Friday, March 07, 2008

Killing Culture

[The following discussion took place at UFOB in June 2006.]

The economics of graduate education are messy.
Education is paid for by the
government, the parents,
various foundations and endowments, by the students
themselves (in part by their low-paid labor), and by the undergraduate students and
their funders. The
beneficiaries are the faculty, the researchers, and the students
themselves. One of the peculiarities of
humanities graduate schools is that their
products are of interest only to themselves: new humanities research and new

But the new PhD's, while potential beneficiaries of the PhD monopoly of college
teaching jobs, are also
effectively competing with their teachers for whatever jobs
there are. This leads to tension when grad
students and adjunct PhD's notice that
some tenured
faculty are either over the hill, or else are using their jobs mostly to
finance a nice lifestyle while
doing only the minimal research required to keep their
jobs. (For some, scholarship is the reason they went into the profession; for others,
it is just the price
you have to pay for a cushy job).

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs


I've written previously about my difficulties with the
gatekeepers of academia in my
pursuit of doctoral work
and faculty positions. In these earlier posts, I mostly
focused on the apparent non-compliance factor
in my rejections: having considerable
recognition, and acclaimed publications to my credit actually worked
against me.

What I overlooked, though, was the age barrier. I'm only 53.

But in a recent conversation with another highly creative intellectual--who just
happens to have been
rejected at the same institution where I did my graduate studies
--I discovered that over 50 is indeed
considered a liability there, not because of
diminished energy or brilliance, but because it conflicts with the college's
marketing brand of being
young and hip.

Posted by Spartacus

I can't count anymore the number of people I know who should be and could be teaching
, who are hanging in
there under pressure, and who were driven out or pushed aside.
Back when getting a formal education was
an option for me, I had a friend who was
hired at a
great place to work, a sweet architectural design firm, with a degree in
philosophy. His employer, he
said, wanted someone with an education, who could also
still think. I was young enough to be blown away by that.

It's not just academia, either.

Several years ago, a wealthy Bostonian became interested in the problem of drug
addiction. A
foundation colleague helped introduce him to a well respected drug
counseling and treatment center. The
wealthy gentleman was impressed with its work,
so he
decided to make a large donation to the organization. My colleague was taken
aback when the donor stipulated
that his gift not be used for salaries and other
“overhead” expenses. Not knowing how else to respond, she told the donor that drug
counseling and treatment
are salaries and overhead expenses.

Compare this process to the way the wingnut borg is handling the building of its
culture. Phil at the Gift
Hub has mentioned many times the process of funding and
hiring that makes an intellectual/propaganda
network possible. It is taking over the
philosophically liberal structures where an education is increasingly difficult, but
still possible. The
obsessive monetization turns learning into a race to the bottom
for acquiring qualifications and place,
with a harshly limited outlook for being able
pursue it full time. Able people start to look elsewhere, and acquire skills,
which is not
necessarily a bad thing, but they are not going to be replaced by people
who have decades of experience and
the teaching they can still manage is impromptu. I
read a lot of blogs that are a close equivalent to hedge schools, published by people
who have everything
it takes to teach, except for a marketable quality.

posted by J Alva Scruggs

For those who might ask what's the big deal?, I refer you to the right-wing coup of
the Southern Baptist
Convention and its extensive assets. University and government
treasuries are no less formidable when
deployed in the cause of fundamentalism now
with organized crime.

Posted by Spartacus

In talks with right wing religious people, I've found that they're often quite upbeat
, even happy, and that
being part of something with some very clear precepts has made
them enthusiastic about sharing the good
news. They have apocalyptic ups and downs,
but those
are generally fairly shallow. Only the deeply damaged are obsessive, and
they come to dominate because they
have what it takes to wage attrition through
unreasonableness. Eventually, it's easier to let them have their way. They're not
especially grand
manipulators. Just persistent.

Quite a few of the religious righties I've spoken to are not suffering from a false
consciousness in any
way. Things I consider terrible sacrifices are worthwhile
trade-offs for them. They were very, very
unhappy. Now they're not. The bullying
wingnut cretins
are a minority, who drag them into rotten activities through peer
pressure, relentless unpleasantness and
the cheap thrill of getting away with being a

Kurt Vonnegut wrote about psychopathic personalities whose decisiveness is unhampered
by empathy or
considerations of decency. That state of mind is very attractive to
people who are unhappy. I've felt that
way myself: if only I were free of thinking
I'm a jerk
for doing X, Y or Z. Then I could be effective. I can say I would pass on
the promise of that, and support
in my efforts to achieve it, because I tried it once
and couldn't hack it. A little voice in me cried, "bullshit", and I couldn't drown it
with drugs, liquor
or anything else. The pitch I got was: come, let us be uncertain
and struggle together. It appealed to me
because I had all these nagging doubts and
company. The certainties of it were veiled. They were, as I alluded in the
previous post, a test of my
willingness to go along. That's the big step.

