I believe Donald Trump’s policies are evil. I also believe the person who selfishly won’t let me into their lane on the freeway is evil. Both of these are what I would call “disfavored actions.” But what is it that propels the first belief into a national discussion on the nature of immorality and the latter into unsolicited referrals for counseling?
If we consider locking children in cages to be evil, what do we say about the killing of six-million Jews? Is it possible for evil actions to be ranked comparatively? Is Hitler “more” evil than Trump? If so, by what standard?
How do we decide which actions are “wrong” – selfishness, lacking empathy, etc. – but not necessarily “evil.” The freeway driver may embody these negative qualities, but we wouldn’t say they rise to the level of immorality. What is the calibration – the measurement – that forms the line of demarcation?
For large swaths of social media, there seems to be little question as to whether Donald Trump’s policies reach a level they denote as “evil.” This certainty usually emerges from a calculus which evaluates Trump’s specific actions against an abstract set of “moral principles” – equality, liberty, justice – which have no definitive meanings.
But “evil” is not a compilation of policies, measured and compared to politically malleable tenets of “natural law.” Evil is a strategy; it is the refusal to acknowledge the worth of others and to exclude them from the processes which determine the quality of their lives. Evil is not a hierarchy of disfavored actions; it is, at its core, the insidious belief that there are differences in human value. Evil seeks not only to divide, but to erase.
This strategy infuses all levels of our social, economic and political lives. It is a Hydra; the face it displays – the policies it produces – depends on the context in which it functions. Evil is a highly adaptable shape-shifter on a constant search for unguarded spaces and unseen opportunities.
The killing of six million Jews and locking children in cages are based on the same strategy; the erasure of the “other.” One action is no more or less evil than the other; in each case, the strategies of evil expanded into the social and political spaces allowed to it.
The Trumpian erasure occurs on many levels. In its most overt form, erasure shapes Trump’s views on immigration in which non-whites are rendered invisible by imperious exclusion and contemptuous rhetoric. The Trumpian constructions are not merely hierarchical; they generate a distinct dichotomy of human value.
The Republican agenda is premised on the delusion that there are two different kinds of people; the very wealthy and everyone else. This economic division becomes the marker for differences in intrinsic worth. The non-super wealthy, comprising over 99% of the population, are considered to be less fully human than the very well-off. Respect and dignity are based on a sliding scale of net-worth.
In the Right’s strategies of erasure, one group – extremely wealthy, white, heterosexual males – dwell on a higher plane of existence; while all others – the poor, people of color, the LGBT community, anyone immigrating from a non-Nordic country – tumble into an abyss of nothingness. Unrecognized and unacknowledged, with a potentially dwindling ability to participate in processes of self-determination.
Within the strategies of erasure which constitute evil, individuals with power validate their own sense of intrinsic worth; not merely through hierarchy but through the forced non-existence of others. That is why these strategies are so prevalent and so difficult to dislodge.
Strategies of erasure are not eliminated from our lives by outlawing specific actions and relations. But rules and regulations do provide barriers against these strategies; they ultimately construct the maze through which evil slithers. Change the laws on sexual harassment – alter the walls of the maze – and the strategies of erasure will quickly adapt, finding new unguarded venues and targets. The more de jure rules deflect it, the more de facto openings it will seek.
It can be comforting to point at Donald Trump and scream “EVIL!” In the cathartic moment, immorality is contained within a singular orange-tinted vessel; the product of a particular warped psyche.
But even the most egregious displays of evil shouldn’t blind us to the strategies of erasure which course through our social fabric. We must continuously churn the soil of social and economic relations, rooting out those strategies wherever they occur. Trump may be the not-so-bright light of erasure, but his glare should not obscure the micro-fissures of indignity which twist through so many of our lives.
Image from Universal Studios, “Village of the Damned.”
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; firstname.lastname@example.org
The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties share a belief that the institutions of corporate capitalism are America. The institutions are like well-worn buildings with deep metaphysicalfoundations.
The vast majority of people are ephemeral. We are temporary. We are moved through some of the buildings, and not others, or sometimes denied entry to all of them, by forces over which we have little to no control. We are separated from those who guard the institutions and who are allowed to traverse them at will. We are told that this separation represents the “free” part of free market.
The Republicans work assiduously to make sure the majority of people have as little access to the buildings as possible. The Democrats decry this exclusion and then spend years debating whether they should open a small room in one of the outer structures. Neither question the origins, or supposed immortality, of the buildings themselves.
The leadership of both parties believe that institutions of finance are eternal – they precede us and will outlast us. When the Big Bang occurred, out flew leptons, quarksand free-market capitalism. But the masses are eternal only as an abstraction; collectively we are viewed as an endless shuffle of easily replaceable parts.
The Republicans delight in taking billions of dollars from the many in order to enlarge and embellish buildings most people will never be allowed to enter. Republicans imagine themselves as the reincarnation of Khufu, the Egyptian pharaoh who subjugated tens of thousands to build the Great Pyramid. The Democrats have the same goals, but they are convinced they’re the new Plato, aligning the masses with the Truth of neo-liberal capitalism.
Plato was a philosopher in ancient Greece who believed that an ideal society should be ruled by an extremely small, select group of Philosophers who were capable of understanding metaphysical Truths embodied in what he called the Forms and the Good. Philosophers should be kings.
The vast majority of people had no philosophical abilities. No matter how much they learned and studied, they would never become Philosophers, and shouldn’t attempt to do so. Plato, didn’t hate the people, he simply didn’t care much about them. They were his version of the endless shuffle – an indistinct gray mass which needed to be directed and constrained.
Through their Platonic prism, Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer aren’t blindly attached to a deadened, morally bankrupt, economic system which has been a cudgel of marginalization and pain throughout history. Instead, they’re 21st century Philosopher-Kings, excreting the Truth of wealth, opportunity, and free-markets onto the masses.
One of the methods by which Plato’s Philosophers pacified the many to accept their place in society was through what is now called either The Myth of the Metals, or The Noble Lie.
Plato believed that the people should be told a story that they are all born from the earth. Some are born with gold in them (philosophers), some with silver (soldiers), and some with iron (the masses). An individual’s place in society was determined by innate attributes and limitations present at birth. In Plato’s ideal society, inherent inequalities in philosophical capacity result in a rigid, hierarchical society.
