Chancellor Katehi’s Silver Tongued Bullshit

You may have heard that some bad shit went down at UC Davis yesterday.  Peaceful protestors + police = pepper spray — this is becoming an all-too familiar equation in today’s post-procedural liberalism America.  And while I agree with ZZ and Historiann that the power-hungry UC Davis guard dogs were way out-of-control, I put most of the blame on the person holding the leash: Chancellor Linda Katehi.  She’s the one who released the hounds, and now she’s trying to weasel her way out (apologies for the mixed-species metaphor).  Check out the e-mail she sent to the “UC Davis Campus Community” last night (see below).   Katehi claims that “we [note that she spreads the blame by using the first-person plural, rather than “I”] appreciated the peaceful and respectful tone of the demonstrations”; she also “appreciates and strongly defend the rights of all our students, faculty and staff to robust and respectful dialogue.”  But because of “serious health and safety concerns,” she had to “ask the police to assist” in the removal of the protestors, at which point “10 protestors were arrested and pepper spray was used” [again, watch the blame shifting through use of the passive voice!].  This “saddened” Katehi, who evidently had no idea that the cops might, you know, do what cops do and use pepper spray.  Thus did Pontius Pilate wash her hands of these “sad” events.

To point out the obvious:

  • Katehi, you were the one who called in the dogs.  Not “we.”  You.
  • Katehi, you knew damned well what would happen when you called in the cops.  Don’t act so naive.
  • Katehi, what do you mean by “serious health and safety concerns”?  Be a bit more specific — these are the sorts of generalized claims that get my students C-minuses on their essays.
  • Katehi, you may not want to admit this, but you had some choices.  You could have just let the protestors be.  Or, if you were so concerned about “health and safety,” how about using the rent-a-cop money to help the protestors take care of their own health and safety, instead of imperiling their health and safety?  Riddle me this: how does pepper spray improve a person’s health and safety?  Unless I’m wrong, pepper spray is actually bad for someone’s health.  I think that’s the whole point of pepper spray — to hurt someone.
  • Katehi, you should probably quit.  Really — just go.  And while you’re at it, take as much of the bloated UC administrative system with you as possible.  We don’t need it.

See and smell Katehi’s bullshit below:

November 18, 2011

To UC Davis Campus Community,

I am writing to tell you about events that occurred Friday afternoon at UC Davis relating to a group of protestors who chose to set up an encampment on the quad Thursday as part of a week of peaceful demonstrations on our campus that coincided with many other occupy movements at universities throughout the country.

The group did not respond to requests from administration and campus police to comply with campus rules that exist to protect the health and safety of our campus community.  The group was informed in writing this morning that the encampment violated regulations designed to protect the health and safety of students, staff and faculty.  The group was further informed that if they did not dismantle the encampment, it would have to be removed.

Following our requests, several of the group chose to dismantle their tents this afternoon and we are grateful for their actions.  However a number of protestors refused our warning, offering us no option but to ask the police to assist in their removal.  We are saddened to report that during this activity, 10 protestors were arrested and pepper spray was used.  We will be reviewing the details of the incident.

We appreciate and strongly defend the rights of all our students, faculty and staff to robust and respectful dialogue as a fundamental tenet of our great academic institution.  At the same time, we have a responsibility to our entire campus community, including the parents who have entrusted their students to us, to ensure that all can live, learn and work in a safe and secure environment.  We were aware that some of those involved in the recent demonstrations on campus were not members of the UC Davis community and this required us to be even more vigilant about the safety of our students, faculty and staff. We take this responsibility very seriously.

While we have appreciated the peaceful and respectful tone of the demonstrations during the week, the encampment raised serious health and safety concerns, and the resources required to supervise this encampment could not be sustained, especially in these very tight economic times when our resources must support our core academic mission.

We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested.  We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal.