I find my community now among the rejectionists, the pariahs, the endlessly fucked
over and the people who
are scared of being fucked over again. Membership in that is
not a lot to offer people.

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs

I don't know. I had a neighbor whose exuberant dogs I walked in junior high who would
have probably
qualified as one of those upbeat Christian types. Once I was present
for a theological conversation between
her and her husband. I think it had to do with
a local
church whose minister was letting the parishioners perform baptisms on
themselves rather than presiding
Dadlike over the ritual himself. Neighbor lady was
taken aback by this anarchy. Husband, marginally more sympathetic, said it could be
seen as "the priesthood
of all believers," solid Protestant-citizen material, you
know. In the end the neighbor lady expressed her
skepticism about such interpretative
license by
shrugging that she supposed it was an instance of "the fires burning

What she meant by this--I know because I'd heard her say it before--was that the
ambiguity of the doctrine
was a deliberate test set out by God, a kind of bait or
entrapment, and if the mark interpreted
incorrectly, he would suffer all the more
howlingly in
hell to have been so close, as it were, to have been so lucky to have
had the correct answer there in his
vicinity but to have missed it nonetheless.

The whole of my objection to the desert religions rests in that anecdote. I think the
woman who said it
would have counted as one of the "moderates," one of the upbeat and
not obviously sociopathic exemplars of
the faith. But the violent, infantilized
authoritarianism and cruelty is so deeply inbred in Christianity that I'm very
skeptical that even the
"nice" ones escape being fundamentally shaped by it. Here's a
woman who looks at the people sitting next to
her at the PTA, or selling her
groceries, and she can
serenely contemplate them screaming in torture forever over a
trivial point of doctrine--not just that, but
triumph that they got tricked.
Pwned by God! And it's
active torture we're talking about, forever. I heard a lot of
stuff like that growing up--it was so
normalized that even long after I was an
atheist it
didn't dawn on me for years just how morally abject, how grotesque and
inhuman that vision really is. Yet
if you subtract from Christianity all the people
would reject the doctrine of hell, I'm not sure who that leaves you with besides
a few freethinking
Episcopalians and Unitarians and a gaggle of assorted New Agers.

Upbeat good cheer and intratribal hugginess is compatible with unspeakable cruelty
and casual,
utterly inhuman retractions of fellow feeling--not just for strangers and
others but for the people one
sees or works with every day. For that reason the
anecdote also expresses the whole of my objection to the authentic happiness crowd,
who are a secularized
version of the same anti-ethical form of life.

Posted by T.V.

T.V., the satisfaction the doctrinally correct get from the thought of others
suffering seems less
religiously based to me than it does class based. Secular
wingnuts of that class like torture too, and
in this world. I do think the desert
religions lend
themselves very well to infantilized authoritarianism, but I've seen
the same gloating in people of other
faiths. What they had in common was frustrated,
sometimes insatiable, managerial ambitions. I think a good bit of religion is
ginned up to meet that desire,
in much the same way as crank philosophy. It provides
a respectable cover. It's something that can get space on the NY Times op ed page.

I went a little batshit after the Abu Ghraib story broke and I found secular liberals
solemnly discussing
the morality of torture. Perhaps they've never hurt anyone or
been hurt, but the ghoulishness of deciding
how much and what kinds of torture are
from the lofty absraction of blogs and published journals, seems an awful
lot like the satisfaction of
the fires burning hotter woman. I had expected more than
revulsion followed by, "yes. . . but. . ." So not
quite as overt and not quite filled
with false piety,
but the abdication to a remote force that would handle it without
making their nice houses messy was still

There's a different quality to the sadism of the doctrinally correct than the
incoherent hatred of the
less well-schooled. It takes a college experience -- I
hesitate to say education -- to give someone the ammo to be an adept cretin. Some of
this is class based.

