The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

On Free Speech and Responsibility in Troubled Times


by Lael Ewy


It seems that at this point in our nation’s history we’re bargaining one group’s right to free speech against many other groups’ right to simply exist.

The issues typically get boiled down to “tolerance” or “intolerance,” and they’re talked about primarily by people like me: white, middle-class folks who, after all, have nothing to lose in the matter and have the privilege of discussing such matters amongst themselves.

I can’t guarantee that I won’t do more of the same here. My purposes, for what they’re worth, are to reframe the ideas at play, and, by so doing, to perhaps bring some clarity, barring the possibility of actual resolution.

I’m working from a few basic ideas here. The first is that all speech has consequences. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. You may be talking to yourself just to make yourself feel better or to keep yourself company, but those are desired consequences. Thus when a white supremacist takes part in a rally, he is foolish if he thinks that expressing such an extreme point of view won’t be met with extreme reactions. This is not to say that the person who lashes out violently at the white supremacist should be exonerated for her actions, but it does mean we should acknowledge a possible—in this case probable—response.

Speech, rather than being entirely counter to action, is itself also an action. In this way, speech can be seen as inter-related to other actions and reactions. The white supremacist cited above would think himself a failure if no counter-demonstration or media showed up to his rally. And while he is also foolish if he thinks his speech will lead a white homeland to be bestowed upon him the following morning, a white homeland is, among other things, one of the stated goals of his speech.

Speech, being an action, requires responsibility. A whole lot of ink has been spilt trying to put forth the idea that free speech is somehow rendered outside the normative realm of social responsibility. “It’s just an opinion,” or “Those who disagree are being politically correct,” or “I was only joking” are ways people try to duck responsibility for what they say or to avoid criticism. If you speak, particularly in a public forum, you must be prepared for reaction and criticism, hardened to it, able to meet it emotionally and intellectually. Of all of the things I’m going to say here, this cleaves most closely to the “it goes for both sides” idea.

Silence in the proper places can be powerful, but it can also be someone acting with discretion. Depending on the context, it might not be acquiescence to evil at all but refusing to take the bait. At any rate, speaking is not a way to avoid responsibility; it’s another situation that requires it. Criticism, in the case of free speech, is another word for accountability.

Choosing to act in a way that defies the law also has consequences, and it can also be a form of speech. As Dr. King put it, those involved in nonviolent direct action chose to break the law “openly” and “lovingly.” They did this in order to bring attention to laws that were unjust. And they willingly suffered the consequences of breaking the law. While an Antifa activist may not be trying to tell the world that laws against assault are unjust, she is trying to draw attention to the fact that fascism is an injustice. However, she would also be foolish to think that punching a fascist shouldn’t be met with legal sanction. If she does it, she should do it openly and with a willingness to suffer the legal consequences in order to make her point: violent force is worthwhile against fascists.

The white supremacist, of course, wishes to make injustice law, and therefore must be countered first by legal means, with speech acts, political resistance, and nonviolent direct action. And then, should his ideas become law, with open and expressive violations of those laws, and with a willingness to suffer the consequences.

I’m rationalist enough to believe that if we enter into troubled times with clarity of thought, we will spare ourselves the worst of troubles. But I’m realist enough to know that fascists and white supremacists won’t be defeated by our clarity of thought alone.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Hacking Life Hacking: Five Life Hacks, Hacked


by Mary Chino Cherry

5. Take more time for yourself, by going to a park or taking in a movie. In other words, pamper yourself by going to hectic places full of other people taking time for themselves and annoying you with their chatter, body stank, thoughtlessness, and intrusive questions about why you’re here and not at work.

4. Eat well. Save time and money by spending two hours commuting to Whole Foods so you can spend all your money on three mediocre, but certified organic, Peruvian bananas.

3. Be spontaneous! Embrace an attitude of radical fun by evincing career-ending erratic behavior and relationship-destroying unreliability!

2. De-stress by enrolling in a time-eating and hyper-competitive yoga class. Or try meditating instead of making dinner for your children. I’m sure Child Protective Services will forgive a little malnutrition when they see the Brand New You!

1. Live for the moment. Nothing says “winning at life” quite like a complete lack of planning and a total disregard for anything beyond your current state of mind. You’ll be shocked at how much your co-workers appreciate how you keep showing up totally unprepared! 

Photo: "Yoga" by Matt Madd

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Co-Evolution and the Cultural Dance

by Lael Ewy


One of the most powerful ideas that currently drives my thinking, one the psychiatrist Ronald Pies called “speculative,” is the notion that human beings co-evolved with culture.

I would imagine some anthropologists and primatologists wouldn’t find the notion so radical.

