The Crumb-Pushers Won’t Help Us

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;

The Perils of Moderation

Moderation offers a seemingly attractive, common-sense approach to the political that inevitably disappoints when roused into (in)action. It’s the Ford Edsel of American politics.

Moderation contains no specific ideas or vision of its own, nor does it provide a process for balancing competing claims. Moderation is more a matter of faith; a kind of religious experience. 

Moderation is the character in a horror movie who stays fearfully inside the cabin while others are outside fighting evil. And is immediately devoured by the demons.

Moderation functions within political contexts it neither guides nor shapes. It is a dot on a pendulum it does not control; each wild swing producing a new center. Yet its main selling point is “stability.”

Moderation perverts the polarities of change. The perfect isn’t the enemy of the good; one only achieves the good by aiming for the perfect.

Moderation is a passenger trying to stop a runaway political train by moving everyone to the center car.

Moderation is a malleable sliver of metal seduced by the magnetism of the extremes. Expanding private health insurance only appears centrist in the face of forces which aim to take away any form of health care from all who are struggling economically. To include the latter in a calculus of “centrality” is to confuse mathematics with morality. 

Moderation is a strategy in which a thirst for the “center” replaces the parched materiality of people’s lives.

Moderation dims the aspirational shimmer of Progressives with the gloom of lowered expectations offered by Democrats.

Moderation is both Conservative and Leninist. As in Conservatism, it seeks only incremental change and exhibits a general disdain for progressive movements. It is the politics of “no.” Like Lenin, moderates view themselves as members of an elite Vanguard  – a small group of people who have risen above the false-consciousness of Progressives and will lead us all to the promised land of “let’s not do anything.”

Moderation is a place where people drive Edsels, worship the deity of the “center,” and, in the most dire of times, seek shelter in a rickety cabin of moderation while political monsters draw ever closer.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

If Tom Hanks Had Died, Would Thousands More Have Lived?

Let me be clear at the outset – I am in no way calling for, longing for, instigating for, or in any way recommending, the death of Tom Hanks. How could anyone wish that on Hanks?  He is a beloved figure in this country. He is our everyman, transcending social and political differences.  And it is precisely this distillation of America diversity into the singularity of one individual which underlies the question posed in the title of this essay.

Would the death of Tom Hanks from Covid-19 have forged a single iconic moment, overwhelming both the complexity of medical evidence and the sharp-edged blades of American politics?  

Throughout the history of this country, arguments calling for Americans to change the way they interact with the world have been subsumed by the habitual forms of everyday life. A rousing of the nation from the slumber of the customary has rarely been generated by appeals to rationality or philosophy. Action is generated by emotion not reason.

In the 1980s, the onset of AIDS seemed, like the coronavirus, to be a distant and foreign enemy. AIDS was viewed as an obscure disease that only attacked populations already cleaved from the norms of American society. It was that disease killing those people.

The death of the actor Rock Hudson in 1985 profoundly altered the nation’s view of the AIDS epidemic.  Hudson projected the kind of warm, self-effacing jocularity that is now bestowed upon Hanks. To many, Hudson wasn’t one of “them,” he was one of “us.. If he could be struck down by the disease, so could anyone.

In the early days of Covid-19 – meaning a few short weeks ago – the virus was portrayed as having the same quality of otherness as had AIDS. The Trump administrant attempted to construct a narrative in which the disease was only spreading in other countries, carried to our shores by  “foreigners” who could be quickly separated and isolated. 

When the virus first manifested itself in America, it was conceptually framed as being limited to particular sub-groups such as “those people” on cruise ships who “really should have known better.” If you were willing to avoid boarding a large boat serving questionable shrimp, you were safe. 

Though the voices decrying this narrative were numerous and varied, to many the medical arguments seemed complex and arcane. Just as in the early months of the AIDS epidemic, the coronavirus was something that happened to “other people.”