We appreciate the substantive dialogue the students have begun here on campus as part of this week.s activities, and we want to offer appropriate opportunities to express opinions, advance the discussion and suggest solutions as part of the time-honored university tradition.  We invite our entire campus community to consider the topics related to the occupy movement you would like to discuss and we pledge to work with you to develop a series of discussion forums throughout our campus.

I ask all members of the campus community for their support in ensuring a safe environment for all members of our campus community.  We hope you will actively support us in accomplishing this objective.

Linda P.B. Katehi


Getting Engaged (to “the public”)

As I wrap up the first draft of my dissertation (whoo-hoo!), I’m starting to look for ways to engage in public discussions of broader themes and topics to which my dissertation is relevant, however remotely.  I’ve approached my teaching institution’s communications office to participate in a series of public talks; I’ve added a Google News section with keywords associated to my dissertation topic; and I’m saving my pennies to restart my subscription to the New York Times and maybe, if I can bear it, The Economist.  My hope is that by and through these outlets, I’ll both find ways of making broader connections within my dissertation and bring my dissertation to a group larger than my three committee members and my dog.

But I’m not entirely sure how to begin.  Initially, I thought that I should get involved in the comments sections of blogs and other websites when something relevant comes up — like a TED presentation a few weeks back about which I might have left some insightful (of course!) comment.  But maybe that’s a waste of time, or maybe I just need to pick and choose; Foreign Policy might be good, while Seeking Alpha might be the wrong audience.  And what, exactly, should I say?  While I have the advantage, compared to other historians, of working on a relatively recent and relevant topic, I’m used to talking about the past for its own sake, rather than making the direct connections to the present and future that most readers — who are busy with real jobs and lives in the real present and future — want.

Despite these concerns, I will push forward with my grand plans for public engagement, for at least two reasons.  First, it is actually important that we historians — both student and faculty — take a lead role in bringing historical interpretation to the public.  If we don’t, other people who don’t know a damned thing about the past will use it and abuse it.  Second, this sort of thing can’t hurt when trying to land a job.  Of course, you have to be smart about where, when, and and how you engage the public, but I think it can work out well if you do it right.

Wisconsin Workers: Giving the Finger to the Man and History

Perhaps the craziest and most wonderful thing about the union activity in Wisconsin (see Harry Brighouse‘s posts at Crooked Timber for some good reporting and analysis) is that it’s happening now.  In a moment when nearly 10% of people who want a job can’t get one, the employed are doing things that put their livelihoods in peril.  This runs in the face of a general rule of labor history: the labor movement prospers during booms and scatters during busts.  When capitalists are desperate for workers (1920s, 1950s), they will bow to union demands; when the pool of reserve labor fills up (Depression, 1970s-1980s), capitalists set workers against each other and destroy solidarity.  Unions have made gains during bust-times only when the government has stepped in to assert and protect workers’ rights (like during the New Deal).  But here we have a situation in which Wisconsin workers are surrounded by leagues of the unemployed and desperate, but instead of turning on each other and doing whatever the Man says to save their own asses, they have made themselves vulnerable by heading into the streets.  It’s a remarkable display of courage.

Whence this courage and strength to not only put your job on the line, but to buck the trends of history?  It must in part come from a sense that enough is enough; that workers — public or otherwise — can’t be pushed much farther before they fall into poverty and despair.  In this way, the strength of the Wisconsin movement comes from precisely that source which, judging by historical precedent, should be weakening solidarity: the shitty employment situation.  But instead of turning on each other, Wisconsin workers are turning to each other.  I don’t want to get carried away and say that this represents a watershed moment in the history of the labor movement (okay, I do want to get carried away), but you have to admit that this seems pretty special.