Consider this: theories assuming a linear progression from biological structures to cultural expressions tend to downplay what culture is for: helping assure the survival of those species for whom it is a feature. This suggests that as a species practices culture, that practice itself would influence the genetic variability and expression of the species. To worry too much about whether clothing came first or hairlessness came first is to get yourself into a pointless chicken and egg loop. To questions of nature vs. nurture, the correct answer, I think, is “yes.”

Consider also that for those species who use culture, being cut off from that culture leads to extreme distress. People in solitary confinement go crazy pretty consistently; people outside of a cultural context quickly cease thinking of themselves as human in a way that we commonly recognize, becoming severely depressed, delusional, sociopathic.

It’s along these lines that I’d like to explore a little more, since the idea that we’ve co-evolved with culture has some deep implications about the roles of spirituality, politics, gender, criminality, and behavioral health. It calls into question the often simplified cause and effect relationships posited by pundits and researchers, reporters and politicians.

We want to believe that, whatever the problem, we are not to blame, that the origins of what ails us lie in some biological, natural, or extra-cultural “other” preying upon us and making us miserable. When we shift blame, we also shift responsibility. These ideas are often linked in legal considerations because we view them as interdependent aspects of culpability. We reinforce power structures, if we benefit from them or fear their realignment. We place somatic and psychological suffering on the individual and ignore her sociocultural situation.

But all of the bases for these actions and desires are culturally determined; our thoughts and feelings are, themselves, influenced by how we live our cultures, ways of being to which our bodies and the brains within them are constantly reacting and are helping to create. The much vaunted “brain chemistry” explanation for psychological distress ignores the fact that brain chemistry in humans does not exist outside of the cultural and ecological contexts in which the human brain evolved. Treating it separately from a person’s sociocultural situation is not only inaccurate, it’s nonsensical and cruel.

Likewise, what we view as criminal or what we view as politically or economically acceptable are impossible to fully grasp outside of the contexts of shame and blame, feelings of responsibility and rage, that we tend to view as highly internalized or personal. Yet what is our reaction to tragedy or loss? We gather together for public rites of mourning and solidarity. We “check in” with others to make sure that, despite devastation, destruction, or violence, we’re all still “ok.”

Trauma research increasingly suggests that psychological healing happens through meaningful connection with trusted others, yet our “scientific” response is still, for the most part, to isolate the suffering person through medical or pharmaceutical means, to criminalize the person or render her legally “disabled,” kicking her out of the world of social contribution through compensated work.

Perhaps we do this because of baser urges, no matter how gussied up with professional jargon. Isolating individuals, and locating larger problems within individuals, justifies the power of the medical and legal structures that perform this kind of work and serve to maintain the status quo. It’s preferable to those in power to place the problems the institutionalization of that power creates on “problem” individuals, “the mentally ill,” “thugs,” and “lone wolf killers.” But maybe doing this sort of thing also derives from the perceived need to contain or purge what we react to as social contagion. We rid ourselves of suffering people because being in the presence of suffering causes suffering for cultural beings. The brief emotional turmoil of sentencing or diagnosis, execution or exile, will lead, we hope, to the contentment of “closure,” certainty, settled science.

As humans, then, we sit on the balance of favoring the offending limb or cutting it off—and perhaps what side of the scale you’re on determines whether you lean toward the political left or right, toward the traditionalist’s “sensible” exclusion or the radical’s inclusive communitarianism.

That we can even contemplate this is another indication that the dance between the cultures we comprise and the brains that create them never ends.

Monday, January 2, 2017

"Is Sending" and "Theft" as Trumpist Legerdemain

by Lael Ewy


Because I don’t want OnWords to become only about the ways Donald Trump abuses the language, I’m addressing here some special concerns.

In this case, it’s his use of “is sending” in regards to immigration from Mexico, and “theft” in the case of manufacturing jobs in China.

The president-elect assured us during the campaign that Mexico “is sending” people here in order to rape and sell drugs. This implies that there is some intentional, planned effort on the part of either the Mexican government or some other massive national organization to send people here.

As far as I can tell, unless this program is the world’s best kept secret, that’s poppycock.

People from Mexico risk their lives to come here because economic and social conditions in Mexico are very bad. They come here fleeing the violence created by drug gangs—gangs sustained by the immense appetite for drugs in the US. They come here because Mexico’s class structure prevents them from advancing. They come here because their farming communities have been devastated by cheap commodity exports from the US, thanks to NAFTA.

Nobody is sending anybody anywhere; people are coming here because it’s better to live poor in the US than it is for some people to live at all in Mexico.

In other words, they’re coming here for the same reason immigrants have always come here.