The subsequent change in the attitude of Americans came not from sifting through the medical evidence, but from the sheer quantity of people being infected and killed.  Absent a single, galvanizing “Rock Hudson” moment, the disease had to begin its rampage through cities and communities before Americans acceded to the reality of “hey, this could happen to me.” 

Hanks was one of the first nationally known celebrities to be diagnosed with Covid-19. His diagnosis seemed for a moment like a clarion call to action, but his recovery may have furthered a framing of the disease as being far more innocuous than it is.

The impetus for national change often requires the transmutation of an individual’s anguish into the realm of the symbolic. In the case of Hudson, the “everyman” had to die in order to arouse the public to its own vulnerability.  

A long happy life to Tom Hanks. And to a world which doesn’t require any individual to be transformed into an icon of suffering for the country to find its own moment of transcendence.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science, California State University;

Opening the Overton Window: A Strategy for Progressive Political Change

The political right is currently smitten with a concept known as the Overton Window. Named after Joseph P. Overton of the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the core of the Overton Window is that there are, at any specific time, a particular collection of ideologies, ideas and policies which are acceptable to the general public. This assemblage of legitimacy shifts over time; ideas which were once considered unacceptable can become commonplace.

The Overton Window was introduced to many on the Right through a Glenn Beck novel of the same name. (A novel in the sense that it was a bounded stack of paper with words scattered across it.) In Beck’s hyperbolic “faction” an evil genius shifts the window and is able to use the government to bring tyranny to the people.

The alt-right is convinced the nation is in the midst of an immense, anti-tyranny, rightward shift in the Overton Window. Conservatives delight in this movement and the centrality of power which they believe generated it. Liberals, who once also rhapsodized about cultural change when it flowed in their direction, waffle between decrying the shift and arguing for its emulation.

The current composition of the Window will not be altered by a call for structural change, as “democratic socialists”  would hope. Shifts in the Window over time are an effect of strategically linking “new” ideas and policies with America’s “fundamental values.” Significant social, political, and economic transformations can be accepted by the public if they are portrayed as conserving more crucial, underlying tenets of  American society.

—  Political change is all about coding a redesign of the social fabric as necessary to its preservation.

American “fundamental values” emerged from a murky clutter of principles that were shaped by the uniqueness of our history. The political theorist Louis Hartz claimed that America is “exceptional” in that we avoided the feudalism of Europe. His contention is that we were “born equal” – not empirically, but as a shared historical ethos of individual rights, reason, and rationality which still suffuses our culture.

Hartz called our absolute devotion to the principles that we are all reasoning, rational, “self-owning,” sovereign individuals entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the “American way of life.” He argued that the New Deal succeeded because Franklin Roosevelt was able to code his “radical” reorganization of government as merely pragmatic, rational, responses to existing circumstances. According to Hartz, “[Roosevelt’s] ‘radicalism’ could consist of ‘bold and persistent experimentation’ which…was perfectly compatible with Americanism…Americanism was gospel…and any conscious transgression of it…was highly unpalatable.”

Progressive politics should not be situating itself outside the consensus of “Americanism,” attempting to lure or propel it towards a socialist utopia. A politics for social change should be positioned squarely inside the consensus of American values, using it is a gravitation core to absorb progressive ideas and reshape the Window from within.

Any incantation of “socialism” by the Left runs counter to the broad American consensus of individualism. A progressive politics should work to reinterpret this consensus rather than attempting to undermine it.

In terms of the current corporate configurations of health care, progressives should argue that the nation is witnessing an abandonment of the historical, fundamental, “Americanist” values of individuality upon which the country was founded. It should be emphasized that we are no longer “self-owning.” Instead we are owned by corporations; reduced to mere digits on a spreadsheet. Our health and our lives discounted to fractions of pennies on the bottom line.

Universal health care should be presented as a rational response to defend the essence of individualism our founding fathers gave us. It shouldn’t be framed as a shift in the current fundamental values, but as a necessary protection against their dissolution. Those pressing for universal health care, and a deeper anti-capitalist agenda, should point to the loss of the individual as a fundamental danger – a looming specter requiring practical, rational “defenses.”