Economic inequality now serves the same purpose as Plato’s philosophical disparities. Capitalism sorts out the masses. There can be no “winners” without “losers.” Financial stratifications allow political leaders to point to wealth as a reflection of innate differences in intellect and work ethic.
Free-market capitalism is premised on the claim that “everyone has the qualities to succeed” while at the same time its resultant inequalities are rationalized as “nothing wrong with the system, must be something lacking in the people.”
The Capitalist Noble Lie has transformed capitalism from historical effect into metaphysical certainty. The ravages of plunder and conquest out of which capitalism emerged, and the structural inequalities which maintain it, disappear into the conviction that neo-liberalsim, like the Forms, was “always there,” in its perfection, waiting to be revealed. The forces which direct, and limit, access to the buildings of capitalism are subsumed into a glorification of the buildings themselves.
The Capitalist Noble Lie is a torrent of water inundating desert sands. It moves in unexpected directions, forming intertwined tributaries as it covers, and drowns, all that is beneath it. The river is self-maintaining; it thrives by re-interpreting, mocking, or pushing aside, any attempts to divert its course.
For Democrats, the free-market is a manifestation of a Truth which they will not allow to be challenged. Any small amelioration of the effects of capitalism must never fundamentally alter the system itself.
One political party revels in force, the other claims knowledge. But they both end up in the same place.
The certitude of Truth is far more dangerous than the love of power. Once Truth is invoked, the poor are no longer subjugated; they become the flawed discards of a race to enlightenment.
It is difficult to argue individuals out of their metaphysics. You can’t point to the actual lives of the majority of people because capitalism-as-Truth isn’t negotiable. The effects of neo-liberalism will only dissipate when we take power away from Plato and the Pharaohs.
Richard W Goldin; Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; email@example.com
A massive mansion sits on ten acres of over-groomed lawn. An odd combination of faux classical Greek and Las Vegas-style Roman architecture, most of its too-many-to-count rooms have never been used.
A lavish party is taking place in the Milton Friedman banquet room. Republican and Democratic party leaders enjoy a sumptuous feast encircled by the wealthy and well-connected. The leaders sit across a table laden with the kind of expensive, esoteric cuisine the rich pretend to like when they graze together. The Democrats and Republicans sit on different sides of the same table, enjoying the same food.
The non-wealthy are all locked in a small, cramped basement room. Small slivers of light and air enter intermittently from a row of slightly-opened windows near the ceiling.
Every so often, a Republican appears at the basement door and eagerly installs a bigger, stronger lock. When some in the room shout “let us out!” the Republican replies, “I’m going to put locks on the windows.”
Occasionally, a Democrat wanders down to the basement, carrying a small plate of leftover crumbs. The Democrat pushes the crumbs under the door, whispering words of sympathy and sorrow.
When the people cry out – “remove the lock, let us out of the basement!” the Democrat responds, “Oh, I don’t do that. But I do offer crumbs.” The Democrat trots up the stairs with the empty plate, convinced that a crumb-pusher is a far better person than a lock builder. With one final glance back to make sure the door is still locked, the Democrat leaves the basement, proud of their journey into generosity and compassion.
In the basement, people fight over the little they are given. They separate themselves to different corners of the room, accusing each other of taking extra crumbs. Those who claim that the lock could be broken if everyone worked together are exiled to a tiny curtained-off area. People from all corners point to the veiled space and laugh derisively before returning to the battle.
As the sounds of endless fighting drift upstairs, the Republican and the Democrat smile across the table and prepare to tell each other how much they love the sautéed ladybug wings.
Richard W Goldin; Lecturer in Political Science; California State University firstname.lastname@example.org
Sheltering in our homes, we watch the myth of the American Dream slowly unravel, burying (as usual) the most hard-working amongst us. The unquestioned certainty – the truth – that hard work leads to a richer, happier life has become another victim of the virus.
We are adrift, far from the comforting shores of the social norms of hard work and success that gave meaning to our lives. We stare back at those shores, like a drowning man, yearning for the solidity of the familiar.
In these times, let the shore recede. Swim further out to sea, dive beneath the surface of our previous contentment. All the way to the bottom, to the sea floor of why we ever believed that financial success and happiness were the same thing.
We spent most of our lives in jobs we didn’t like, harmonizing with workplace demands, comforted in the knowledge that it is rational to devote ourselves to skillfully negotiating the often tortuous landscape that will lead us to the financial ladder of success.
We became proficient at shaping our beliefs and behaviors around the dominant societal norms of a free enterprise system that was never free and never rewarded enterprise. We didn’t need to be coerced to conform; we did so willingly.
We turned our ears to the siren song of the oligarchs; its lyrics are familiar: “money, more money, obscene wealth, a house, a bigger house, two bigger houses, a mansion with twenty-five bathrooms you will never see or use, this is what will make you truly happy.” We regulated our lives to achieve this happiness. We obeyed its devious demands because we believed in it; it functioned as knowledge, it was truth, it was reality.
We were comforted in the conviction that we had recognized, and adhered to, a truth of life. If others didn’t agree, that merely enhanced the stew of satisfaction with the spice of superiority.
We received pleasure not from any absolute truth; we had no idea if other more egalitarian forms of life would bring us greater happiness. The siren song never values the contemplative life. So we floated on the surface, distracted from what lies exist beneath the waves. The surface seemed so tranquil and glisten-y.
Entranced by the shimmering waves, we jumped through the hoops of life we’d been conditioned to believe in. We procreated to produce a new generation to whom we earnestly imparted our knowledge of the financial hurdles that lead to a successful life. Happiness is a race, a competition, we told them, and there can only be one winner.
It was crucial that our children believed that what we had given them was the truth.To doubt our truth was to doubt that we were the truth-givers. It was to question our beliefs about ourselves.
Most parents would be devastated if they paid four years of tuition at a university only to be informed by their child they wanted to live in an ashram seeking spiritual truth. A spiritual life is not a successful life, the parent would declare, you’ll never be truly happy without the bigger house, the BMW, and at least 2.3 kids.