When Mr. Trump says that China is stealing American jobs, that this is unprecedented “job theft,” he is, likewise, simply not telling the truth. China welcomed US jobs, but they were sent here by manufacturers in the United States.

American executives chose to export those jobs, and their companies received nice rises in their stock prices when they did. The executives then used that increase in stock value to justify bonuses for themselves. They used that increase to raise the value of their own stock options.

They did it for the same reasons they have long sought to reduce labor costs. That payroll costs are the highest costs a business faces is axiomatic in American economic thought. Businessmen in this country seek to reduce payroll costs for that reason alone.

The last few decades have also seen US markets “mature” and growth slow. Because publicly traded companies are judged not on profitability but on the continual rise of profitability, American executives chose to show growth by reducing labor costs instead of lowering growth expectations or increasing efficiency or pursuing new markets.

Exporting US jobs also follows a long-term trend: in the ‘60s and ‘70s American companies outsourced manufacturing to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. When labor costs rose in those countries, they began to export to South Korea and China. As South Korea and China become more costly, they are moving jobs to India, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Last, moving jobs overseas accomplished something American executives have sought to do for more than a century: it devastated the power of organized labor. Rather than shooting and killing striking workers as they did in the early 20th century, rather than negotiating as they did through the middle part of the 20th century, executives saw the opportunity to do an end-run around unions by sending jobs to a place where the authoritarian government and the massive number of available peasants assured little resistance to low pay and poor working conditions.

If anything was stolen, it was the profit created by US workers, and if it was stolen by anybody, it was stolen by shareholders and the executive class.

Trump’s rhetoric in these cases is dangerous not merely because it grossly misrepresents what’s going on. It’s dangerous because it distracts angry, working Americans by placing the blame for their plight on others who are simply acting in the same way any of us would given their circumstances.

His rhetoric is dangerous because it conflates desperation and opportunism with malice and foments enmity among those whose common interests suggest solidarity.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Reason Why

by Lael Ewy


We can talk all we want about gun regulations or the right of “innocent” people to defend themselves. We can talk of “safety” and “freedom” and the meaning of the 2nd Amendment. But one deep and undeniable belief runs through almost every aspect of American life: we believe that violence solves problems.

This basic notion is evident from two bums brawling on the street to the upper echelons of foreign policy “deciders.” That we believe this is evident in almost every popular scripted drama on TV and in almost every popular video game on the market. It’s the primary plot point in stories aimed at children and in action movies aimed at adults. We believe this sincerely and deeply. It’s why our cops carry guns, knives, pepper-spray, Tasers, and truncheons. It’s the reason we have home security systems and the reason we have street gangs. It’s how the US has dealt with the vast majority of its foreign policy entanglements over the years and how presidents “secure” their “place in history.”

Our confidence in this idea leads us to wonder why “they” hate us.

After all, we thought that was a problem we solved.

Here’s a clue: “they” hate us because we have perpetrated violence against them. For the better part of a century the guns being pointed at them, the bombs being dropped on them, and the planes bombing them have been made in the USA.

H. Rap Brown was absolutely correct when he said that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” We reify this idea when CSI, Law & Order, The Profiler, or whatever ostensibly smart police procedural we consume ends in gunplay. We reinforce this idea when John Kerry gets excoriated for solving our problems with Iran peacefully instead of bombing the shit out of them.

We reinforce this idea when police violence is exonerated and when we make heroes out of gangsters. We reinforce this idea with the death penalty.

Westerns, those stories so dear to American mythology, are characterized by the figure of the “lone wolf” gunslinger who will save the town, that his propensity to violence is the only thing that can save the effete townsfolk from the savagery of the lawless cattle rustler and the wild, indigenous Other. It’s no accident that the rise of the US coincides with the ability to manufacture high quality firearms at low cost.

We manifest the belief that violence solves problems when we posit the Revolutionary War as the origin of our nation and not the Constitutional Convention.

As much as well-meaning lawmakers would like to believe that we can reduce mass murders through legislation or technical fixes to mental health care, as much as well-meaning progressives think we can reduce gun violence through the regulation of firearms, they’re fooling themselves. Our problem is cultural, not legal or technological.

Our problem is that we believe, against all evidence but at the core of our beings, that violence will solve our problems rather than compound them infinitely.       

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Dear Fellow White Americans:


We have a racism problem.

I know it’s not popular to say so right now, but as a middle class White guy, I’m calling us on it.

I grew up in a rural area near what is, for Kansas, a large city. My father was an executive, my neighbors and extended family farmers. I went to school with blue collar people and white collar people, the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, factory workers and accountants.

One thing that was common, though not universal, in the White community, regardless of social class or education, was racism.

