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, 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.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Beyond the Industrialization of Rationality

by Lael Ewy

A recent article in National Geographic noted that exposure to the natural world increases human health, reduces stress, and increases critical thinking skills. This is all fine and good; we need more appreciation of the ecosystem on the whole and our local environs in particular. But the major bent of the article was what nature can do for us and how it can make us better able to return to our soulless offices, shallow relationships, and consumerist ways of being. In other words, the article is about how exposure to the natural world can make us better equipped to perform the business of destroying the very natural world that has prepped us to the task.

The article points out a major philosophical problem in the western world, one that floods in from many different streams of thought. Rationalist thought insists on mechanistic explanations and direct means of causation. Using the rationalist ways of thinking that still dominate the sciences and all other “outcomes based” human activity, we insist that all things happen for a reason and that all things that happen therefore must have reasons for being allowed to happen.

Thus a means of inquiry becomes a method of being; a way of doing science drifts into a way of making value judgments about what humans ought to do.

By imposing this rationalistic value judgment on human activity, we lose the idea that anything we do has an inherent value: there always has to be a why, and that why always has to be justified within an interlocking system of causations.

The ultimate limit of this way of thinking appears when we start to ask questions about prime movers, ultimate causes, the first event in the great chain that leads the universe inevitably to us, at the present moment, contemplating how we got here, thinking about how the universe was gracious enough to lead up to us, a set of beings so smart as to contemplate how it was the universe’s duty to create beings who can think about how they got here.

Only recently, string theory, ideas contemplating multiple universes, and quantum mechanics have begun to dissolve some of these first mover quandaries, but they have yet to devolve into popular thought.

In the lives of those living in the United States, this problem is compounded by puritanism, which underscores the lockstep linearity of rationalism with a very specific goal: eternal salvation. By focusing only on those activities deemed holy, we both assure our places in heaven and avoid the temptations of those things we do for fun, because fun things lead us to inevitable perdition.

But neither science nor puritanism are quite as powerful in our lives as the free market business model. While it is true that organizations like The American Enterprise Institute, backed by laissez-faire billionaires such as Charles and David Koch, have done a lot to promote free market thought in the last 40 years, the ideas go back much farther than that. After all, Charles Dickens was already savagely critiquing the point of view that every human activity must be geared toward the bottom line in the 1840s through works such as “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens’s writing was informed by the conditions of early industrialism, and we’ve gone a long way toward denying those conditions are still with us, primarily by offshoring to other parts of the world the nasty work to be done by people of whom we don’t think much.

But the rationality of industrialism still dominates our new, supposedly more creative, and “knowledge-based” economy. Instead of being part of a literal machine, we use strict schedules, quality assurance measures, and monitoring technologies to make sure people are not goofing off at their desks. The Taylorist factory has given way to the open floor plan office. The 12-hour factory shift has given way to smartphones and laptops that assure constant contact with the people at work.

Pressure on lawmakers by business-backed groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council have turned what was supposed to be a government by, for, and of the people into one dominated by business interests and interested only in maintaining the bottom line. Changes to work rules, taxation, and even the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech have oriented the purpose of American society entirely toward the generation of profit. These changes have devolved social power ever more towards employers and financiers and away from those who actually do the work.

As the National Geographic article implies, all of this has been devastating to our health. Rates of stress-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension have skyrocketed. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality are also on the rise. At this point in history, nearly one in four American women are taking antidepressant medications, as they are asked to do all of the aforementioned work underlining the bottom line, plus clean the house, raise the kids, cook for the family, and put up with sexual harassment, all for 30% less money.

“Helpful” websites abound, full of techniques for busting stress and overcoming the blues, full of advice for simplifying life and streamlining our vanishing personal time. But few of these sites promote such things for their own sake; we meditate and do yoga, journal and run marathons not simply to do them but because doing them makes us better workers, more “highly effective” people,” “better” moms and dads. All of this desperate chilling out and throwing out, pumping up and efficiency creation exists against a backdrop of genuine existential threat: in the United States, in particular, one is only allowed to be fully human when gainfully employed or independently wealthy. Everyone else is sanctioned by legislation, internally displaced, forced to live in squalor, incarcerated. For those deemed “disabled,” a life of poverty and medication awaits. For those able-bodied folks who happen to be un or under employed, benefits are tied to a progression of increasingly demeaning and intrusive tasks and to standards of employability that only exist within the delusional and paranoid thoughts of the legislators who enstated the rules. And for too many there is homelessness, increasingly made illegal by laws ostensibly about “cleaning up” the civic landscape, as if the bodies of the unfortunate were so much misplaced refuse cluttering up the view of yet another Tuscan styled strip mall.

In other words, when our lives are bent entirely toward the cause and effect relationship posited by industrial capitalism that has as its end point greater profits and increased market value, most people suffer. It becomes not just immoral but impossible to think of anything worth doing for its own sake, and those things we do to “recharge” become distractions from our misery: mindless and violent video games, awful blockbuster movies, increasingly sensationalistic television, and any number of mind-numbing substances of varying degrees of legality (and lethality). These latter chemicals, when dispensed by physicians, are purchased through a system that is itself driven by market factors and not person care, no matter how well-intentioned the caregiver may be.

Environmentalists have long argued that industrialized capitalism is unsustainable. At some point, it will deplete the finite resources it relies on for its model of continual growth, if it doesn’t first so poison the ecosystem or so warm the planet that civilization becomes impossible to maintain. But there’s another, deeper reason it can’t go on like this: it demands that people devote themselves to nothing of inherent value; it demands that most of us devote most of our time and all of our usable energy to helping other men hoard wealth.

Another article comes to mind as I write this, this one from The Guardian, warning against a newfound interest in the western world in ancient, eastern meditative practices. Mindfulness, the article warned, is not always pleasant. It doesn’t always calm you down or chill you out. Bottom line, it’s not for everybody, so don’t throw out that bottle of Paxil quite yet.

But, of course, calming you down or chilling you out is not the point of mindfulness meditation; mindfulness is. If you’re looking to it to do those other things so that you can be a better worker, more well-adjusted to a crappy system, you’re doing it wrong. We have become so devoted to using such tools to become better worker bees that we have forgotten about the hard (and sometimes unpleasant) work we need to do to become better people. We have lost sight of becoming —and maybe even lost the ability to become—fully engaged in those things we do as fulfilling activities in and of themselves, of entering those places where judgments about being “better” employees or even “better” people tend to fall away.


Meditate for the sake of meditation.

Work for the sake of work.

Create for the sake of art.

Rationalize for the sake of clarity.

All else falls unto the worship of false gods.