We repeated that mantra often enough that our offspring came to believe it. And they were grateful that we had opened their eyes to this reality, to this truth, to which they eagerly conformed. And we found contentment knowing that we were the kind of parents who could recognize, and impart, the truths of the world to our children.
But the calm surface has now lost its luster. The virus has shoved our heads beneath the waves. This is where the creatures lurk. Below the seductive incantations of the American Dream swim the monsters of the deep; in constant motion, devouring the many to feed the wealth of a few.
When the virus is over, when we eventually rise above the surface, will we remember what we have seen? Will we remember the atrocities we have obediently floated upon for so many years? When we once again stroll casually out of our homes into waiting arms, will we finally tune out the siren song?
Artwork by Bryan Syme
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; email@example.com
The comedian Sarah Silverman recently acknowledged that her career has been damaged by a decade-old episode of The Sarah Silverman Program in which her character appears in a highly satirical version of blackface. Silverman has vociferously apologized for the episode, declaring “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch. I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.”
Many have defended this particular usage of blackface by placing it within the contexts of comedy and satire. However, the episode represents more than the mere undulations of comedic boundaries. It is pointedly situated within two very different approaches to ameliorating social divides and hierarchies.
The blackface episode sits, self-consciously, at the crossroads of modern and postmodern politics. At one point, a crowd of supporters, also brandishing Silverman’s absurd version of blackface, are asked the typical protest question, “What do we want?” Their answer, however, does not reference the usual modernist tropes of equality and justice, nor does it refer to any specific markers of race. Rather, the crowd responds that what they want is “the freedom to explore issues of race in American culture through the use of postmodern irony!” The denial of this freedom from within the film/television industry, and the larger political community, raises the political implications of the death of postmodern irony, and the loss of an important political tool to fight injustice.
Postmodern politics arose in the late sixties as a response to the perceived inadequacies of modernity. The argument was that claims of “reason,” “rationality,” and “evidence” always served to further undermine marginalized peoples. The belief was that individuals divide the world into categories and that any attempt at reasoned refutation of existing dominant norms simply collapsed into, and reinforced, existing categories.
We see this prominently today in the use of “socialist” as a linguistic denier of rational discussion. The postmodern approach would not be to argue the merits (or inadequacies) of socialism, its supposed substance, or the irrationality of some. All such attempts would simply reinforce the category and allow for its continued manipulation by others. Instead, postmodern politics seeks to disentangle and deconstruct the category of “socialist” itself – to “de-rationalize” all categories – often through the use of parodic embellishment.
The attempt by early postmodern political theorists was to deconstruct existing norms by creating “events” – such as the “die-ins” and the “kiss-ins” – which the viewer couldn’t easily define, categorize, and then discard. Judith Butler wrote, “subversive practices have to overwhelm the capacity to read, challenge conventions of reading, and demand new possibilities of reading.” In other words, they have to overwhelm the categories and undermine their ability to define and subsume “rational” arguments for structural change.
Butler also noted that once “you know how to read them in advance, or you know what’s coming…they just don’t work anymore.” Every attempt at subversion is met with the creation of a new category which will be constructed, maintained and patrolled. Thus the rise of “hipster racism” which combines contested categories, and links disparate comedians and performers, into a singular denotation which functions to both obscure and abjure.
The point is neither to support nor defend “hipster racism” or any specific category; rather it is to examine the construction, usages, and political implications of all categories. A category is not a mere recognition of the pre-existent metaphysical sameness of its components; rather the category itself defines and coagulates its substance. The substance of a category is shaped, defined and compared by the need for the simplistic comfort of the category itself.
Silverman’s use of blackface was designed not as a counter-category, but as a means of undermining all categorical constructions. Those who criticize Silverman’s postmodern approach replicate the futility of modernist politics – the very kind of politics which has brought us to the political precipice upon which we now teeter. Silverman attempted to deconstruct the category of blackface; the modernist response has been a re-assertion and condemnation of the usage of blackface anywhere, anytime, and a fierce denial to those who would not merely critique but attempt to demystify and disempower through parody and satire.
At one point, as Silverman’s character is leaving the apartment with her new blackface makeup, she places a bandana on her head – another sign for the modernists of an obvious racial stereotype. Except that, as she leaves, Silverman declares, in an exaggerated New York accent “New York this is your last chance.” This line is a reference to the old Rhoda show in which Valerie Harper played a Jewish woman from New York. (Each episode began with a short “history” of the character read by Harper, the last line of which Silverman is citing.) Silverman is attempting to undermine the power of a particular category by dis-entangling it from a singular set of substances and re-entangling it within a host of disparate signifiers. Silverman’s blackface episode points in many directions, criticizing not only racism but also those liberals who believe that they can easily “live” the plight of others by being “black for a day.”
In the 1970’s the African-American comedian Godfrey Cambridge starred in a movie entitled Watermelon Man in which a white man (Cambridge in white-face) suddenly turns black overnight. The film is earnest in its depiction of what befalls Cambridge’s character as he loses his (white) wife and kids, and his home. The film is a highly modernist refutation of racism as the character is transformed from a white racist into a black militant.
Watermelon Man is comforting to modernists as a clear, reasoned, refutation of racism. But such approaches have been limited in their political effect. Postmodern irony and parody as evidenced through The Sarah Silverman Program is an attempt to place another arrow in the quiver of the fight for social and political justice. The defining, categorization, and repudiation of Silverman is, itself, an ironic and parodic performance of the modernist defense and reinforcement of an exhausted politics.
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University; firstname.lastname@example.org
“Quit lit” is clearly a rising and resurgent cultural phenomena. After all, it’s been given the kind of catchy, rhyme-y name you’d force on a pet ferret. But behind the roll-off-the-tongue moniker, the artifacts of quit lit – social-media essays, written primarily by former university adjuncts, detailing their disillusionment with academia and reasons for leaving the profession – are a flare in the darkening sky, illuminating an America in which, more than ever, winning is everything.
Those, like myself, who first entered academia expecting an open-ended pursuit of scholarly wisdom, now find themselves trapped on a runaway train which long ago flew off the rails of intellectual engagement. Universities claim they are guiding students on a pilgrimage to enlightenment while administrations reshape faculties into neo-liberal class stratifications and tenured professors disparage teaching in order to win the status game over adjuncts.