The Troubles with Organizing Adjuncts

For the last year-and-a-half, I’ve been working as an adjunct at a Local Liberal Arts College (LLAC).  The department is great, the students are by and large wonderful to work with, and I love being my own boss for all intents and purposes.  But there are problems.  The pay is low (I’d make more as a TA at my grad institution) and I don’t get health insurance (which I would get as a TA).  I figured that there are probably other adjuncts who have similar frustrations, and so back in the fall, I sweet-talked the Dean’s secretary into giving me a list of all the adjuncts on campus.  I put together an e-mail list, called up a pub to set aside a few tables, and had a get-together in September.  My intentions from the beginning were to see about organizing the adjuncts into a union.  I’ve had some very good union experiences (at my MA institution) and some decent union experiences (at PhD school).  Moreover, I am well convinced that unions are indeed the way to go in a situation where the workers are basically expendable.  And that’s the case for adjuncts: we’re basically temp workers, a dime a dozen–you can’t spit without hitting a history PhD who is desperate for a job.  But together we could have some serious bargaining power, as LLAC, like other schools, has increasingly come to depend on temp workers–about a third of the faculty are adjuncts.  Together, we could shut the motherfucker down [says the tough-talking pseudo-radical].

Many of the people who came to the adjunct meetings were sympathetic, and sometimes enthusiastic, about a union drive.  But a few–and one dude in particular–were averse, if not hostile, to the idea.  And more than that: no one was coming to the meetings.  There are 100+ adjunct on the list, but no more than eight people would show up.  A few more would e-mail with apologies about schedule conflicts, etc., but the fact remained that people weren’t involved.  Hardly a positive indicator for union potential.  Overall, it seemed that the adjuncts were either too busy, too apathetic, or too satisfied to start the revolution.

So a change in strategy was necessary.  I’m putting off the revolution for now, and instead following a suggestion offered by another adjunct: sitting down with the university and talking it over.  A few other adjuncts and I met with representatives from the Dean’s office and proper faculty, and we’re pressing for a committee to be established to (a) come to terms with the scope of the University’s dependence on adjuncts; (b) investigate the concerns and hopes expressed by adjuncts; and (c) assess the current relationship between the university, departments, and adjuncts and see whether it might be changed for the better.

In the words of Anna Louise Strong (voice for the Seattle General Strike of 1919), “we are starting on a road that leads – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”  Except back off on the capital letters and exclamation mark.  I think this committee will come up with some recommendations, probably draft some policies and procedures, and hopefully clear up some things about how the university relates to its adjuncts.  Hell, maybe we’ll even get a salary ladder and health care.  But our comrades in Indiana have had less luck with that, and I have a feeling that when it becomes clear that what the adjuncts want will cost the university money, we’re going to have trouble.  At that point, the ambivalent adjuncts are going to have to make some decisions about what they want and how they can get it.  Maybe then they’ll show up to the damned meetings.

“So, tell me about how you became a Marxist.”

Such was the subject line of an e-mail I received from a dear friend of mine.  I’ve been sitting on the question for weeks, and just today sent a reply.  Below, you’ll find the e-mail I received and the e-mail I sent.  My friend’s e-mail is thought-provoking; my response is less so.  Still, it was an interesting exercise.

I just got done with a conversation with my minor adviser. She’s signed off on my minor and so finally, it’s done and all of that is good and well. But she had some serious reservations about elements of my argument which merited a phone call — and in the end I ended up defending the idea of progress, and that I would include discussions of things not so immediately compelling at the time because they ended up being so later. (My minor is early modern Europe by the way, Enlightenment stuff, so just ripe for this kind of debate.) I roughly describe my idea of progress as something that is not some external metaphysical force, but something internal which, despite being fragile, despite requiring certain historical contexts, and despite often being articulated for reasons that have nothing to do with their sentiments, gives an upper hand to good ideas over bad ones, over time. In my mind, the human creature is more or less using his brain, with some setbacks more or less, to figure out his world and society around him, and ultimately some things become clear that weren’t before (despite many many delays, setbacks, and reversals even), and solutions implemented; progress, roughly speaking. For why I think this works we’d go into utilitarianism, but we’ll stash that for now.

