Saturday, June 24, 2017

Corporate Bodies


Near the end of the surreal-to-silly Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (forgive me, I’m catching up), two scrappy pirate ships, the Dutchman and the Pearl, flank and destroy Lord Beckett’s East India Company flagship. As his ship goes down, an emotionally vacant Beckett mutters one last time “it’s just good business,” then a cannonball blows him into the water. An East India Company flag flutters beneath him. Lord Beckett, played by Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins for you 1995 Pride and Prejudice fans) is a Disney villain who makes deals with monstrous pirates from a supernatural underworld, but he’s also a figure ripped from corporate history. His tag line, “it’s just good business,” is so familiar that, like the dazed Beckett, we don’t seem to understand what it means any more.
The fictional Beckett was an officer in the very real East India Company, one of the world’s first corporations, which had a royal charter to trade in, among other things, spices, slaves, tea, opium, cotton, and colonizing India. The EIC didn’t distinguish between things and people (or between corporate interest and national sovereignty) because that was “just good business” in the new age of the corporation. A corporation, from corpus (body), incorporates, both in that it gets to count as an imaginary body and that takes in or consumes other things. One of the first things corporations did when they emerged in the seventeenth century was traffic in actual bodies and turn them into things: the Royal African Company, the Dutch India Company, and the East India Company among them. While the early western notion of rights depended on having “property in the self” and thus autonomy, the first corporations took this idea and used it to conceptualize people as property, as goods that could be priced, traded, and even insured.[1]
So it is no surprise that the current battle over health insurance in the U.S., the only developed nation without universal health care, comes back to the conflict between the welfare of human bodies in general and the power of imaginary corporate ones to extract value from individual bodies, and the question of which project the government will favor.
A couple of weeks ago, I was flipped off by no less than 5 cars (2 Land Rovers, 2 BMWs, and a Lexus) of well-heeled, late-middle aged couples while I was standing in front of the Cherokee Country Club. They were all white, well-dressed, and clearly moneyed, but their faces were grotesque against the glass, their middle fingers jabbing. I was there as part of a protest against the plans to destroy the Affordable Care Act while Paul Ryan was inside doing a $10,000 a person VIP event to raise money for his PAC. We held up paper tombstones with the names and conditions of people we know who would die without healthcare, and we chanted “health care is a human right.” It was raining.
I believe that health care is a right, and I think it’s worth fighting for, but I don’t think the bird-flipping folks agreed with me. I’ve spent some time puzzling over their vitriol and its source. My best guess is that they believe that “free enterprise” is a good in itself, that wealth trickles down, that the government is bad, or at best a necessary evil, that taxes shouldn’t redistribute the wealth of those who have more to care for those who have less, and that constraints on businesses (including forcing concessions from the health care industry) are close to immoral. I see things differently and wish we had substantive public discussions about the reasons and values that shape our views, but I had no illusions that was going to happen at a protest. Still, I was unsettled by being flipped off so aggressively by wealthy people who, I assume, have health insurance. There was something more disturbing going on than disagreement, a fundamental shift I’ve seen in objections to other protests; I believe they thought I was being unpatriotic, that my protest was un-American, and that I, fellow citizen, was the enemy.
I think it’s time to talk about how deeply a corporate logic has lodged itself in American discourse, and how it has, for many, displaced the idea of the nation with the idea of the corporation at the expense of civic life. We didn’t get here overnight. It took years of deifying Milton Freedman and Ronald Reagan while jackhammering messages like “government isn’t the solution; it’s the problem”; “business-friendly environments”; “welfare queens”; “historic stock-market gains”; “trickle-down economics”; “government waste”; “job-creators”; “government inefficiency”; “tax incentives”; and “it’s just good business” without checking facts. With such varnished truthiness pummeling our eardrums for 40 years, it got harder for most people to think about what these phrases mean and who was operating the jackhammer. As in the days of the East India Company, corporations use the nation to serve their interests. Lately, they’ve gotten so good at it that it’s hard to tell the difference. So much of what it means to be American has been blurred, bent, and rebranded by sophisticated and well-financed messaging; America the nation gets swallowed up by America, the corporation.