A useful perspective for framing the descent of academia, and situating it within the broader disjuncture between expectation and reality which has come to shape much our lives, is James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. According to Carse:
“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
The construction, maintenance and expansion of national parks is an infinite game; gashing the land for the financial interests of a dying oil industry is finite. A politics devoted to the “arc of justice” is infinite; a system of justice contorted by wealth and power is finite. In academia, the collaboration of administrators, tenured professors and adjuncts on the search for, and transmission of, new vectors of knowledge is infinite; an administration pre-occupied with reshaping universities into profit-making machines and a professorial class fueled by egoism are decidedly finite.
As the nation’s passage towards social and economic equality plummets into the finite, academia needs to be the guardian of the infinite game. Its refusal to do so, and its obsession with profit, prestige and reputation, isn’t only a failure of universities; it threatens the entire narrative of progress upon which this country was founded.
The intellectual promise of history was marked by a move from the finite to the infinite. The tide of the Enlightenment erased the absolute truths of the Classical and Medieval ages, substituting instead a faith in open-ended processes of reason and rationality. The eternal unchanging essences of Plato’s Forms were replaced by the “I think therefore I am” of Descartes. Progress manifested itself in a continuous quest towards elusive horizons of knowledge.
We are now witnessing this historical process in reverse. The infinite game of progress is increasingly bruised and battered by a nation which has become a never-ending rugby scrum.
Academia used to be the protector of the infinite by opposing attempts to shape all of society around the finite goals of the economic sphere. But universities now function as large corporations and worship at the same alter as all financial institutions.
The increasing budgetary reliance of universities on part-time, contingent, underpaid adjunct/teachers has been twisted into a new finite game. Adjuncts, and teaching, now function as the maligned “others” whose lowered status secures the ongoing “victory” for well-paid, status-driven tenured professor/researchers.
“[In the finite game] it may appear that the prizes for winning are indispensable, that without them life is meaningless, perhaps even impossible.”
Publications have become the singular path to the financial security of a tenure-track position. The strategic focus on stockpiling publications has deformed the vectors of academic research, and the odyssey of knowledge, from infinite to finite. A study at UCLA found that, in the sciences, “researchers who confine their work to answering established questions are more likely to have the results published, which is a key to career advancement in academia. Conversely, researchers who ask more original questions and seek to form new links in the web of knowledge are more likely to stumble on the road to publications, which can make them appear unproductive to their colleagues.”
Participation in the game of academia is limited to those who have willingly, even eagerly, jumped into the finite. The rewards of tenure-track jobs flow to those who abjure long-term open-ended scholarly pursuits in order to excel in the sport of publication accumulation.
“Since finite games are played to be won, players make every move in a game in order to win it. Whatever is not done in the interesting of winning is not part of the game.”
The academic competition is ultimately won by those who can construct the highest heap of articles and books. Embracing the quantification of academia has become a useful, though highly simplistic, tool for an enterprise increasingly devoted to separating out winners (professors) from losers (adjuncts).
“A title is the acknowledgement of others that one has been the winner of a particular game”
Publications are primarily strategic; they are designed not to share knowledge (though that might be an unintended consequence) but to win the game. Thus, the forces of aggregation are in no way deterred by the reality that at least one-third of all social science articles, and 80% of those in the humanities, are never cited.
Adjuncts of my generation offer a unique viewpoint on the relation between the finite and the infinite. We entered an academia which was seemingly still engaged in the infinite game, only to witness its swoon into the finite. But quit lit is not merely the frustrated cries of those who have lost the game; it is a jeremiad against the darkening of the infinite where it should be – it must be – shining the brightest.
The advancement of neo-liberal corporatism which is shaping our politics and our universities is the triumph of the finite game. The obligations of each generation to strive for justice, to protect the planet, to help the less fortunate, and to forge new horizons of knowledge are being replaced by the ethos of a financial ledger. We are all living the experiences of my academic generation as we watch the infinite dissolve before our eyes.
“Evil is the termination of infinite play”
We are trapped in a unique period of history as the promise of infinite horizons decays into malevolent victories won by the most small-minded amongst us. But from the prowl of the finite emerges the possibility of rebirth and revolution.
We are a generation whose lives span the chasm between the memory and promise of the infinite of Kennedy and Obama, and the current triumph of the finite. Disillusioned by the rift between the expected permanence of the infinite and the reality of its decline, we are the generation that must resist the ongoing normalization of the finite and we must counter the claim that a society based on the infinite is an illusion. It is vital that we reclaim our universities, and the endless expedition of education, from the snarl of the finite game and reinstate them as bastions of the infinite. We must rescue our politics from the forces of corporatism and hierarchy and we must demand that our government and institutions of higher learning play a new game. One in which we all win.
(Quotes are from Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games)
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University; email@example.com
The waves of gentrification which have flooded much of Los Angeles have reached the shores of Boyle Heights; a historically lower income, now mostly Latino, neighborhood located across the L.A. River from downtown. The economic forces enveloping Boyle Heights are typical of the contemporary transformation of urban centers into Roman Coliseums in which the underprivileged are pitted against the lions of capital.
Many long-time residents of Boyle Heights are attempting to resist the forces of their own extinction. Entering the fray, ostensibly on behalf of the community, is a traveling troupe of self-proclaimed political-aesthetic quasi-Marxist pioneers known as Ultra-red.
One of the effects of the Ultra-red invasion, has been a heightened focus on the economic impact on Boyle Heights of a few art galleries; many, but not all, of which have recently appeared in the neighborhood. Even those galleries located in an underused industrial area have become the target of the resistance.
Through the intervention of Ultra-red, and its affiliate groups, many of the residents of Boyle Heights have come to view the galleries as the generators of gentrification. They believe that closing the art galleries will substantially alter, if not halt, the economic forces headed in their direction. This claim has left most gallery owners in a state of confusion; they argue that the vitriol against the galleries does not take into account the complex forces of gentrification and misunderstands the galleries’ actual impact.
Their bewilderment is understandable. Art galleries do not simply materialize from another dimension dragging the unwilling forces of gentrification behind them. The galleries are the initial surge of an economic tsunami – a position that has been occupied in other communities by coffee shops, restaurants, retail stores, etc. Though the galleries are being presented as the harbingers of economic disaster, the fervor against them is disconnected from their actual impact on gentrification.
