Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day 2012

These posters, about a century apart, show what's changed and what's endured in our capitalist system. Half a year after the Occupy movements rose and fell, and as the supposed Spring '12 events have been revealed as a front for MoveOn and Obama for America, I write this with the same mixture of cynicism and idealism that impelled my comments last November on this blog. I opened a week-old copy of the New York Times to read about suicides attributed to the "economic crisis" rising in Ireland and Italy; the decline of influence of the Catholic Church and the pressure to tie one's identity--especially for middle-aged men--to one's job are culprits. After men face financial disaster and personal loss, the resulting collapse of one's sense of self and one's ability to cope drive more and more to end it all. A fitting epitaph or rallying cry today, also a day whose name signals utter distress.

Certainly, pressures have always been there for any breadwinner, male or female. I watched my dad work often the graveyard shift or the swing shift, after toiling with my often frail mom to run the dog kennel in the daytime that supplemented his wages and kept us solvent, if barely, when often my dad was looking for work. He seemed to find and lose jobs frequently--he explained to me his departures due to a combination of his temper and the unstable nature of a machine shop worker's occupation.

I recall going without what had been once-a-week or so steak for what may have been years; my teeth deteriorated as they came in as permanent ones as we had no insurance and I did not go to either doctor or dentist for what were indeed crucial years. I told my first girlfriend, as I started college, about how much my family made and she--her mother did not work and her own father appeared often "between jobs"--was astonished at how low the figure was. At least it ensured me a Pell Grant, back then for low-income families, and Cal Grants to supplement my financial aid to allow me to enroll at the university I had hoped to attend, in simpler times when one did not make such a choice a decade-long commitment to the right schools, the right tutors, the right scores, the right connections.

For many, as the pyramid schemes illustrate, the gap widens as much as ever between those at the "right" schools and in the right jobs--often benefiting the elite long favored by and comprising the leaders of the right wing, but more and more nowadays--despite the propaganda of the poster depicting our media-military-postindustrial complex today--more "diverse" as to admissions and international membership, if allied with the same powers that be. Those who make it into Berkeley or Harvard, Cambridge or the Sorbonne, MIT or Cal Tech, will not likely be championing Occupy once they make it on Wall Street or in corporate law, a tenured prof like Todd Gitlin or Noam Chomsky or Cornell West's photo-ops and soundbites aside as talk-show book tour exceptions proving the rule. Occupy met with applause on many progressive campuses, and among most of at least their neatly aligned faculty, I reckon; it's estimated in my liberal arts field, 19:20 instructors lean Democrat.

Still, the capitulation of most educational institutions to a corporate model-- if usually unofficially--demonstrates the reality behind the rhetoric. Secure jobs plummet for most of us less favored in getting hired at such institutions even as students are turned away; high enrollments meet budget cutbacks. Online teaching, I predict, will spread to selective universities as it has among many of those with open admissions already. This generates a lot of processed data. Whether this increases the creation of knowledge and wise use, we'll have to see. Electronic databases allow easier access and rapid production of papers and theses contrasted with index cards and library stacks I navigated as one of the last Ph.D.'s to research my dissertation traditionally; I finished just as Netscape blossomed. What happens to critical thinking, as cut-and-paste essays and "distance" degrees flourish, sobers me.

I saw a FB photo today of a mortarboarded grad at a lectern with the caption: "I couldn't have done it without Wikipedia and Google." At least it wasn't subtitled "couldnt of." Remediation, or "developmental" math and writing, take up the majority of courses facing many freshmen before they can progress at our Cal States and in our junior colleges. I have lamented this tediously, so I spare repetition. Suffice to say that the slogan on FB stands more and more for what "research" means now. I heard a tale of a student called in for plagiarism; she had insisted that since she bought the essay online, it was now her "original" work. After all, she had submitted it under her own name.

I face similar situations more and more, and however I try to enforce higher standards worthy of those earning college degrees, the disparity between many of my older students and younger ones regarding articulation, literacy, elegance of expression, and clarity of thought is often telling, and invariably disheartening. Add to this harried vets, inner-city, and international students, a 1.5 generation caught between a native language and an imperfectly learned new one, and a rush to send in rushed assignments overdue or barely on time due to work, socializing, commutes, and/or family life. My students--far from top-tier 1% campuses listed above--compete for fewer jobs and rising debts at the end of their investment. They are also competing, likely, against graduates of highly competitive schools for coveted jobs. Tuition invariably soars yearly, far outpacing the cost of living.

I heard 53% of new grads are looking for work, and out of those who gain it, the growing number of on-call, part-time, temp or "contingent" positions jukes the job stats the administration (as any in an election season) must inflate to keep the voters happy. It's common to see long-time full-timers let go, replaced by a pair of no-benefits, at-will, contracted, perhaps overqualified part-timers. I suppose this makes the government happier: two half-steps forward count as double one step back?