Because I am a White male, other Whites found it was OK to be racist around me, to share racist “jokes,” racist stereotypes, and sometimes simple racist invective, assuming I would agree.

To my shame, I did not, do not, often enough disagree.

In the aftermath of an election victory by a person who refused to distance himself from openly racist people, White establishment types on both the Right and the Left have gone out of their way to find other explanations for why so many supported him. The idea that it could be racism would put pundits and reporters in the difficult position of alienating most of their audience, so they repeat the ideas that “this was a change election,” and that Trump’s success was primarily a case of people “voting their pocketbooks.”

Maybe so. But if you’re really actively combating your own inner racism, Donald Trump would turn your stomach. Racism may not be the main reason people voted for him, but it sure didn’t dissuade too many people.

I think racism in White America comes in three not always easily distinguished classes.

The first are the hardcore racists. The active members of this group will be the ones who organize and turn violent. These are the Klan people, though most of them will never join the Klan. They’ll move out of a neighborhood that gets too “ethnic.” They’ll redline a whole community and disown a kid who marries across racial lines.

Statistics on White flight would indicate that hardcore racism is far more common than people admit.

Granted, most White Americans who harbor racist feelings and thoughts don’t think of themselves as racists. They’re of the “some of my best friends are Black” persuasion, and they probably don’t actively hate. But they still will tell you about the “bad” part of town. They bought into the “superpredator” rhetoric of the ‘90s.

This second category of White racists won’t redline a community, but they also won’t stop the bank executive who does. These people will read Charles Murray and note that “he makes some good points.”

They pride themselves on the common decency to say “Well, I’m no racist, but” before saying something racist.

On my more generous days, I’d say that this is the most common form of White racism. After November 8, 2016, I’m not so sure.

The third category is the one I’ll put myself in. Generally educated in identifying racism, or maybe even specifically educated in Critical Race Theory, we still haven’t fully confronted the structural racism in the institutions and organizations—mainly academic and non-profit—we pervade.

We’re the sort of folks who can even identify the definition of structural racism on a multiple choice test.

We also have a terrible track record of tokenism, of presiding over the English department with the one Black guy in it, of setting up the Diversity Office that employs half the Black folks on campus and has no real power.

We talk a good game. Sometimes we even publish anti-racist stuff. But our homes, our churches, our inner circles, are all lily-hued oases, free from the anxiety and discomfort diversity might make us feel.

Identity, to some degree, is at issue in all these categories—the ways we identify self from other. It’s stronger in those who frequently feel that identity is at risk. But there’s also a degree of lay tradition: we feel this way because that’s how we were taught to feel by our parents and grandparents, the important people in our lives.

We can move through these categories due to experiences, education, social situation. Even hardcore racists can change.

So there’s hope.

But the rest of us, those of us in the second and third categories listed here, need to stop hiding behind barriers of gentility, academic theory, and social respectability. We need to call it and confront it when we see racism, and when we perpetrate it.

It won’t be comfortable. But real change seldom is.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

In the Spirit of National Unity

Our dear future man who would be king has said that he wants the nation to come together.

I couldn't agree more.

Therefore, in the spirit that Himself proposed that He Alone could solve the nation's problems, I suggest the following should be done the moment He Alone is sworn in:

All undocumented immigrants should descend on the White House for deportation, en masse, and ask that they be driven personally by the president to their respective borders and/or be flown directly home by Him.

All Muslims in America and all Muslims considering coming to America should also arrive, en masse, at the White House on inauguration day prepared for "extreme vetting." Since I'm not sure exactly what all this would entail, I suggest that you wear loose fitting clothing and bring your own rubber gloves and personal lubricants.

Everyone knows that there was an impasse with the president of Mexico as to whether or not they'd pay for the Glorious Wall. While I'm sure He will sort this out, just in case, we should do our civic duty and send wall-building supplies--bricks, mortar, plumblines, trowels, and whatnot--to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC. in time for the inauguration. I'm sure He will know what to do with them.

Also, just to make positively sure that no woman aborts in the 9th month, as seems to worry Himself, all pregnant women should report to the White House on inauguration day so He Alone can make sure they carry to term.

Also? Anyone who has lost a job overseas should report to the White House on inauguration day for immediate reassignment. I'm sure He'll have jobs lined up for them by then.

Since He Alone has said that the minimum wage is too high, all hourly employees should mail to the White House the difference between their wage and at least a penny under the current minimum for immediate redistribution to those who would know better how to spend it. I'm sure He has someone in mind.

To ease the accounting, I suggest small change, preferably nickels and dimes.

I'm sure none of my modest proposals will receive the least amount of criticism, being, as they are, offered in the name of national unity.