid." With that part, at least, he's being realistic.
Scot McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Later this year, I'll give a paper at the annual convention of the American Political Science Association. For someone who is not a political scientist, this is a bizarre prospect -- like one of those dreams in which you must take a final exam in a course you’ve never actually taken. My topic involves tracing one strand of neoconservative ideology back to its source in a far-flung mutation of Marxist theory. I’ve been doing the research for about 20 years, off and on, without ever quite supposing that it would culminate in a presentation in front of a bunch of professors.
Then again, the matter is sufficiently esoteric that "bunch" may not be the exact word. Chances are there will be more than enough chairs.
In any case, a mass of old books and photocopies are now stacked up, to an unstable height, on my desk. And on top of the pile there is a notebook. The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two ... all will be written there, in longhand.
My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand. (It’s probably comparable to finding out that your doctor grows blood-sucking leeches in the basement.) Like an interest in the fine distinctions made by the ancient Trotskyists, my writing habits are idiosyncratic, anachronistic, and more or less impossible to justify in terms making any sense given the state of 21st century American culture.
Yet the rut is now too deep to crawl out of it. I have my reasons. Or perhaps, to be more precise, my rationalizations. Not that they persuade anybody else, of course. It’s particularly awkward when an editor asks for a progress report. There is a certain uncomfortable silence when I say, "Well, the notebook is almost full...."
Nowadays, the word "text" connotes an artifact that is "always already" digitized -- something to be fed into a streamlined apparatus for circulating information. But the word itself comes from the Latin root texere, to weave, as in "textile."
In my own experience, though, writing is not so much the crafting of paragraphs as it is a matter of laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. The process is messy and not terribly efficient.
Writing this column twice a week, for example, is a matter of juggling two legal pads of different sizes, plus anywhere from one to three notebooks. It is easy to detect which parts were written with a cup of coffee in one hand: The sentences are long, the handwriting spiky, the parentheses nestled one inside the next. By its penultimate phase, the draft is a puzzling array of arrows, boxes, Venn diagrams, and Roman numerals. (Also, as the case may require, whatever lower-case letters of the Greek alphabet I can still remember.)
The effect resembles the flow chart for a primitive computer program to be run on a wheezy old tube-driven UNIVAC.
Only as the deadline approaches is anything actually typed up, in a kind of spastic marathon. By that point, a certain passage from Walter Benjamin always comes to mind: "The work is a death mask of its conception."
Actually, with hindsight, it’s easy to see that Benjamin got me started on this erratic and circuitous course. In a collection of essays and fragments called One Way Street, he offers a set of aphorisms on writing, including the one just quoted. (First published in 1926, it is now available in the first of a four-volume edition of his work in English published by Harvard University Press.)
"Let no thought pass incognito," Benjamin insisted, "and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens." (A line that became more poignant after the Nazis came to power, forcing Benjamin to spend the rest of his life in exile.)
But one passage in particular made a huge impression on me. "Avoid haphazard writing materials," admonished Benjamin. "A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensible."
As if to clinch it, there is an interview that Roland Barthes gave in 1973 that seems to ratify Benjamin’s point. Under the title "An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments," it was reprinted posthumously in a collection called The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, published by the University of California Press.
In a gesture very typical of his structuralist penchant for creating categorical distinctions, Barthes notes that his own writing process goes through two stages: "First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse," said Barthes. It was a phase of copying down "certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me," and of working out "the rhythm of a sentence" that gives shape to his own ideas. Only much later can the text be "prepared for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object" – a moment, according to Barthes, when the writing "is already beginning its commercialization."
Clearly the important phase is the one in which "desire is invested in a graphic impulse." And for that, you need the right tools. "I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it," Barthes told the interviewer. "As soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them."
The one exception was the Bic, which Barthes found disgusting: "I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy...."
So the penchant for haunting stationery stores (and otherwise indulging a fetish for writing supplies) has the endorsement of distinguished authorities. But my efficiency-cramping distaste for the computer keyboard is somewhat more difficult to rationalize.
Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes died long before word processors were available, of course. But a good excuse not to write first drafts that way comes from the poet Ted Hughes, in a passage quoted by Alice W. Flaherty in her fascinating book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.
In an account of judging in a contest for children’s writing, Hughes recalled that the entries once tended to be two or three pages long. "But in the early 1980s," he said, "we suddenly began to get seventy and eighty page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent – a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring...."
In each case, the kid had composed the miniature magnum opus on a word processor.
"What’s happening," according to Hughes, "is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page became more flexible and externalized, the writer [could] get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated."
Which sounds, come to think of it, somewhat like what Barthes called "Bic style." And quite a bit like the output of various academic presses it would be discrete leave unnamed.
Not that writers had to wait for the advent of the word processor to produce work that was (in Hughes’s terms) "extraordinarily fluent" yet "strangely boring."
Indeed, in the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin gave practical tips to scholars who wanted both to impress their readers by clobbering them into a stupor. In a satiric chapter of One Way Street called "Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books," he laid out the principles that many still follow today.
"The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan," Benjaim wrote. "Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes....Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... Numerous opponents who all share the same argument should each be refuted individually."
Benjamin himself never got an academic position, of course. Even so, good advice is timeless.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.