Now, my guess is you don’t share this view; at least, not of the ideas. But my guess is you do have the idea of progress, but, driven by something else. Or, that is my guess, but all I remember you commenting on is an approval of Carr in discussions (and yes, totally by the way; go Carr). But at some point My minor advisor took issue with a formulation of mine she found starkly Marxist, and admittedly in this particular instance it was (I find the differing agricultural/economic bases of France and England in the 17th century to be far and away the best explanation for their differing forms of government). But it occurred to me — in a lot of strange ways, I now have more in common with dyed in the wool Marxists than I do most other historians, because of this sticking suspicion I have that you can’t really do history well — or do the type of history I want to do — without an eye to the future and ultimately, without an argument about the way it ought to head and why it ought to head that way. This is why I switched to the twentieth century this year; I’m basically going to be as political as I am academic, and unfortunately I don’t feel I can therefore really write what I want to exclusively within academia, but an emphasis on recent, clearly political history will make that easier.

And I was remembering tonight how once you said in seminar, that you believe that ultimately you have to have a base, a basic idea of what causes what so that you can organize information, and understand anything – and without that you are basically lost. Or at least I think that was the gist of what you said. That has stayed in my head a long time, and I think you are right — and I think therefore, a lot of historians are basically nowhere or, they do nothing of immediate import with their work, because since they are too laden down with postmodernism, they can’t believe they can extend it to anything past the end date on their subtitles. And that is intellectually consistent, but not something I am satisfied with anymore, although I certainly used to be. But so now, to why I am writing you in particular — I’ve always been curious, what is the story that got you to where you are? What informed your thinking then, how has it changed or not? What is your position on the questions I’ve raised here because, I’ve been turning this over in my head like crazy for a year now… I don’t think I am flirting with Marxism as such really, but am realizing I could use some intellectual exchange with someone who has also probably been accused of “teleology” his fair share of times, a criticism that I think has degraded into a straw-man cliche. And I was wondering what that has been like as well; have you ever felt lonely or isolated in your position, and what do you do in times like those?, and what steps do you take to ensure yourself you haven’t been mistaken or, conversely, that your evaluation of things has a value even against those that you much respect basically telling you are digging around in the intellectual dust heap of history?

Anyway, I know that is a lot all of a sudden out of the blue, but as I said, I need to get these questions out of my head and out to others. Because I need to have a clearer idea of what this process looks like, where I stand in the intellectual spectrum and in relations to others, and how to tweak that if I need to. Anyway, thanks for your time in reading this.

And my response:

Sorry to take so long getting back to you.  I’ve been mulling this about in my head for the last few weeks, and I’m afraid that any answer I provide to your excellent questions will be unsatisfactory.  That said, I’ll give it a shot.

How I became a Marxist:  It happened while I was an undergraduate–naturally.  I went into college a conservative evangelical Christian and came out co-chair of the Socialist Union.  Part of it was rebellion against my parents, of course; I’m a late-bloomer in that respect.  But mostly it was political: I was disgusted with Clinton’s half-assed and half-baked liberalism, particularly in regard to “free” trade, which was the hot issue while I was in college: sweat-shops, the WTO, etc. and so forth.  I was looking for something more radical: something that recognized how radically unjust the world is, and something that suggested a radical approach.  Marxism, as embodied by the Socialist Party, seemed like that thing.  And I’ll be honest: one of my favorite professors was the co-chair of the SP, and that played a role in my attraction to the party.  In short: a combination of personal attraction and political conviction led me to Marxism as a political philosophy.

Now, as for Marxism as an approach to history, that developed much more slowly and deliberately.  After college, I went to a town in the former East Germany, where I did some research on the economic history of an optics company that had been split into two after the war.  Anyway, I gave up on German history when I realized that I couldn’t see myself looking into a student’s eyes and being able to convince her that this was actually important to her.  This brought me back to the States and I started studying American history.   I was drawn to the work of William H. Sewell (UChicago), who’s written some fascinating stuff of structure and agency.  It was through his work, and weekly conversations over beer with fellow graduate students (we’d pick something to read–Marx, etc.–and talk about it) that I became more convinced of the importance of understanding the structures in which people act–particularly economic structures, which, more than anything else, determine what opportunities and choices a person has at her/his disposal.  And since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with the forces that structure peoples’ lives and the power that people have over their own lives and the structures in which those lives take place.