The upbeat people among my formerly completely broken religious righties refuse to
think about ugly or cruel
consequences. They do a weird shift if they absolutely have
no choice but to see it. They cope with screaming
fits, breaking things, looks of
profound shock and
tears, followed by accusations of being hated by the people who
have forced them to look. Dobson and his
fellow travelers make a pretty penny
conditioning them
into being able to do it themselves.

In the absence of religion, wingnuts and managerial ghouls, nominally liberal or
pseudocon, still look for
that element of personal sanctity that makes hurting others
acceptable and even a pleasurable duty,
provided they don't have to get too dirty
Social Darwinism works for the secular.

Religion looks more like a tool for something to me than a cause. The culture of
limitless control is my

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs

T.V., that's why I find the image of Jehovah as a thoroughly damaged, warped, even
evil fragment of the
true godhead so...appealing. The apologists have never
successfully answered the Question of Evil if they
assume that Jehovah is somehow
pure and good.
So...what if he is not, what if he is a mad, gibbering, flawed piece
of a greater deity?

Gnosticism does have a lot of craziness associated with it, but not as much as
orthodoxy, imo.

Posted by Brian Miller

Mr. Scruggs, a worthy essay, One of my favorite "other" blogs is the relentlessly
secular Butterflies
and Wheels. I think, frankly, they lose site of the very reality
you summarize so well. A link to your
post will be worthwhile, tomorrow, methinks.

Posted by Brian Miller

Hi there Mr. Miller. I'm not completely convinced that my cultural culprit is not a
product of the Christian
culture. It's hard to disentangle, as religion is also very
much a means of governance and a philosophy of
goverance. It's incredibly useful to
be able to say He

Hmmm. What I'm groping towards is saying I still have a chicken and egg problem.

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs

Further thoughts on this.

Younger people's intellects are easier to weaponize, both and students and
instructors. Militarization runs
deep in our society. Hence the disdain for Spartacus
among others, who are too old, too individuated and too rounded to be comfortable
turning out
hyper-specialized students.

Desert religions evolved alongside a constant flux of uncertainty, famine, war and
forced migrations. A lot
of the efforts at ethical thinking in the literature
concerns the proper use of violence, control
hierarchies, duties and massive cruelty.

Religion gets adapted to meet people's needs at the time. Schisms are constants as
are evolving
intepretations within the orthodoxy. The happy camping religion of
broken people is not the same as the
punitive hellfire of the doctrinally correct
managerial class, even though they're both called Christian. They're both different
from the free
thinking Episcopalians, whose ways and thoughts are very much in line
with social democracy.

The psychopyrotechnical goo of the Zizek devotees provides a different kind of social function for
cover. I've been invited to view it as a symptom, but it's really just a
manifestation of a desire to be an
asshole in a respectable way.

Assertive victimology and a right to provocation have no place in the freethinking

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs

I don't think Jehovah is even a fragment of the true godhead, although there are
regions in which whole
groups of people have miniaturized things around such a
thought, which is not very bright because they also
think it's a large and
comprehensive thing (even). The
aim should be to get all the way away from 'true
godhead,'including forgetting about the 'true Christianity' or the 'true [any]
religion, because
those flute notes from Arjuna to Krishna were few in number--they
were probably just some nobleman playing
the flute for somebody else, and a scribe
made up the
story--still sold in Hare Krishna stalls the world over! Then your
cultural culprits might have bolder
outlines--like the closing of the Kilgore
music station in favour of selling to shit Christian-pop bullshit as
reported in NYTimes today.

That niceness of the moderate Christians who aren't full-time hateful is the
trickiest of all. Thanks for
the warning, as I need to have this as a kind of
re-indoc thing at least weekly, because I have to deal with some of these and they
are sore afraid that they
might not overturn me. It may also be important, if we talk
about sadists enjoying suffering, to be able to
learn how to enjoy watching sadists
suffer. I really
don't think there is any choice. This could be circular, but it
could also be a way of keeping the
juices flowing--doesn't matter about the critique
about hypocrisy that will be inevitable from the put-upon now-powerless neocons, just
so long as
they're penned up.

Posted by">new york pervert

Mr. NYP, the critique of the neocons I'm going with for now is that they hit the
jackpot at a time when
there was a need for their brand of snake oil aggression. The
need looks likely to shift to the
Kristof and Tom Friedman brand next. The desire for
aggression hasn't gone away. It does need better branding. The genius, such as it is,
of the DLC types
lies in peddling a warmed over version of Papa Doc Bush's kinder,
gentler aggression. I have no doubt it
will eventually sell well.

