Category Archives: Current events

The Economist gets confused about what century it is

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably already read about the Economist’s puzzling decision to criticize Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by defending American slavery. The unsigned review concludes by speculating:

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy. [emphasis mine]

I’m not going to spend much time on the obvious, if rather alarming, historical ignorance here, though I will point out that the Economist is making literally the same argument in defense of slavery that nineteenth-century slaveholders made, and it is no more reasonable or accurate today than it was then. The historical research on the efficiency of slave labor is complex and inconclusive, but regardless, the final word on slavery as a system really ought to rest on the fact that it is fundamentally inhumane and abhorrent.

But that’s not actually the point I want to make, because it’s been made far more eloquently in other places. I want to note that the final line of this review, like the reasoning itself, is also drawn directly from the nineteenth century. Again, this is literally the same argument people used in the nineteenth century to dismiss criticism of slavery and Jim Crow. Below are excerpts from reviews of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), which gave a fictionalized account of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre:

Unlike Mr. Booker Washington, who in his grand book on the race question deals so fairly and squarely with both white and colored, the writer of “The Marrow of Tradition” is decidedly one sided, and paints the white man as little less than a fiend. (Christian Work)

The treatment of the question is faulty, in that the contrast between the two races is marked with all good on the side of the negro and all bad on the side of the white. (St. Paul Globe)

If the Negroes were not so blameless and the Whites not so unrelievedly bad, it would be more convincing. (World’s Work)

He divides his community up into whites and blacks, and then proceeds to make all the white people black as to character and all the black people white. (Dallas Morning News)

The story tells how the white people plot against, oppress and persecute the negroes. Every white man in the book is made to be a villain, and the white women are made to be designing creatures without a semblance of honesty or any other virtue that is esteemed in the south… And then the negroes of the book! They are all depicted as absolutely honest and upright. There is no such thing as a negro villain in Chesnutt’s book. (Atlanta Journal)

That these authors were all intent on dismissing Chesnutt’s criticism of race relations in the South is understandable, if regrettable: they were steeped in racist ideology and threatened by calls for change. Charging Chesnutt with a lack of balance provided an easy way of rejecting his criticism without really considering its substance (and, I’ll note, there are a few admirable white characters in the book, so these accusations, which are repeated in several other reviews, are not even strictly accurate). It’s a rhetorical move, not an analytic one, and as in the Economist‘s review, it often comes at the end of these reviews, as if to make an emphatic and definitive point that is in actuality more like a sleight of hand.

We’re still steeped in racist ideology today, and as the Economist demonstrates, that ideology remains rooted in the rhetoric of nineteenth century racism.

Update: The Economist has wisely withdrawn the review. You can still find the full text here, along with a brief and rather unreflective apology.


Emotional labor and the future of the service industry

The New Republic has an absolutely fascinating article on the sandwich shop Pret a Manger and the increasing importance of “emotional” or “affective labor.” Convincing customers you care deeply for them may be, it seems, the future of the service industry.

Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A “mystery shopper” visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self.


Cornel West on Dr. King’s legacy and the Obama inauguration

Cornel West gives a moving, impassioned defense of Dr. King’s legacy as much bigger than the political theater of the inauguration. He notes that Dr. King worked tirelessly for the poor and for an end to the Vietnam War, not just for desegregation. Today, when America still has a great and growing wealth gap, and when American drones are dropping bombs on civilians, West reminds us that Dr. King would likely still be speaking truth to power if he could. And, while West supports President Obama and is happy to see him inaugurated for a second time, he questions whether the use of Dr. King’s Bible is truly in keeping with the values King himself worked so tirelessly for.

Multiculturalism is not the boogeyman

I have better things to be doing, and Joseph Epstein’s review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel, published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t really deserve a second look, but there’s so much wrong with this piece that I couldn’t let it pass. Epstein, who Wikipedia tells me was a lecturer at Northwestern from 1974 to 2002 and a former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s magazine The American Scholar, takes issue with the recently published Cambridge volume for marking American literature’s descent into irrelevance, brought on by multiculturalism, represented somewhat puzzlingly in Epstein’s view by John Updike, Phillip Roth, and Norman Mailer.