The battle for progress will not be won on the terrain of the visionary. Moving forward depends on morphing the future into the past. In a viable progressive politics, everything new is old again.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

The Siren Song of the American Dream

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;

“Jew-ish” Identity in a Time of Violence

When speaking with my students about “identity,” I often refer to myself as “Jew-ish.” The term is always accompanied by a slight rocking motion of my hand – a small gesture emphasizing an ambiguous attachment to my own self-description.  

For those of us who, in our daily lives, are far more “ish” than “Jew,” the kind of religious connection we feel with the victims of the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh can be complicated. Are we to feel a wave of disgust, and fear, beyond that of all caring human beings? Are we suddenly supposed to feel more Jew than ish?

“Jewish” is a particularly complex identity as the term seemingly represents both a religion and an ethnicity. If hearing about Jews being shot doesn’t  transform the ish into devout practitioners, does it still momentarily alter our ethnic identity and our attachment to it? Are we to believe that a designation we never perform, and rarely even conceive of as an identity (let alone our own), has always been who we truly are?

The recent shooting compels the ish to locate ourselves on the terrain of a Jewish identity which is now under attack in America while simultaneously fueling atrocities abroad. The attack in Pittsburgh touches us in a personal way, even as the ongoing attempts by Israel to destroy the Palestinian people further a detachment from what appears to be the inevitable outcome of merging religion and ethnicity into a singular Jewish identity.

The French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser wrote about what he called interpolation – a process by which ideologies “hail” or “call out” to individuals, offering them a particular identity. Interpolation is not necessarily voluntary. It is a hailing which can often wrench us away from our already conceived and functioning sense of who we are.

Interpolation can be extended to a myriad of daily occurrences, such as the first time someone in their twenties refers to you as “sir” or “ma’am.”  Suddenly feeling old? Congratulations, you’ve been interpolated.

The attack in Pittsburgh is a form of hailing. But who or what is it calling out to? Are the Jew-ish free to turn away from this momentary re-shaping of our identity, or is there something that persists within us which inevitably responds?

The ish may need to think of our identities not as expressions of a stable essence or history, but as highly contingent and contextual. The feminist Judith Butler once told friends she was “off to Yale to be a lesbian.” Butler didn’t mean she wasn’t always a lesbian in her life, but that, at the particular conference she was attending, the complexity of her being would be reduced to a singular aspect. Her over-riding momentary identity as “a lesbian” would be a temporal, contextual effect.

The ishness of being a Jew complicates even Butler’s nuanced understanding of the contextually of identity. At certain moments in history the ish are called to an identity which, though unobserved and unacknowledged, seemingly lingers in our being. Jewish is not our identity, but we possess the raw material for its temporary construction.

As the attack recedes into history we will again be more ish than Jew. Until the tragic cycle repeats. The descriptions we offer of ourselves are not measures of who we are but, rather, where we are positioned at a particular moment and time in history.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

The Politics of Simulation

Just outside of Los Angeles is a movie set known as Paramount Ranch. The ranch is a well-used filming location; its buildings appear so often in western-themed movies and TV shows their familiarity can become an annoying distraction. 

When the set isn’t being used for filming, it’s open to the general public. You can roam the same streets traversed by The Dukes of Hazzard, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the robots of Westworld.

As you wander through the set (it takes about four minutes, if you walk slowly) it becomes obvious that the “buildings” have no solidity; they are mere facades. As one-dimensional as some of the films shot there. (No offense to The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.)

Paramount Ranch is useful because its facades can be made to simulate any aspect of our shared imagery of the west. These images don’t necessarily represent any actual frontier town; it is their iconic familiarity that makes the  fictionalized appear authentically western to us. 

The general sense we have of the underlying simulative aspects of films and advertising can distract us from the pervasiveness of imagery in our own lives. A simulation is a sleight of hand; a misdirection into the realm of imagery and representation. It is a world in which nothing is as it seems.