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs

Mr. Scruggs, I love your writing. "kindler, gentler aggression indeed." Why invade a
country when a few
infusions of cash and targeted "removals" can do?

What too many forget is the murders and genocides committed by our oh so kind and
gentle Democratic
Party. I'm sure the Serb villagers driven out of their ancestral
homes by KLA Criminal Syndicates are
forgiving of the Great Empathicizer's little
war of liberation in the Balkans. At least there was some competence, less
outright looting, involved, no?

Posted by Brian Miller

I was merely alluding to the opportunistic nature of the merger between these two
inbred lineages of
American conservatism. The all-out culture war that resulted from
this arranged marriage has plenty of
fuel, but needs to consolidate its shallow
gains by ousting all opposition.

Theocracy cannot abide academic freedom, only the pretense of it.

Posted by Spartacus

'What too many forget is the murders and genocides committed by our oh so kind and
gentle Democratic

Then they should shut up talking about how wonderful Bill Clinton was--even if he was
. I don't think
anybody thinks the Democratic Party is 'kind and gentle' and I don't
think anybody is kind and
gentle--just look at saints, they're all sadists too.
Aggression is all right, one needs a subtler narrative to combat inertia, except when
inertia suffices (I
like it for brief periods of each day.)

Posted by">new york pervert

Or rather, I shouldn't say 'aggression is all right,' but it is not going to always
suffice as the 'first
theme' of everything. People have tried it and it has never
worked, because everybody is aggressive.

Posted by">new york pervert

Fair point, Mr. NYP. It seems like too much trouble to say "unprovoked aggression as
constant policy", but
that's what it should have been.

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs

I missed your second comment until just now, Spartacus. I agree with the conclusions.

Posted by J. Alva Scruggs


I think your class-first argument is mostly compelling. Religion at its worst does
seem to follow
fractures of class or race that would have been played out even
without supernatural justifications. I think
where I balk is at the stories for the
children. If
you imagine a safe and settled culture, free of the sedimented strife
that would train up kids in
obviously grotesque hatreds, and imagine the kids
imbibing the usual Sunday school tales...well, I think
the themes of raw, grovelling
authoritarian submission
& grandiose S&M power relations are far worse than the
militarized kid's-channel TV stuff I try unsuccessfully to keep my son from being
immersed in,
and I think they could twist people who would otherwise be untrained in
social cruelties into
accepting them as justified. They're not like reading Harry
Potter, or the original rather nasty Grimm's
tales, either, because kids who imbibe
those tales are
told that they're real. That's a crucial categorical distinction for
kids. Nathan asks that all the time.
Is magic real? Are dinosaurs real? Is a laser
real? Is
heaven real? As Brian says, Jehovah deserves to be treated precisely as the
Gnostics treated him, as a
crazed megalomaniac villain on Power Rangers. Teaching
kids to bow down before that is horrible, and I
confess I think there's a connection
between such
early training and something like Abu Ghraib even if I can't prove it
sociologically. While one can make a
very plausible case that cruelty would run our
world with or without religion, I think one can also make a case that religion
is the originary source of
the implant that makes it possible for gentle people who
would otherwise be appalled by torture to consider
it thinkable, even acceptable, if
carried out by the
proper authorities.

If I had to choose between kid's books about suffocating giant mother squirrels and
books in which
the entire human race is drowned out of spite and prophets who call
down murderous bears on children for
laughing at them, I'd choose the former while
out for something better than either of these Hobson's choices.

Posted by T.V.

TV: I just want to say "excellent." I think Arthur Silber has an excellent series of
articles summarizing
how our child-rearing practices, including "religion" lead to
the very cruelties and corruptions we see
throughout history.

Posted by Brian Miller

Jesus, with the children at his knees, was not talking of hell burning hotter; he was
talking about humility,
kindness, and mildness. The Gospels, I truly think, are the
best source for many of the anti-Pharissaical
sentiments expressed on this blog.
"anti-Christian" is not a great stance for winning hearts and minds in the
heartland. But reading the
Gospels might be.

Posted by Tutor

Read the passage in context, liberal. It was after the Pharisees were trying to trip
up the Lord on matters
of divorce and physical relations between a man and woman.
It's clear as day the gospel is showing us that
abortion is wrong. Anything else is
fancy city talk.

Try that sort of thing in the church were I worship and we'll show you the chains,
liberal. And then
you'll weep—but I won't. I'm forgiven.

Posted by Captain Blowtorch

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