The problem with The Cambridge History of the American Novel, Epstein says (aside from the academic jargon, at which Epstein takes a few none-too-original swipes), is that, “‘The Cambridge History of the American Novel’ could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.” Ah, yes, that time-honored, longstanding distinction between high and low culture that has informed the study of English literature for all of, say, 130 years. In fact, the categories of high- low- and middlebrow-culture emerged at approximately the same time as the English department as we know it today–the end of the nineteenth century, when anxious white dudes were worried, as is Epstein, about “barbarians” flooding the gates. The “centurions of high culture” whose disappearance Epstein laments were guarding the gates against literature written by and appealing to people unlike themselves. They did so by assigning value to certain kinds of writing (conveniently, the writing produced by other middle-class white dudes), while denigrating other modes (sentimentalism, for instance–conveniently, the kind of writing produced by “scribbling women”).

But that, I’d imagine, is more of that “literary history” that Epstein disdains because it leaves out “why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.” The study of literature, Epstein says, should be about what is good and why, not about that multiculturalism crap that lets people teach whichever novels they want, even if Epstein hasn’t heard of them. “Multiculturalism,” he says, “which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.”

Seriousness–now that’s an easily-agreed upon way to value literature. I mean, who can disagree that Melville was serious? But what about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? That seems like pretty serious business to me. Epstein’s examples of unserious literature are the aforementioned Roth, Mailer, and Updike, whom he calls “sex-obsessed.” No argument from me there, and Roth might not be my favorite twentieth-century author, but I wouldn’t call The Human Stain or American Pastoral lacking in seriousness.

Despite his jabs at “multiculturalism” (is anyone still using that word, anyway?), Epstein manages to make it through the entire review of a book that includes chapter after chapter on literature by non-white writers without mentioning a single non-white author. “Multiculturalism” may be the problem, but Epstein doesn’t single out any “multicultural” authors who fail to live up to his high culture standards of seriousness. He may not think Roth, Mailer, and Updike will have staying power, but he has no comment on Morrison, Ellison or Wright. Epstein’s nomination for best writers of the twentieth century? Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser.

As I said, the review doesn’t really deserve the attention I’m giving it. But there are scores of comments cheering Epstein on, lamenting the fact that English departments teach things like Asian American literature and nineteenth century experimental writing, rather than “the classics” like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton (ETA: As if English departments aren’t also teaching Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. It’s not like students are unable to take classes on Shakespeare because it’s all Aniza Yezierska and Jessie Fauset, all the time). All of this is predicated on the idea that the study of English is some sort of stable, longstanding institution that has undergone disastrous change in the last twenty or thirty years. The fact is, though, that the English department is the product of the late nineteenth century, and the study of American literature the product of the early- to mid-twentieth century. What, who, and why we study literature has been in flux for that entire time.

Epstein’s right about one thing: in today’s academic and political climate, English departments need to make a stronger case for the relevance of literary study and the English major. But the way to make that case is not through some conservative nostalgic fantasy about the good old days when we studied serious literature (by white people). Instead, we need to talk more about the value of exposing students to the diversity of American writing and a variety of critical approaches. Doing so challenges them to rethink and evaluate their own ideas and to consider ways other people in other times have appreciated literature (because, Epstein’s insistence on the universality of literary value notwithstanding, there are as many ways to appreciate and value literature as there are ways to write it).

Master’s degrees, earning power, and specialization

The Times education section has taken a break from its usual chronicle of anxious students and even more anxious parents desperately jockeying for Ivy League admissions. This week, Education Life turns to grad school, declaring that the master’s is the new bachelor’s, whatever that means. Mostly what it means is what we all knew–that it’s increasingly tough to land a solid job with the potential for advancement with only a bachelor’s degree. The article claims, though, that a master’s degree (“Once derided as the consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D. or just a way to kill time waiting out economic downturns”) can now provide a necessary leg up over the mere BAs.