The problem, of course, is that Marxism can easily devolve into economic determinism, with the mode of production determining class structure and one’s class position determining one’s actions.  And that’s just the beginning of the critiques leveled against Marxism as an approach to history.  But it seems to me that most critiques are unsophisticated cheap shots at unsophisticated caricatures of Marxism.  And so I continue to develop the sophistication of my own idea of Marxism.

So here’s where I am now: from the macro level, looking at the past in terms of groups and peoples, economic forces are the prime mover of history.  By “economic forces” I mean modes of production, how those modes structure class configurations, and how classes interact with each other.  This doesn’t necessarily work at the level of the individual: obviously, people make choices for a variety of reasons, sometimes out of economic motivation, sometimes out of ideology, sometimes out of sexual drive (ala Freud), etc.  But a person does not have unlimited choices–our options are limited, and they are limited primarily by one’s economic position, which is a product of class, which is a product of the mode of production.  In short: be sensitive to the complexity and nuance that is the human individual, but understand the power of economic forces.  This would be that method of organizing information that you referred to in your e-mail, the concept that (I hope) keeps me from getting lost as a historian.

As historians, we’re called upon to not just describe what happened, but to explain why it happened.  And it seems clear to me that the past as it has unfolded is a product of economic forces more than anything else.

Is this “progress”?  If we mean evolution, then yes.  I don’t see how it could be otherwise; economic systems and social relations become more complex over time as they build on top of one another.  But I make no claims to this being a good or bad thing.  One of the problems with Marxism is that people use it to predict the future, to say that history must and will unfold inevitably to socialism and then communism.  That’s bullshit.  The Communist Manifesto ends with a call to action, not a call to wait and see what happens.

And that’s the key for me: that a Marxist approach ultimately recognizes the biggest forces at play and simultaneously calls us to action against that biggest force.  The equation goes something like this:

World = fucked-up injustice.
Economic forces -> World
fucked-up injustice = product of economic forces
And therefore:
Fixing fucked-up injustice = fixing economic forces

That is to say: once you’ve diagnosed the source of injustice, you know what to attack.  And my place as a historian, I guess, is helping make that diagnosis to the world’s condition as it has unfolded over time.

Have I been criticized?  Sure.  I’ve been rightly called out when I make unsophisticated arguments for economic motivation as the sole factor in history.  That’s why I remain open to refinement and even massive change in my understanding of the past; that’s also what keeps me from feeling too “isolated,” in the sense that when I put my ideas out there, I try to signal a willingness to adjust as necessary, and that keeps me in the dialogue, rather than cut off from the discussion.  Most of the times this works; if I’m dismissed out of hand by someone, that person doesn’t appreciate the point of academic exchange.

What bothers me is when people take digs at me for having an interpretation of the past that quite obviously has relevance for the present and the future.  These people fancy themselves as vacuum-sealed objective observers of the past; they argue that any history that points to the present and future must necessarily be skewed.  I argue that it’s impossible to write history without reference to the past or future, and that we’re fooling ourselves if we think our observations–and even more so our explanations–are free of our ideas about what the world is and should be.  Better to face it up front than to deceive yourself.