Simulations hinder our ability to differentiate between truth and reality, allowing the powerful to engage in stagecraft which comforts us, but conceals intentions and objectives. Our current politics has become a realm of symbolism and metaphor with little substance.

Though the political has historically functioned as a territory of sorcery and enchantment, our current vortex of illusion emerged fairly recently. In the 1980 presidential election millions of Americans were convinced that “trickle-down” economics represented a spirit of “free enterprise” which would financially benefit all. 

However, the ocean of wealth that flowed to the few drizzled barely a drop down to the many. Those in power realized they could separate the metaphor of “free enterprise” from the actuality of its outcomes, and that even those most harmed would yield to a symbolic American freedom authenticated through economic inequality.  

‘Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility. It is like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved – commitment to a scenario.’                                                                       Jean Baudrillard

The resultant division between the 1% and everyone else has been maintained not through overt repression but through simulations of openness and inclusion in the political process. The forces of hierarchy persist behind the pageantry of democracy. 

Every town hall meeting conducted by a reluctant politician relies on the symbolic. Familiar elements are deployed which, in some way, represent “open discussion” to those attending – a public forum, time for questions, and so forth.

The extent to which a member of Congress actually thinks about what is being said by their constituents is dubious at best. Politicians at these meetings often have the pained expression of someone who’s been given number 88 at the DMV and just heard the loudspeaker announce “3.” 

It doesn’t matter. Politicians and constituents aren’t engaged in deliberation; they’re performing a ritual. Everyone plays their role. Those in attendance dutifully ask specific questions and politicians flee along a circuitous route avoiding any meaningful responses. The process repeats: pointed question followed by rhetorical sidestep. This is the familiar script. Constituents leave the meetings believing they’ve engaged in deliberation, but they were really part of a theater-in-the-round production touring the country.

Town hall meetings are simulations; they are phantoms of an ideal of civic engagement that exists only in the symbolic. The meetings are artful veneers; the familiarity of their iconography provides the illusion of speaking to power. The ritual replaces the real.

Presidential debates are the pinnacle of contrivance. As in town hall meetings, the theatrical overwhelms the substantive.

Watching debates, we are seduced by the ceremonial. Candidates hover behind phallic lecterns of power; journalists sit passively at tables earnestly lobbing questions which inevitably disappear into labyrinths of pointless phrases and hollow rhetoric. Myriad rules on speaking time and the structure of responses fabricate a phantasm of substance. As we watch the debates, we are aware of the emptiness of the liturgy but remain captivated by its incantations. 

In the 2016 presidential debates we were absorbed into a clash of the unreal. One candidate was so formularized everything she did seemed like an ironic parody of how a simulated politician acts. She lost to the hate-child of George Wallace and Huey Long – a tiny-handed flimflam who brayed the familiar libretto of the demagogue. Our “democratic election” was a contest between wizards of Oz; two illusory floating heads distracting us from the void behind the curtain.

Donald Trump is the most virulent political creature to emerge from our Orwellian lagoon. He has embraced politics as art(ifice). Democracy becomes a musical where the plot and dialogue don’t matter as long as the songs are catchy.  

Trump is angered when people refuse to hum his incendiary tunes and instead focus on the actual lyrics. For the president, the meeting in Helsinki with Putin was a dazzling success; it may have been a political disaster but it had all the markings of a Tony award winning production.

Trump believes that, in politics, the spectacle is sufficient. He may be right. 

Simulations maintain inequality by mollifying the public. We willingly acquiesce to a democracy in which inequality is fueled by a symbolic freedom and perpetuated through the pageantry of participation. But we are not merely spectators, we are also the actors. We have the potential to end these simulations by refusing to participate in them.  

The powerful maintain their position by turning all the world into a stage. We can no longer be merely players.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

Nothing is True. Everything is a Lie.


The lie fulfills our expectations. It is denounced and derided, but reassuring in its familiarity.

The lie stabilizes the political. We are comforted when events – even those unwelcome  – mirror our expectations.

The lie is easily inhaled. It is a puff of smoke; emerging with vigorous intent, but quickly dissipating into the haze of political exhaust.

