Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Challenge Common Sense

Challenge Common Sense

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri  

from the May, 2013 edition of the SCENE  

Ask your real or digital friends to comment on what’s wrong with public argument these days, and they will usually say something like “a lack of civility.”  People should be nicer to one another, but compared to historical norms we’re not near as bad as establishment media sources insist. In the 19th century abolitionists like Elijah Lovejoy and feminists like Angelina Grimke spoke under constant threat of mob violence, and were sometimes killed, just for having the audacity to advocate for equality and justice. That’s a kind of civility breakdown most of us thankfully will never experience. 
Today what ails our democracy is not lack of civil argument, but lack of argument, period. When asked to defend positions on public issues, everyone from powerful public officials in Washington to the chatty neighbor down the block too often respond by assuring us their take is just “common sense.” Meditate on this for a moment: if the person you’re mingling with is speaking “common sense” yet you don’t agree with her, then that must make you a moron, right? 
Wrong. What’s moronic is the refusal to think critically about an issue while hiding behind the shield of “common sense” to mask that intellectual laziness. 
Hiding behind the common sense shield occurs on all sides of the political spectrum. Consider Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who calls the attempt to expand health coverage to 30 million uninsured people (i.e. Obamacare) the "greatest assault on freedom in our lifetime.”  When queried about what he would put in its place he says, “common sense market-based reforms that work.” RoJo the Freedom Defender is not moved by the fact that “common sense market-based reforms” of the financial sector led to the worst economic crash since the 1930s. But hey, common sense tells him that health care is different. On the budget, Johnson hopes that his new colleague Tammy Baldwin (double major in math and governmentin college) can understand the “ugly math” and work with him to find “common sense solutions.”
For his part, President Obama now labels virtually every proposal crawling out of the White House as “common sense reform.” On gun control, he angrily agrees with the New York Times that “gun advocates have stymied common sense efforts to reduce violence.”  His immigration reform proposals include “common sense steps that the majority of Americans support.” On the budget, Obama calls a group of Republicans and Democrats who share his approach to fiscal matters a “caucus of common sense.” The Prez never wanted to be the Socialist tyrant imagined by his opponents, but he does crave the title of King of Common Sense. 
When prominent or everyday people ask you to accept a “common sense” proposal, they are NOT telling you that proposal was arrived at through rigorous analysis of data, is supported by reliable studies, and can withstand serious scrutiny. “This is just common sense” instead typically means one of three things: 
1: “In my experience this is true.”  On health care, the market works just fine for Ron Johnson, as it does for most in the high income bracket. So therefore the market must work for everyone. When policy makers fail to walk in others’ shoes, they powerfully limit their ability to arrive at meaningful solutions to problems. 
2: “I really, really want this to be true.” Even though President Obama’s gun control proposals are extremely mild compared to other democracies, and even though none of them would actually reduce the excessive number of guns in the country, he really, really wants to believe the proposals will prevent another massacre of innocents. Australia had 13 mass shootings from 1978-1996, and then decided to remove 700,000 guns from circulation while banning the sale, importation, and possession of semiautomatic rifles and instituting mandatory gun registration.  That’s called a serious gun control plan. 
There have been no mass shootings in Australia since 1996, but here in the States policy makers really, really want to believe that “common sense” reforms like an expanded background check will do the trick. Is an extended background check better than nothing? Sure, but if and when such legislation passes the best Congress the gun lobby can buy let’s not delude ourselves into thinking we did something courageous or likely to make a dent in the horrific homicide numbers. 
3: People I admire believe this is true.” All of us at times parrot back jive we hear on talk radio, cable television, print media, the Internet, or persuasive people in our immediate environment. Almost everything out of Senator Johnson’s mouth sounds like it came from the Wall St. Journal editorial page, while few politicians today seem able to escape from the mental grip of the talking points provided them by their favorite partisan “think” tank. 
Privileging our personal experience, desiring things to be true even when evidence suggests otherwise, and uncritically adopting the views of others does not make us evil. These problems with “common sense” ways of approaching the world make us human. 
The good news is we don’t have to be passive victims of common sense appeals. All we need to do is keep asking critical questions, be mature enough to change our minds when the evidence suggests we should, and resist all the pressures urging us to be intellectually lazy.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Then They Came For Us