The art galleries have become a primary target of political resistance primarily because they function as effective points of engagement for the “sonic strategists” of Ultra-red. The economics of the galleries disappear into an intense aura of theoretical navel-gazing about the role of “the artist.” For the residents of Boyle Heights, the art galleries are perceived as an economic force; for Ultra-red, they open-up a series of ruminations on the meaning of “art.”
Ultra-red co-founder Dont Rhine has said“we love…this [Marxist philosopher] Althusser thing [that] ideas exist only in their practice. …[T]hen we can think about, what’s the relationship between the developer who says, no, we’re gonna give you better housing by displacing all of you? [sentence in original]. That’s the practice, not the better housing, the practice is the displacement.”
“Then we can think about” is not a politics; it in no way escapes the gravitational pull of the theoretical. Ultra-red isn’t about politics. It isn’t about theorizing about politics. It’s about theorizing about theorizing about politics.
James P. Carse has written of the distinctions between what he called finite and infinite games. The gentrification of Boyle Heights is a finite game – there are distinct winners and losers in the battle for economic resources. The world of Ultra-red is an infinite game. No matter what happens to the people of Boyle Heights, the game of academia and art will continue. Different from the finite, the infinite game has its own structure of incentives and motivations. Even if the residents of Boyle Heights are cast to the winds, for Ultra-Red there will always be more sound pieces to perform, articles to write, conferences to attend, academic positions to be attained.
Academic faculties are divided into two very separate classes – well-paid tenured professors and lowly-paid adjuncts. The latter are almost always trapped in part-time positions and virtually never attain a living wage. In order to secure their positions, and their privilege, the class of professors use their power to further marginalize the adjuncts in their own departments. Even those professors who adore spouting Marxist rhetoric say nothing about the inequality they maintain and further.
Rhine has skipped between academic positions, including the University of Chicago and, now, the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In the desire for academic recognition, Ultra-red has sacrificed credibility in order to prosper within a system of oppression. They have joined with – they have become – the perpetrators of an academic hierarchy which damages the lives of so many. The repetition of Marxist jargon cannot disguise their complicity in the further degradation of those who are most in need of political support.
In the infinite game, the material collapses into the conceptual. One can observe this when visiting contemporary art museums or galleries. Upon first encountering an object – a painting, sculpture, or a rambling assemblage of discordant sounds – one is often struck by the total absence of any significance or discernible substance. But fear not – this art has “meaning.” How will you know? Just walk over to a nearby wall and you will discover a posted 3×5 card offering a funhouse jangle of postmodern rhetoric. The accolades of the art world accrue to those who are best at offering a “politics” which, ultimately, points to nothing other than the supposed immateriality of the concept.
Ultra-red spices their jangle of “art” with a litany of Marxist tropes. In so doing, they empty Boyle Heights, and its residents, of any material existence. Positioning the art galleries as the causal factors of gentrification is not intended to alter economic reality. The galleries function as venues for Ultra-red’s political-aesthetic; conceptual theater disguised as politics.
To whom is Ultra-red addressing their “politics-aesthetic politics”? It’s difficult to imagine that people living on the precipice of survival have the time to contemplate Althusser, not to mention placing him within the long lineage of Marxist theory. Apparently, if the residents of Boyle Heights truly want to understand their own situation and save their homes, they have a long reading list ahead of them.
Or perhaps the residents can take a drive to the Otis College of Art and Design where Ultra-red is currently presenting Los Angeles Library for Anti-Gentrification (2012-2017) which is part of an exhibition entitled “Talking to Action: Art, Pedagogy, and Activism in the Americas (affiliated with the Getty’s Pacific Standard Timeinitiative, “LA/LA”).
The installation presents the elements of political information – pamphlets and videos about gentrification. “Non-artists” might use these kinds of materials to educate residents about the need for, and possible forms of, resistance. But locating the presentation within the museum’s wall removes the materials from any political utility for the community. The presentation is merely a rumination on what it might mean for an “artist” to proffer political information. No actual facts or knowledge are being conveyed to the people of Boyle Heights.
‘The problem Ultra-red have is a marked failure to communicate, which for a group made up of would-be radical pedagogues is a cataclysmic lapse.’ -Tony Herrington (TheWire)
Ultra-red attempts to position itself as the cutting edge of some sort of political/artistic vanguard movement. But the necessary negotiation between the political and the conceptual is ill-defined and under theorized. Rhine has noted that the relation between art and its political effects “has been a constant problem for us….and maybe…I should just let it go…or maybe the tension is the thing that’s the most productive.”
A group which views itself as the purveyors of a political-aesthetic, should have a much deeper understanding of the real-world politics through which the two realms connect and interpenetrate. The absence of this plagues Ultra-red. Their politics has an “emperor’s new clothes” quality to it – keep tossing conceptual balls in the air and hope that no one questions their political relevance or realizes that they are really meaningless puffs of smoke.
The abstract, conceptual world of Ultra-red ultimately caters to, and is rewarded by, a small privileged intellectual class that is rarely materially affected by that which it ponders from afar. The intrusion of this world into Boyle Heights draws attention and resources away from the complex forces of gentrification, and offers residents little in the way of tools for surviving the oncoming flood.
‘The struggle of the Boyle Heights residents and their protest is material and concrete; it cannot be properly debated with art-writerly metaphors.’ –Dr. Nizan Shaked, Professor – California State University, Long Beach
The fight for Boyle Heights and its residents requires on-the-ground organizing – it requires “getting your hands dirty.” But the “dirty hands” of organizing won’t get you a show at the Whitney Museum. Ultra-red’s hands are very clean. Their “organizing” is a rhetorical gesture; its practices align with the incentives of academia and art, not the community.
‘Ultra-red have retreated so far into the ghetto of critical theory their activities have become irrelevant to anyone living and working beyond the walls of academia.’ -Tony Herrington
To some in Boyle Heights, Ultra-red has been swinging its quasi-Marxist scythe indiscriminately against the art galleries, lumping together recent arrivals with the long-standing community-based Self Help Graphics & Art. The distinctions between these different arts venues requires an understanding of the specific history and politics of Boyle Heights. However, Ultra-red doesn’t merely ignore the specificities of the material world – it attempts to erase them.