That post-industrial security state depicted above courts campuses and brings lucrative contracts; the liberal arts cannot compete with the hard and social sciences. Business majors lure many debt-ridden students and despite the astronomical tuition, so does law. In whatever the field, tenured radicals are greying and often obtained security in industrially fueled, tax-supported, confident postwar decades when enrollments boomed and budgets soared for those coming out of the Sixties with a doctorate, which also tended to be granted more quickly and with less difficulty than those earned by those like myself who faced straitened job prospects, enormous competition for what positions opened, and fewer hopes in the liberal arts for steady employment at all. Prisons rival schools for funding in California; Jerry Brown's return to govern finds a hammered state budget far different than that of the 70's largesse or his father Pat's social programs after WWII that boosted us all. None of this is news.

I know a woman with a doctorate about to be granted who may emigrate from Ireland to join her brother who tends bar in San Francisco. Highly accomplished in her field, she wonders if she can land a high school post over here. I told her given job layoffs, it might be more difficult than she imagines, although it sounds as if Ireland's austerity budgets make even American ones look lavish.

However, an Irish therapist mused on FB (as I find intellectual and spiritual and political ideas everywhere) how as of the magical 11-11-11 convergence, a feeling of possibility hovered. Yet, it also appeared to have set many people off kilter, and the uncertainty of our times as we are increasingly both linked electronically and cut off intimately adds up to quite a "broken social scene." That scene in "Melancholia" with Kirsten Dunst harnessing lightning from her fingers as annihilation nears appears as applicable as does the equally off-balance "The Tree of Life" with Thomas Wilfred's lumia Opus 161 animation. These two films stood out for me last year as representations of "mythos" today.

I regard this cinematic and philosophical zeitgeist as less hopeful and more unsettling, Both films and the Occupy movement roused hopes and fears; I sense among more than one friend wherever found an untethered mood, as if "all that is solid melts into air." Quoting Marx and Engels from 1848 reminds me of the enchantment of structural upheaval, and how it mixed, often fatally, with the power of disenchantment as harnessed by those shooting soldiers common to both illustrations above.

On the power grid, where do I perch? Privileged, no doubt, far more than I let on with my sad sack self. Yet, unsettled by my own determination to live by a life of the mind, when my soul searches so.

Writing this, I stare at myself with a somber mien. I'm often at a low. When one finds one's emotional support kicked out, and then one's blamed for staggering or falling, the predicament's not a happy one. Instability, personally as well as geopolitically, may make for great art and fine fiction, but when you must live through it, unsure if the ending will be apocalyptic or affirming, it's hard to take comfort in the chronicles of those who have endured similar struggles or who transform them into art.

I close this with a sense of unease. I've been reading lately a lot about the cultural evolution of religion, and I reflect upon the hard-wired nature of our wish for liberating models, inspiring chants, and momentous iconography. The Wobblies who made the older poster and the unknown artist who depicted our Occupy-era 99% share a commitment to a radical reworking of a system that for many in our world stands for the only one remaining. I have FB friends spanning the spectrum from Marxists to Tea Partiers, NRA supporters to grizzled Irish republican stalwarts, New Age infused visionaries and doggedly devoted Democrats with lattes and lapdogs. I am not sure what they share except me, but more than once I found myself sending a post--from a far-left activist turned survivalist if no less tilted to one side--to a Ron Paul military vet stalwart ready to lock and load.

What they have in common may not be much, but on May Day, they unite on a suspicion that those at the top of our pyramid scheme act in our best interests rather than theirs. Buddhists remind us of the "three poisons" of anger/greed, delusion/ignorance, and of desire/attachment. Jewish people retell the Passover story each spring as if it happened to them, to keep the pain and the promise equally alive. That's the longest running narrative handed down orally in our culture, and satirically ripe for parody as it endures, it betters Easter for it can happen to all of us, not only to a Son of God. Beneath ideological differences and political parties, perhaps we can agree that a higher value lurks beneath the slogans and posters, the soundbites and "likes" that more and more substitute for understanding. There remains a possibility for betterment that Wobblies and Occupiers, revolutionaries and reformers, campaigned for: progress for workers everywhere, not as spray painted, but as reified.

Where I teach, the library's stacks are being culled. Thousands of titles will be given to Better World Books, a worthy charity. I have little room for adding to my own collection, but I snatched John Reed's "Ten Days that Shook the World" last week from the pile facing deportation. We know how that idealistic saga from another October's days of rage ended. Maybe past failures will guide us--in this year when Dick Clark dies and some foresee no New Year to celebrate--into a chance for gentle renewal. I found my secondhand copy bought a decade ago on Teilhard de Chardin. That's a nudge.

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