Then They Came For Us

Media Rants 

From The April 2013 edition of The SCENE

Few except the extreme right wing deny that the University of Wisconsin System contributes greatly to the cultural, economic, and civic life of the state. In this Walker Era toxic climate of hostility to the public sector, UW faculty and staff do not expect a “thank you” for their efforts. Still, university personnel and students are mystified by the recent rash of negative press, especially Gannett’s shallow scrutiny of what “we” pay for public higher education, the amount of money expended on overload payments, and even the grading patterns of profs. Similar “revelations” of academic privilege, bloat, laziness, and/or administrative incompetence can be found in the national media.

The end result of this style of reporting is to undermine the credibility of the professoriate and make it easier for establishment powers to marginalize, mock, and/or ignore academic critiques of contemporary American society and public policy. After all, who would trust the judgment of an overpaid grade inflator?

The targeting of the academy, especially public universities, at this time in our nation’s history is not an accident. And it is likely to get much worse.


Because in 2013 tenured university faculty represent just about the last group of citizens empowered to express dissent against the USA’s ruling Iron Triangle of Big Business, Big Government, and Big Media. The fact that university faculty uphold existing power relations more often than challenge them does not matter to an Iron Triangle that wants to eliminate even the possibility of effective dissent.

Where else can dissent come from? Students? Saddled with debt. Labor unions? Beaten down and struggling for survival. Religious institutions? Too accommodating to power and scandal plagued. Political parties? Today nothing more than tools of the Iron Triangle. Occupy Wall St. and other social movements? Divided and lacking focus. Alternative media? Happy to preach to the choir.

Without meaning to engage in any kind of “blame the victim” game here, I would argue that the silencing of the universities is in large part the result of  tenured faculty, historically and today, displaying zero solidarity with social justice activists and movements. I am reminded of the famous quote attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the socialists, 
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, 
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, 
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

All of us can name individual professors who have spoken out courageously for a variety of causes. But those individuals are, sadly, rare exceptions to the rule of “see no evil, hear no evil.” Professor Noam Chomskylong ago articulated a vision of what the rule ought to be:

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

Ten years ago, in a speech that in part lamented the decline of political activism among the Wisconsin professoriate, former State Superintendent of Education Bert Grover channeled Chomsky: "Who in the university is lending the institution's wisdom, judgment, intuitive response and resources to talk about campaign finance reform? Who in the university is talking about tax reform and the fact that 80 percent of the insurance companies in the state do not pay taxes? We subsidize our corporations in this state to the tune of $2.7 billion a year. Who at the university is saying that?" Were Grover to give the speech today, he’d still have trouble coming up with more than a handful of names. And remember, the exceptions prove the rule.

Modern universities are supposedly rooted in Enlightenment Era values of free inquiry in the search for Truth, resistance to all forms of tyranny, and minimizing abuses of power via systems of checks and balances. Since 9/11 we’ve had a government at war with those values, from Mr. Bush’s sanctioning of torture to Mr. Obama’s global assassination campaign. The academy’s silence on these matters is deafening.

Today we find champions of Enlightenment values in prison or dead. Think WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, an enemy of Western governments because he dared expose their mountains of lies and hypocrisy. Think Private BradleyManning, tortured and facing life in prison for revealing to Americans the horrors being done in their name. Think the late Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist driven to suicide by a government that goes after anti secrecy advocates with a fervor and zealotry not seen when it comes to Wall Street crooks, corrupt bankers, and other economy wreckers.

It would be nice for citizens at the grassroots level to defend the Academy against media cheap shots. But why would citizens speak out for the Academy if academics do not speak out for them?