Within the realms of academia and art, Ultra-red’s reputation rests on nothing other than its own narrative. The immateriality of its politics has required two survivalist responses. The first is rhetoric sufficiently esoteric to veil its own emptiness. Second, Ultra-red doesn’t merely reject the material in its “politics.” It attempts to root out and destroy those who join the aesthetic and the material in ways that challenge the universality of their narrative. In their struggle for institutional supremacy, Ultra-red is not merely irrelevant to the people of Boyle Heights – they are a danger to the future of the community.
Ultra-red was founded in the 1990s by Marco Larsen and Dont Rhine. After a few years, the group, in Larsen’s view, moved away from its original purpose of affecting political change through the sound recordings of specific communities and actions. When Ultra-red intervened in the demolition of the Pico-Aliso housing projects, Larsen witnessed the group’s loss of materiality, and the abjuration of politics in favor of an ineffective obscure, self-absorbed “artism” that was of no benefit to anyone other than burnishing the institutional reputation of the group’s leader. (Which has actually worked very well for Rhine. After all, you don’t get to be a faculty co-chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts by actually helping people.)
Larsen believed that Ultra-red’s purpose was to utilize the words and sounds of underrepresented people in order to give them the voice they so sorely lacked. The harshness of the displacement of Pico Aliso’s residents compelled Larsen to work hand-in-hand with those effected. For his part, Rhine began distorting the recorded voices of the people – furthering their invisibility – and using their pain as fodder for musical compositions.
The wave of Ultra-red’s immateriality – and its disregard for the lives of those it claimed to represent – had subsumed the people themselves, transforming their voices into unrecognizable sounds. Larsen believed that sound art should illuminate the lives of the community, not obliterate them on the altar of self-indulgence.
Rhine’s reaction to Larsen’s quitting did not provoke the kind of thought and self-reflection needed by Ultra-red concerning the connection between its “art” and its “politics.” Perhaps this is why the connection is such a “constant problem.” Rather than listening to Larsen, Rhine ignored the one person who was viewing sound projects from the side of the community. Rhine’s reaction was to expunge all mention of Larsen from the group he had helped found. Larsen became a ghost – his name was removed from Ultra-red’s history, as was any thoughtful dialogue on the group’s “politics.”
Not content with Larsen’s “disappearance” within the group, Rhine went further. According to Larsen, Rhine spread false rumors about his moral character in an attempt to diminish his reputation in the Los Angeles art community. Larsen had questioned the politics of Ultra-red; the response was to eradicate him and the threat he posed within the art community to the group’s political authenticity. Larsen had pointedly declared that the emperor had no clothes – the reaction was to shoot the messenger.
Rather than encounter the “other,” Rhine chose to expel it. If Larsen had stayed, Ultra-red might be a far more relevant synthesis of art and politics. But the group of self-proclaimed Marxist artists was unable to apply the Marxist dialectic to their own situation. Then again, Ultra-red isn’t really Marxist – it’s more of a Lenin/Stalin soufflé. It combines the self-involvement of a Leninist vanguard with the paranoia of a Stalinist purge.
Ultra-red is now repeating this history in Boyle Heights as it attempts to undermine Self Help Graphics & Art. SHG “inspires the creation and promotion of new works by chicano and latino artists through experimental and innovative printmaking techniques and other visual art forms/ media. Since 1973, SHG has been the intersection where arts and community meet, providing a forum for local and international artists.”
For decades, SHG has placed itself directly in the intersection that Ultra-red is unwilling to acknowledge. SHG’s focus on the role of art in the betterment of the community reveals the social and material emptiness of Ultra-red’s political-aesthetic. The emperor still has no clothes.
SHG’s material-based synthesis of art and politics represents a threat to Ultra-red’s academic narrative and must be defamed and expunged. Materially, a community-based organization such as SHG is not the same as the recently-arrived art galleries. Focusing on the galleries, and viewing all art venues as the same, does nothing in terms of hindering gentrification or helping the community. But it is an important component of protecting and burnishing Ultra-red’s narrative and reputation.
Elizabeth Blaney of Ultra-red claims that all those targeted by Defend Boyle Heights (which protests against art galleries, including SHG) are gentrifiers or enablers. Joel Garcia, Director of Programs at SHG, denies this, responding: “our existence here threatens [Ultra-red’s] validity to being social practice artists. We embody community arts practice. These artists are trying to usurp that. Attacking Self Help Graphics legitimates them – it has everything to do with their professional positioning.” Garcia’s comments, and work, are far more perceptive about the complex relations between art and politics than anything emanating from Ultra-red. Perhaps he should be the faculty co-chair of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Ultra-red believes they are outside the economic and political processes they observe. They don’t seem to comprehend the effects of their actions on furthering the forces of gentrification they decry. As the deluge comes, some in the Boyle Heights community are trying to construct rafts and find higher ground for those precariously positioned. Ultra-red is playing a different game. They are not invested in the outcomes of Boyle Heights; if the worlds of art and academia remain entranced by the vapidity of their politics, their game continues. But treating poor peoples’ lives as a conceptual apparatus attune to the machinery of art and academia is not only ineffective, it’s disturbing.
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University; firstname.lastname@example.org
This is more than a personal account of what life is like as a university adjunct. It is a disturbing chronicle of what can be done to an adjunct when they are seen as a threat to the rigid faculty hierarchy.
University faculties are composed of a small class of well-paid tenured professors and a larger class of contingent adjuncts who are not eligible for tenure and virtually never attain a living wage. The majority of university “professors” are actually adjuncts, who do most of the teaching. Administrators created this class; so-called “liberal” professors maintain it.
While adjuncts are always treated by administrators as highly replaceable cogs, the professorial class raises this to another level. They maintain a highly illiberal departmental caste system which, not surprisingly, places them at the top. This is a perch which is apparently so lofty they are unable to comprehend, or even see, the suffering of adjuncts all around them.
Academics are truly some of the most insecure people you will ever have the misfortune to endure. Academia itself is a rigidly enforced pecking order; everyone strives to be a tenured professor at a top research university. The inability to achieve this pinnacle of academic perfection is viewed by many as a badge of failure.