I hope this helps; I fear it has not.  But I’ve enjoyed it–you asked challenging questions and demanded that I take some serious looks at my approach to the past, and that’s always a good thing.  So thank you

Sorry. Also: Suck It, Sean Wilentz

First off: Sorry that I’ve been gone.  My apologies to the handful of people who seem to read this blog on occasion.  A big fat sorry especially to zunguzungu and mrbubs, my only favorite commenters, who dropped by here a few months ago for a great little discussion.  It just so happens that as that conversation was going on, my computer hard drive crashed–big-time–and it’s been a catch-up game since then.  I know, I know–three months is a long time to cope with a hard drive crash.  But it was a big crash and I’m particularly slow and prone to obsession (do you know how long it takes to put bookmarks in exactly the right order?)  In any case, I think I’m on top of things now.  Moreover, I’ll be studying for my qualifying exams this summer, which means that I’ll be doing a shit-load of reading, and, per zunguzungu‘s advice, I’ll be looking to this blog for accountability.  In short: if you’re still reading this blog, thanks, and I hope you’ll drop a line every now and then.

Secondly: Suck It, Sean Wilentz.  Obama’s the nominee, like it or not.  In your last empassioned plea to ignore reality and make Hillary the Democratic nominee, you argued that Obama was “unmaking the Democratic party.”  Now, I know that you’re pretty committed to the Clintons.  I understand that you appeared before Congress and testified on behalf of Bill Clinton during the impeachment disaster.  Good for you, and thanks for that.  But get a fucking grip.  Obama is not “unmaking” the Democratic party; the party has been unmaking itself since Truman started down the civil rights path.  Ever since then, the Democratic party has been torn between its thirst for power and its desire to Do the Right Thing and make up for decades of pre- and post-Civil War racism.  You do remember that about the Democratic Party, right?  The part about them being a bunch of racist terrorists up until, say, FDR?  Oh, wait, now I remember: race isn’t important to you.  Or at least you couldn’t find room for it in the 800 pages of The Rise of American Democracy.  Jefferson liked to fuck his slaves so as to increase his property in people?  Not important.  Jackson sent thousands of Indians to their death because he thought them fundamentally inferior?  Trivial.  George McClellan and the Democratic Party tried to destroy Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War?  Insignificant.  The Democratic Party and the KKK worked together to rip away the meaning of freedom just as African Americans had secured it after the Civil War?  Trifling details!

Except: it is important.  Race has been at the core of Democratic politics since the get-go.  That we’re dealing with it only now is pretty pathetic, but at least we’re dealing with it.  Meanwhile, Sean Wilentz, you try to ignore the issue and proclaim that class trumps race at all turns (despite hilariously disturbing evidence to the contrary).  Newsflash from an outted Marxist to a closet Marxist: class and race are both important.  And we need to come to terms with that.

So sit down and shut up, Sean Wilentz.  You’re embarassing yourself.

p.s. I was originally going to write this up for Progressive Historians, where I had previously posted a comment in defense of Prof. Wilentz.  But Wilentz has gone off his rocker, and whenever I tried writing this article, I got way too vulgar for the high standards of PH.

Defending Myself to Clinton Supporters

Next week, I’ll be having dinner with dear friends of mine, one of whom is a rabid active Clinton supporter.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain why I’m rooting for Obama.  This post by Ari Kelman over at The Edge of the American West is a pretty damn good start, especially this bit:

And make no mistake, as we choose a Democratic nominee for the presidential election, we also very likely are choosing a leader of the party. We have to ask ourselves, will we allow the Clintons to continue to dominate the Democratic Party? They have, for years, steered it to the center. Recently, they seem to be veering further to the right. And if that’s the direction they’ve chosen in the primary, what can we expect during what promises to be a difficult general election campaign?

There it is.  That’s maybe the biggest reason I want Obama to win: because I want to be able to support the Democratic Party in the future.  I’m a lefty, and I voted for Nader in 2000–yeah, that’s right; fuck you, too–because I couldn’t hold my nose and vote for a party that had chosen a middle course between wimpy-centrism and the Evil Right.  With Obama, we get a shot at a Democratic Party in which there’s room for the Left; with Clinton and all the machinery and baggage that she has chosen to bring with her, it’ll be more of the same fence-fucking centrism.  And I just can’t take it anymore.

I probably won’t say all of that over dinner, of course.  Might cause indigestion.