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18 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Having spent more than 70 years within privileged enclaves of advanced education, my only regret is the weakness of community cohesion due to evaluations of the worth of faculty members by relying on market assessments, that is, what a person could earn outside the university if put up for sale, or what a rival university might offer to lure a person elsewhere. My vague thoughts along these lines were given focus by the brutal frankness of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Joshua Angrist. This post reflects on Professor Angrist unqualified rationale for leaving his faculty position at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a higher paying professorship at MIT. It would might seem crass to choose your country of residence by reference to its material offerings, especially if your preferred country provided you with a decent living, as was the case here, but to denigrate the humanities because they were being equally valued at an Israeli university with economics and computer science is what makes Professor Angrist emblematic. The put down of literature is mindlessly irresponsible and civilizationally obtuse at a time of unprecedented bio-ethical-ecological crisis when the humanities alone offer essential insight into prospects for a transformational adjustment.]

On Denigrating the Humanities

I was reading with interest the profile of Joshua Angrist in the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli-American MIT economist who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in economics with two others when I came upon this uncongenial sentence:Angrist said he was frustrated that many salaries, particularly in academia, were set using fixed pay grades, with professors in fields such as computer science and economics being paid the same as professors of literature, instead of being set by market forces, as they are elsewhere.”

Angrist apparently was much earlier deeply at odds with the way in which academic salaries were set in Israel. His words of 15 years ago were reprinted in The Jerusalem Post:  “I was tired of the situation here. The Israeli system does not reflect the reality of pay differential by field. It’s the public system, and it’s not very flexible.” It seems to me that Israel was engaged in admirable initiative–treating a university as a community of scholars where knowledge flourished across disciplinary borders without affixing price tags on the comparative value of differing ways of knowing to be determined by market forces. An alternative approach would be to seek higher, apparently more appropriate salaries for the faculty across the board, which might have helped create a contented community instead of alienated economists and computer geeks who rushed for the exits whenever a foreign university offered more money to attract an Israel professor.

There is a further disturbing implication of Angrist’s invidious comparison. It is as if literature, and presumably the humanities overall, were a superfluous luxury in a society where computer science and economics are valued highly by the market. The language used Angrist made clear in his view that it is the market without a scintilla of doubt that deserves to be treated as the authoritative arbiter of comparative educational valuations, and specifically faculty salaries. The Israeli journalist reported what Angrist declared without comment as his article was primarily concerned with solving the puzzle of why talented Israelis, such as Angrist, were emigrating elsewhere, in effect, interpreting a damaging brain drain. It is seems that Angrist’s personal reasons for leaving Israel were not only honest but descriptive of why many other professors valued highly in the academic marketplace were drawn elsewhere by the lure of larger paychecks.

Perhaps, displaying my own cultural malaise, I recall my educational experience as being primarily valuable for what I learned and retained from courses in the humanities. As an undergraduate at Penn’s highly rated Wharton Business School. I took 17 economics courses without any lasting effect on my sense of the world, or effectiveness in it, but received inspiration and an enduring worldview from several charismatic professors in the humanities that continues to enrich my life more than 70 years later.

Especially as an undergraduate I learned to love literature and philosophy, precious lifelong gifts. I suppose I would have been less put off by Angrist’s comment if it had been uttered with even the slightest show of regret or collegial sensitivity rather than uttered in a derisive tone that conveyed, at least to me, an crude economistic attitude ‘that the market knows best.’ I should observe that Angrist and his wife deeply regretted leaving Israel, explaining the decision as purely one of choosing the material benefits offered by the job at MIT. Although American born, Angrist emigrated to Israel in 1982 when he was in his early twenties as someone committed to the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, turning down a job at Harvard after earning his PhD at Princeton so that he might resume his life in Israel, being married to an Israeli woman and having a son born in Israel. Angrist has clearly lived a bi-national life with acknowledged tensions between the material rewards of a high salary and the unproblematic satisfactions he apparently continues to derive from the Israeli dimensions of his life.

The issue is far larger than one of personal preferences. Humanities mirror the culture, its deepest strivings, grievances, shortcomings. In my experience we cannot look to economics and computer science for how we could collectively live better together as distinct from guidance as to policy and technical problems of digital communication. Humanities are the repositories of wisdom, beauty, romance, and moral grandeur in human experience, although even poets can sometimes subscribe to demonic constructions of the world around them. At this time, more than any other, when the species is struggling with a severe bio-ethical-ecological crisis we desperately need to nurture the visionary apertures of the imagination rather than disparage them.

In my preferred academic community, there would be no differentiations based on price tags, and a sense that different knowledge traditions were equally indispensable if graduates were to be engaged citizens at a time of planetary emergency as well as enjoy productive careers outside the ivy walls.