Those unable to soar to the perceived heights of academia, remain nested in what is seen by them as the far less impressive world of public and state universities. But make no mistake, these are wingless birds with sharp talons. Unable to emotionally endure their place at the bottom of the academic hierarchy; they construct a new pecking order within their own departments. A tiny hop onto the low branch of the academic tree is enough for them to proclaim, “from way up here all adjuncts look like mere worms. We are not worms. Therefore we must be soaring eagles!”
This strategy requires that no worm should ever see itself as a potential bird; with the same abilities, and worth, as those clinging tenaciously to the branch just above them. If a worm raises its voice, it must be devoured. That is what birds do. To do otherwise would call the entire bird/worm hierarchy into question.
Universities aren’t bastions of liberalism; they’re an alt-right fever dream.
If you are an academic reading this, the professor/adjunct relationship is quite familiar. For most others, the hierarchical structure of academia is completely unknown. Even students and their parents know little of the division; the population as a whole is kept completely in the dark.
Our current politics is consumed by the problematics of inequality. Self-designated progressives will often rely on tenured professors as voices of liberal equality, but ask nothing about the harsh inequalities of academia. Instead, the media consistently casts professors as the apostles of progressivism; bathed in the faint glow of a kind of intellectualized sainthood.
Though articles detailing the maltreatment of adjuncts frequently appear on websites such as Adjun’ct N’oiseand New Faculty Majority, there is virtually no crossover into more mainstream media. When Rachel Maddow is interviewing a professor who is criticizing Trump for promoting policies of inequality, why does she never ask “How many adjuncts are there in your own department? What do they get paid? Why haven’t you fought against this stark inequality which is all around you?” The machinations and implications of academic inequality are ripe for one of John Oliver’s exposes. I’d take a Keith Olbermann rant at this point.
My own descent into the hollows of academia began in 2006 when I was first hired as an adjunct in the Political Science Department at California State University, Long Beach(CSULB).. Things went quite well for a number of years. My department and student evaluations were excellent, I was being given an increasing course load, and I was voted by students as “one of the most of the most inspirational professors at CSULB.” I was the only adjunct to have my own office on the “professorial floor.”
(It is common to almost all universities that adjuncts are kept separate from professors. While professors are generally given their own offices, most adjuncts are lucky if they have a shared space to meet with students. This is part of the tautological ego game professors play with themselves: “I have a better office than an adjunct because I am a better person. I know I’m a better person because I have my own office.” I’ve taught at universities where adjunct offices were in buildings even the 1950’s Soviet Union would consider “way too bleak.”)
My office was next to the Chair’s. Her conversations were clearly discernible. I had mentioned this to her when she first assigned me to my office, and she responded that she had known this for a long time.
After having been in the office for a couple of years, I overheard a conversation with the Chair and a newly-hired tenure-track professor. The Chair advised the new hire that, in terms of teaching “don’t be concerned, it doesn’t matter.”
There is no doubt that publications have become the singular measure of achievement in academia. No one obtains a tenure-track position – or achieves tenure – by being a great teacher. Great teachers can only aspire to become impoverished adjuncts. But there is nothing that prevents an academic department from insisting on excellence in teaching from its newly minted professors. “Don’t be concerned” is indicative of how a culture which denigrates teaching is being maintained and perpetuated.
Teaching is the stated mission of the California State University system, with the University of California system its research counterpart. “Teaching doesn’t matter” isn’t just a matter of indifference; it reflects a culture of disdain for the educational process that undermines the very rationale for the CSU’s existence.
The wingless bird stares longingly at the higher branches of the tree and recoils at its own insignificance. Knowing it can never hop high enough, it rearranges its ragged feathers and declares, “Teaching is for worms. From now on I will be known as a Researcher! Now I am just like the birds who look down on me from the top of the tree.”
After overhearing the Chair’s advice to the new hire, I made the grievous error of stopping by her office to inquire about what I had heard. I thought I was about to engage in the kind of open conversation so publicly valued by academics. But, as it turns out, the “free exchange of ideas” is highly policed by the professorial class when it comes to their own actions.
The Chair claimed that she was only reiterating administration policy. This was not an encouraging response. I left the office suitably depressed but thinking that the matter had reached its conclusion. Little did I know I was about to become a reluctant player in a malevolent game of Angry Birds.
The Chair insisted on an additional meeting in which she repeatedly declared how really really committed to teaching she was. Based on this newly-proclaimed commitment I asked her if she would consider, when assigning classes, to allow adjuncts to present her with the times of day that work best for them. Not as a priority, no commitment, just merely looking at them.
(Not surprisingly, tenured professors – the “Researchers” – are the only ones to have input into what courses and times work best. Adjuncts – the “Teachers” – are assigned the leftovers.)
The terse but telling response was “there has to be hierarchy.” That was the only reason given.
This is not a statement to be quickly dismissed. The Chair was not defending the organizational structure of the department; my request would not have in any way altered that structure. I simply asked if adjuncts could provide additional information from which she would make her decisions.
This is a sense of hierarchy premised on the belief that merely acknowledging the existence of adjuncts would tear asunder the carefully fabricated web of superiority. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the horrific histories that have resulted from the implementations of these kinds of divisions. It’s disturbing that CSULB would support and protect this view, and allow departments to be constructed around it.
I left this meeting less depressed than the first; lowered expectations will do that. But, once again, I thought the matter had ended.
I soon discovered what happens to inquisitive worms. I was banished to the adjunct floor, at the farthest end of the hall. (Retribution is rarely a subtle affair.) Another adjunct, much younger than me, was hired and immediately given a high entitlement of courses, which required that courses be taken away from me.
Adjuncts are paid by the course, and almost all, including me, live in near-poverty. Taking courses away from any adjunct is truly life-damaging. After twelve years at CSULB, I still do not make a living wage.
I have recently been informed that an additional course will be taken away from me spring semester. This not only pushes me below my entitlement for the first time ever in my many years at CSULB, it resets the entitlement to this lower number for the rest of my academic career there.
In devouring the worm, the wingless bird dreams of its own supremacy.
Diminishing the quality of my life has been accompanied by pernicious maneuvers designed to isolate me within the department. The overall strategy is clear; make teaching at CSULB so untenable for me that I have no choice but to “self-deport.”