The lie obscures. The utterance of the lie generates its own world of political commentary. Specifics dissipate into a never-ending series of accusations and allegations about the effects, not of the particular lie, but of lying itself.

The lie is transformed into the concept of lying. The web of perspectives and interpretations which construct a specific lie becomes irrelevant.

The lie cannot be sufficiently interrogated unless one wades through a social and political quagmire that is increasingly ungraspable. 

The lie shields us from the labyrinth any search for the true would entail.

The lie is soothing in its indeterminacy.  A lie is a lie because others say it is. That is sufficient.

The lie comforts us that the “facts” must be out there somewhere; they are merely being hidden from us. The more the true remains hidden, the more we are convinced of its existence.  

The lie generates the need for the “true,” not the other way around.

“You know there’s no crooked politicians. There’s never a lie because there is never any truth.”  Lenny Bruce    

The true is a rebellion against the lie and does not emerge from, or ultimately require, a world of measurable empirical objects

The true is too complex and indeterminate to construct fixed boundaries between itself and the lie.

The true tears at the simplicity of the lie. It rejects the balm of totalizing acceptance or rejection.

The true has the power to destabilize the political. It sends us on an eternal search for a “real” which is nothing more than an endless series of perspectives.

The true is strong in inverse proportion to the degree it is investigated. 

The true is strengthened by its obscurity. The more coarse the battle over its content, the more we are convinced of the purity at its heart.

The true is always an interpretation. That statement is an interpretation. As is that one.

The true is rarely about that which is quantifiable; it is a rumination on whether a particular policy or action represents “(in)justice” or “(in)equality.” This does not mean that the crowds at President Trump’s inauguration were the largest in history. That was a “hallucination.”

The true doesn’t terminate with the empirical world, but always tumbles into metaphysical concepts such as “freedom,” “equality” and “justice.” It is the application of these concepts, not discrete measurable “facts,” that constructs the essence of what is true.  

Metaphysics engages a world of self-referential concepts which point to nothing other than themselves.  Justice=Equality=Liberty=Justice. In no particular order.

Metaphysics is enforced when a series of “facts” are sufficiently connected to the language of a concept we know nothing about but claim to believe in. The metaphysical concept gives meaning to the “true” and transforms “facts” into carriers of social and political import.

Metaphysics unwillingly exposes these concepts to be chasms of strategies, illusions, and interpretations. The lie avoids these incommensurable battles; the true requires it.

Metaphysics constructs an “arc of justice” and then compels us to treat it like a moving walkway in an airport. We need not focus on the constant detours into the odious – wait long enough and we’ll all be transported to the special, and inevitable, destination.

Metaphysics is the self-indulgent dream of academics and a manipulatable nightmare in the hands of politicians.

Metaphysics was born at the death of Plato and died at the birth of Nietzsche. Any political theorist will tell you that. This is another reason not to talk to political theorists.

Metaphysics demands absolute loyalty. To argue about concepts which have no meaning makes you a philosopher. To question the existence of those concepts is to be deemed a nihilist. Philosophers don’t like nihilists. Nobody likes being told they have spent their lives engaged in magical thinking.

Metaphysics was conjured out of a fear of nihilism just as the true is constructed to counter the distaste for the lie. 

Nihilism replaces the arbitrary absolutism of the metaphysical with the perpetual play of perspectivism. That’s one view.

Nihilism deconstructs the “arc of justice” and compels us to treat it like a  moving walkway in an airport.  Stand motionless and it will deliver you to your destination –  an abyss of airline dehumanization cleverly coded as “something special in the air.” Walkways, like arcs, always lead to something special.

Nihilism rejects the lure of the true. Or the lie. 

Nihilism points to the erratic and haphazard forces which separate the “lie” from the “true.” This separation is a lie. And the truth.

Nihilism requires nothing; metaphysics promises everything.

Nothing is true. Everything is a lie.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Science; California State University;

The Rise of “Quit Lit” and the End of the Infinite Game

“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 Science; California State University;