In concluding, I wish that I could dismiss Joshua Angrist’s uncongenial worldview as a regressive and idiosyncratic departure from the cultural norms rather than being compelled to acknowledge that he is far truer representative of the national, and even the global body politic, than I am. Mine remains a voice at the outer edge of cultural relevance, yet I hear faint signs of a civilizational  awakening in the primary forms of surrounding birds, trees, and flowers, and that is enough for me, yet I know it is not sufficient to rescue the collective destiny of our species speeding toward calamity. Such a liberating rescue if it comes, will come from transformational wisdom best encoded in the humanities. In the meantime, self-satisfied economists and software engineers can collect Nobel Prizes and earn lofty salaries for their day jobs, superciliously denigrating humanists from the comfort of their deck chairs on the final cruise of the restored Titanic.

The Nuclear Challenge (8): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Civil Society Activism on Behalf of Nuclear Zero

6 Sep


The Jeffersonian faith in the future of democracy rested on the cumulative impact of education on citizen participation encouraging a robust and vigilant civil society. The United States has developed a number of institutional paths to academic excellence, and can claim world leadership in crafting the modern university experience. At the same time, this type of excellence has become increasingly a disappointment from a Jeffersonian perspective, with the quality of American democracy declining in many respects since the earliest years of the republic despite several crossing several humane thresholds: including ending slavery, enfranchising women, and more recently, legally entrenching same sex marriage. Yet the role of money as linked to corporate power as well as the lavish funding of special interest lobbies has undermined the functioning of government and university education of, by, and for the people. There are several plausible explanations of this outcome that have nothing, or little to do, with the nature of the educational experience, yet I believe that our high schools and universities bear a significant responsibility for qualitative decline of democracy, which is also a result of education itself being relegated to a role of providing a skilled labor force for the neoliberal world economy that includes what I would label as ‘normative pacification.’


I would relate this contention to the tendency of most universities, with a few notable exceptions, to conceive of their primary role as one of imparting knowledge, by and large avoiding normative domains of ethics and citizenship. In the midst of the Vietnam War there was a brief period of epistemological revolt on the part of students on many college campuses that was carried out under the unifying banner of ‘relevance,’ which was a code word for what I would prefer to call engaged citizenship. This rallying cry for relevance translated into demands by students for participation in all aspects of their educational experience, and more broadly with respect to societal life. Underneath this call was an insistence on normative knowledge, how American society might be made more equitable and satisfying for all of its residents. Although the initial motivation for the student movement of the 1960s was the perceived imprudence and wrongfulness of the Vietnam War, unjustifiably endangering life and limb of young American males via the draft, the activist agenda was deeper and broader, being constructed around a proposed invigoration of democracy in the critical spirit of “as if people mattered.” The triple revolution (calls for universal controlled disarmament, reform of the Democratic Party, and university reform) proclaimed in the Port Huron founding document of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 or the Mario Savio clarion call at Berkeley two years later on behalf of the Free Speech Movement to ”put your bodies upon the gears” of the machine that was destroying meaningful life were signifiers of this preoccupation with what needed to be done to make democracy work on the home front.


This student movement and its wider reverberations became increasingly threatening to mainstream American society, especially as it lengthened its agenda to accommodate an emergent militant feminism, glimmerings of LBGT movement, Black Panther radical anti-racism, and a grassroots cultural Spring featuring flower girls, psychedelic drugs, and rock music. Although these movements persisted, and realized many goals, there occurred a well-funded backlash orchestrated under the auspices of what Richard Nixon called ‘the silent majority,’ which itself seemed to derive from Jerry Falwell’s ‘moral majority.’ We should also not forget that the 1960s were a decade of political assassinations that were unwittingly very effecting in bursting the balloon of an incipient cultural revolution: John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (1968). It must also be acknowledged that the bright promise of this period also collapsed under its own weight, a series of internal contradictions dramatized by two grisly incidents in 1969: the Manson Family murders and a homicide committed by the Hells Angels in the course of an unruly Rolling Stone concert at the Altamonte Speedway. These occurrences, in particular, epitomized what middle America thought was ‘the new normal’ being brought about by those who were celebrating the 1960s as inaugurating a new era of permissivness.


An active and anxious political consciousness associated with the menace of nuclear war was an integral part of the early phases of the Cold War, highlighted by the Berlin crises climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that might well have produced a nuclear exchange had not cooler heads prevailed in Moscow and the most belligerent voices in Washington kept in check. The peace movement expressed its anti-nuclear mood by adopting the survival slogan “better red than dead.” Despite this display of biopolitical common sense, the operational code of the established order, at least in the West, mindlessly based its strategic doctrine and geopolitical activities on the opposite sentiment of “better dead than red,” privileging regime survival over human survival. Any doubt as to this morbid orientation was removed by building an elaborate underground shelter structure designed exclusively to enable the political leadership of the country to carry on the work of government in the aftermath of a nuclear attack even if American society was substantially destroyed—its people slaughtered, its cities reduced to rubble, and its smoke-filled skies saturated with intense radiation. School children were instructed in these years to duck beneath classroom desks, a pathetic gesture of official concern for protecting the wellbeing of the nation’s young people, which did more to call attention to their vulnerability than it did to offer them safety in the event of nuclear war.