Of course, not all master’s degrees are created equal, and another article lays out the return on investment for different programs. Not surprisingly, a master’s in engineering comes with a significant bump in earning power, but then, it’s not exactly difficult to find a job with a bachelor’s in engineering, either. On the other hand, a master’s in social work is necessary to get a job in the field, but it’s such a low-paying field that even with a solid job, it’s likely to take quite a while to pay off the graduate school loans.

The article makes sure to point out that while a master’s program may provide a respite from the economy and an increase in earning power, a PhD, even in engineering, requires a sacrifice of both time an earning power that is generally not borne out by increased earnings later on. But then, as if to comfort those of us who’ve made the poor decision to stick it out for the PhD (see here and here), the author reminds us that graduate programs in journalism still exist, and that people are evidently willing to pay $50,000 for a one-year master’s in journalism from Columbia. A journalism degree, by the way, boosts starting salary to $39,000, assuming you can actually find a full-time job, which only 31 percent of Columbia’s class of 2011 was able to do.

In other words, a master’s degree is not in itself a ticket to a higher salary, or even a job itself (my MA in English, for example, is not likely to get me hired anywhere but a private high school). A master’s degree can be evidence of specialization and vocational training, and, as the author of “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s” points out, the increased emphasis on the degree is a win for employers, since it essentially means that future employees train themselves at their own expense.

The call for specialization implicit in the master’s degree is at odds with what this Education Life article from 2009 claims employers are looking for from students with a bachelor’s:

“There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on ‘the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,’ 81 percent asked for better ‘critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills’ and 70 percent were looking for ‘the ability to innovate and be creative.'”

I point this out because one of the major tensions in the university right now is the degree to which an undergraduate degree should provide specialized vocational skills, versus broader and more fundamental liberal-arts skills like thinking, reading, and writing. The article presents the proliferation of master’s programs as addressing a need for specialized practical learning in specific fields. But the article also notes that the draw of the master’s may be as much about credentialing and distinction as actual skills:

“‘There is definitely some devaluing of the college degree going on,’ says Eric A. Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, and that gives the master’s extra signaling power. ‘We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,’ making a bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers.”

If the master’s is really about distinction in a job market where more and more people have bachelor’s, then we would do well to continue to place emphasis at the undergraduate level on fundamental, transferable skills, particularly writing and critical thinking–equipping students with the necessary skills to communicate effectively and learn on the job, or to do well in a master’s program if that’s what the field requires.

Some historical perspective

As someone who studies late-nineteenth century American literature and the ways it interacts with political, social, and economic conditions of the day, I have a hard time understanding opposition to unions. I try, I do, and I realize that many people see unions as protecting mediocrity and closing ranks around incompetence. I also understand that, as with any institutionalized power structure, some people abuse the power the union provides them with. And the slow process of dealing with teachers in New York City’s reassignment centers makes it clear that union bureaucracy can be crippling.

But while we might question the efficacy and priorities of some unions, it’s hard to take issue with the concept itself. Hard, that is, if you enjoy your 40-hour, 5-day work week, paid overtime, workman’s compensation, and protection from being laid off at whim with no warning, severance pay, or justification. I’ll leave the history of labor in the twentieth century to someone else, but suffice it to say that working conditions at the end of the nineteenth were bleak. Reading account after account of horrific workplace accidents, factory shutdowns that left employees and their children dying of starvation or cold, young children sent to work to support their families, strikes broken by violence and intimidation, and parents working ten hours, six days a week for just a few dollars each week gives you a pretty good sense of what working conditions might be like without unions (and what working conditions are still like in many places around the world). And this same period saw extensive wealth-building among the nation’s richest citizens (in 1890, one percent of the citizens held seven-eighths of the wealth), growth and consolidation of corporations and monopolies, and the expansion of industrial capitalism, none of which did anything to improve working conditions for the seven-eighths of the population that held one-eighth of the wealth.

So when I hear the governor of Wisconsin threatening to call in the Wisconsin National Guard to quell protestors, it’s hard not to think about the Pullman Strike or even the Haymarket Riot. I get the sense that a lot of folks—those who aren’t steeped in this stuff every day—don’t realize the extent of the changes unions brought to American labor conditions. (Of course, there are also plenty of people who do, and the protestors in Wisconsin are getting support from a number of unexpected places.)