Trying to force out one of your best teachers is obviously not in the interest of students. But at CSULB, students and their education are collateral damage to the ravages of hierarchy maintenance.
There is no moral core to CSULB to which adjuncts can appeal. Those with power feel completely protected, even when they do the most appalling things to those without. It is a culture in which no one will ever speak up on behalf of an adjunct, or even question the decency of what is being done.
Behind the proverbial ivy walls, universities are hidden chambers of insidious inequality. It’s hard to know whether academia attracts individuals with extreme narcissistic tendencies, or whether these traits are bred within academia itself. That question is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay.
Too often the media relies on the professorial class as the voice of equality and justice. This is absurd. Professors have the ability to structure departments by a collegiality which would mitigate the harsh economic policies of administrators. Instead, professors and administrators demonstrate how giving people power over others brings out the worst elements of human behavior.
If nothing else, the next time you’re watching a self-proclaimed media progressive interviewing a university professor who is roundly criticizing Trump, you will hopefully be asking the question they won’t. “How is your total disregard for the dignity and well-being of the adjuncts you consider beneath you any different than the alt-right agenda?”
University professors decry all constructed hierarchies except the one which benefits them. Progressives can not fight against social and political inequalities if they continue to align themselves with those who, in their own lives, consistently wield the Trumpian sword of ruthless narcissism.
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University; email@example.com
The current intensification of social and political hierarchies is fueled by a Republican ideology which celebrates the hoarding of resources by a few, and worships inequality as the 11th Commandment. Proposals such as taking food away from the elderly or health care from the sickest have faced charges not merely of injustice but of outright immorality.
But what about the Democrats? As a party, they offer programs and policies that make some peoples’ lives better in the short run. But at the same time they are unwilling to eradicate the economic structures which trap people into needing those programs in the first place. Democrats are proficient at hurling charges of immorality at Republicans; but should they face the same charges for their own (in)actions?
The latest Democratic promises are being sold under the slogan ‘A Better Deal.’The Democratic Party is now explicit that its standards for a just society are highly relativistic. The deal doesn’t aim to bring about actual social or economic equality; its objective is just to be better than the other guys. This seems like a very low bar. The slogan speaks the language of a brighter future while simultaneously dimming any expectations for what that future will be.
“A Better Deal” points in two directions. It is an ostensibly sympathetic attempt to improve the lives of the most needy; while it ignores, and therefore reinforces, existing structures of inequality. There is no singular metaphysical principle which can judge the (im)morality of these combined actions. We’ll need a different way of approaching the question.
Consider the following analogy:
Imagine there exists a huge mansion which, despite its already enormous size, continues to grow exponentially. Dozens of rooms are added even as you watch; a steady stream of Italian hand-chiseled marble, enough wood to destroy a small forest, and gleaming golden toilets as far as the eye can see.
Surprisingly, there are only a few people partying in a handful of the mansion’s endless rooms. The vast majority of the building remains unused, even as it continuously doubles in size. Standing next to one of the many overly-laden tables in the lavish banquet hall are Republicans and Democrats; both on their phones talking to the same brokerage houses, all focused on increasing the same investment portfolios.
Down three flights of stairs, crammed into a small sub-basement room behind a well-bolted steel door, are all the rest of us. Those who work hard but receive the least. There is no way of leaving the basement other than through the steel door, and we spend most of our time blaming each other for our inability to break out.
The Republicans are certainly aware that we are down there. But they are the ones who pressed for the original basement excavation and the newly installed locks on the thickened steel door. They see nothing wrong with the situation and lack any ameliorative impulse.
Eventually, one of the Democrats – we’ll call her Demos – looks sadly at the door leading to the basement, experiencing a fleeting moment of guilt. Demos moves to the door, walking down the many stairs carrying a plate of her meager leftovers. Approaching the sub-basement, she loudly announces her arrival, proclaiming that food crumbs are now being shoved under the door. When someone cries out to her to open the door she glances quickly at the lock, and continues to feed the narrow slit between door and floor. Completing her task, Demos turns away, exclaiming over her shoulder “remember, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even have crumbs!” She runs back up the stairs, convinced she is a far superior person to those still attending the party she is so very eager to rejoin.
There are a number of factors involved in Demos’ actions. There is the overall upstairs/downstairs division, there is the refusal to break the lock, and there is the thrusting of food under the door. As strongly as some might believe that the immorality of the locked door is obvious – and thus Demos’ inactions are clearly immoral – it is difficult to apply a singular metaphysical certainty to her mixed responses. We want, instead, to stay within Demos’ own thought processes.
Demos demonstrates that the partitioning of people is wrong – to her– when she carries her crumb-laden plate down the stairs in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. This “wrongness” does not necessarily bring with it a moral judgment on her part. Demos might feel that locking people in the basement is unjust, but does not rise to the level of immorality.
Demos pushes food under the door becauseshebelieves that the peoples’ deprivation is, at the very least, unfair. But when she is called upon to destroy the lock, she turns away from the door, andherconvictions. This is where the question of immorality arises.
The Democrats do not deserve condemnation because they refuse to see our current economic and social inequality as necessitating an urgent moral response. Their failure lies in the contradictions betweentheirbelief in the wrongness– call it unfairness, call it an injustice – of our economic hierarchy, andtheirunwillingness to substantially transform it.
Claims of moral “truths” are inherently subjective assessments. But one doesn’t need an external “truth” to question the morality of the Democrats. Their potential immorality is internal; it occurs the moment Demos refuses to alter the inequalitiessheregards as wrong.
Demos surmises that the situation is unfair, has the ability to fight it, but chooses perpetuation instead. Shoving food over the threshold, calling it “a better deal,” becomes the alternative to smashing down the door and freeing those trapped in the basement.
Republicans are convinced they are on a divine mission to expose an underbelly of “unworthies.” Their possible immorality is tied directly to the construction and advancement of inequalities. Democrats aim at ameliorating the effects of what they perceive to be Republican immorality; but they refuse to address the underlying causes.
For the trapped, there is little difference. We remain behind the bolted door, listening to floating bits of music from a party of Democrats and Republicans we will never be allowed to attend.
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University; firstname.lastname@example.org