Many of us who were old enough to assess this period of bipolar confrontation and mad doctrines of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) came haltingly to the conclusion that only the peoples of the world could emancipate the world from the militarists who were exerting almost total control over the governing process in the countries possessing nuclear warheads. It was this turn to civil society, accompanied by mobilizing efforts in an atmosphere of grassroots fear and apprehension, that produced a measure of political pushback that mounted principled challenges to the moral, political, and cultural postulates of nuclearism, challenges that could be met in the end only by the elimination of the weaponry.


Such anti-nuclear radicalism, although gaining many adherents throughout the world and a few surges of support, never threatened the nuclear weapons establishments around the world in any sustained way. What seemed more effective from a political perspective were liberal incremental initiatives that focused on the excesses of nuclearism such as first strike technology and doctrine and an unregulated arms race, and didn’t view it as realistic to question nuclearism itself. The ‘freeze movement’ that peaked in 1980 was a characteristic liberal effort to curtail the nuclear arms race without directly challenging the wisdom, morality, legality, and most of all the structure of belief and bureaucratic commitment to continuing to ground the security of the West on its reliance on nuclear weaponry. Societal support for such liberal initiatives ebbed and flowed, seemingly tracking the rise and fall of fears in the general public that nuclear warfare would occur as a consequence of Cold War geopolitics. This liberal orientation may have moderated the arms race and mitigated the risks of unintentional nuclear war, but it proved irrelevant, or worse, with respect to the existence and partial normalization of nuclear weaponry as the ultimate foundation of the global security system.


In many respects, the civil society focus shifted from activism to education, a process accelerated by the end of the Cold War, which induced a different set of concerns that can be comprehended as societal complacency or denial. Such attitudes gave rise to a new variety of false consciousness with respect to nuclear weapons, understating risks and ignoring opportunities. The immediate aftermath of the Cold War in the decade of 1990s provided the best geopolitical opening since Hiroshima for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but the leadership in nuclear weapons states saw no reason to depart from its nuclear comfort zone by engaging with a disarmament process. The absence of pressure from below meant that the nuclear status quo would not be significantly questioned despite the erosion of the deterrence rationale that had served as the principal justification for nuclearism put forward by the realist consensus throughout the entire Cold War.


Seeking out of deep resolve to fill this political and normative vacuum with respect to nuclear policy, which is itself a disturbing sign of the times, are a few largely educational efforts of which the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy are two of the longest lasting, most dedicated, and most respected. In my view, although strongly supportive of such an educational outreach, premised on the supreme sanity of the belief that only a world of zero nuclear weapons is morally and political sustainable, these organizations do not clearly enough draw a line separating the stabilizing managerial impulses underlying arms control and the maintenance of the nonproliferation regime from their proclaimed and genuine transformative raison d’ětre of nuclear disarmament. As a result the educational message conveyed is incomplete, and in my view, confusing. To some extent this ambiguity it understandable, and even commendable: nuclear disarmament is not currently on the political agenda in any meaningful sense, and so nudging the nuclear status quo may in certain respects reduce immediate risks (for example, moving away from hair trigger alert for strategic missile forces). From this angle, it makes a certain sense to exert a short-term policy influence by supportive arms control measures while reserving purely educational efforts to explaining the strong case for a world without nuclear weapons with or without an accompanying demilitarization of securitization and geopolitical interaction. What is left insufficiently explored is whether arms control/nonproliferation has the negative effect of sucking most of the energy away from more drastic repudiations of nuclearism.


There are two issues that relate to filling the educational gap created by the failure of universities to prepare students to be citizens in the nuclear age:

–first, the shift of the center of pedagogic gravity from academic institutions to civil society organizations, most notably the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation;

–secondly, to explore whether the path to nuclear disarmament can proceed in tandem with arms control and the nonproliferation regime, or that a choice must be made and explained as between these two approaches. I believe the long record since 1945 of incremental small steps forward combined with the structural rigidity of the nuclear establishment points in the direction of incompatibility. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the most credible strategy for achieving a world without nuclear weapons requires, in my view, a renunciation of the logic of arms control and nonproliferation. And even a step further, the advocacy of nuclear disarmament must become joined at the hip with the recognition that global demilitarization and conventional disarmament are part of a retrofitted political package of unconditional anti-nuclearism.