It’s also time we recognize Grover Norquist’s violent, infanticide fantasy of a government small enough to drown in a bathtub for what it is: the death of the nation. With it goes the means to promote the general welfare and establish liberty and justice for all. Lord knows we haven’t always gotten it right, but we made an implicit promise to each other (we call this the social compact) to try. Justice, the first amendment, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” are not first and foremost good for business (the second amendment and mass incarceration, however, can turn obscene profits, “life” be damned).
When the nation disappears into the face of the corporation, the empty mantle of patriotism gets draped across the un-body of the corporation, masquerading as “Citizens United.” Suddenly, supporting profit margins, guns, and big oil are patriotic acts while Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Sandy Hook Promise, and support for the imperfect but landmark ACA are un-American, even treasonous. So consider carefully; who is that corporate body behind the curtain pulling the levers and sending the messages?
Health care corporations have an incentive to avoid insuring sick people because it’s expensive, but the law can demand more on behalf of the people. Instead, we have the Republican plan, (opposed by The American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the AARP—even the conservative Heritage Foundation!—and many others) which would kick millions off of Medicaid and turn seniors out of nursing homes (p. 39), impose an age tax for all over 50 (p. 104), make access to women’s health care and maternity care more difficult and expensive (p. 136), allow states to dump the disabled and those with pre-existing conditions (see the section 1332 waivers) all while cutting taxes for the wealthy and health care corporations and hastening the insolvency of the Medicare Trust Fund (p. 29). The bill does nothing to hold down the skyrocketing premiums that healthcare giants like UnitedHealth, Humana, and Aetna can charge, and it cynically pushes some of its funding changes off until after upcoming elections, delaying the devastation in the quest for votes. It will surprise few that some of the biggest donors to the 13 senators who drafted the bill behind closed doors (McConnell, Hatch, Alexander, Enzi, Thune, Lee, Cruz, Cotton, Gardner, Barasso, Cornyn, Portman, and Toomey) are Humana, BlueCross BlueShield, Kindred Healthcare, Community Health Systems, DaVita Healthcare, Sanford Health, Mednax, and Richie (big pharma in Texas).
The carefully manufactured rage against the ACA, whipped up by conservative media, exploited the loopholes that left some people stuck between categories or without providers and used it as excuse to damn the whole project rather than fix it. The campaign against the ACA also played the illusion of individual rights (“You can’t mandate I have coverage”) against corporate interest (“we’d like to charge more and provide less”) on a principle of “less government” and “consumer choice.” But you don’t have a choice. You don’t choose to get cancer, to have a heart attack, to age. This bill licenses higher premiums, less support for low-income people, an assault on women’s health care, and no requirement for essential benefits (i.e., hospitalization) as “just good business.” Corporate bodies win, real bodies die.
It takes public commitment and legislative will to uphold the idea of human rights against the prerogatives of a corporation, but it’s very American. At the Boston Tea Party, it was the East India Company’s monopoly, not new taxes, that American colonists were protesting. Congress, which has an awesome health care plan for itself, is prepared to take even the most basic health care away from millions and drain the state coffers that might provide it in the future. Health care costs are the #1 cause of American bankruptcy, and whatever dent the ACA might have made in that statistic will reverse if more seniors and working poor families are kicked off of Medicaid, lifetime caps kick back in, and sick or older people become uninsurable. Corporations and their political stooges want you to feel overwhelmed by all this; don’t. Don’t be fooled, and don’t abandon ship. Yes, the system is rigged, but neither Jack Sparrow and his scrappy band nor Washington and his were supposed to win. Belay that fear. We need all hands on deck in every gerrymandered, manipulated district, organizing, running, and voting like hell to save this ship.
[1] For a brilliant discussion of the conceptual history of the corporation, see John O’Brien, Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650-1850.
[2] “Meet the 13 Senators Deciding on Your Health Care Behind Closed Doors.” Money, June 22, 2017. http://time.com/money/4825746/ahca-health-care-law-senate/

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

English Majors Save the World!

The following blog is my address at the English major’s honors convocation at the University of Tennessee on May 10, 2017. If you had seen them, if you had taught them, if you knew them, I believe you would agree with me that English majors will save the world. For the record, all the English majors answered yes to the first poll question, and in response to the second, all the devoted parents laughed nervously and only one raised her hand. This only made me love them more. I got a little verkempt at the end.
In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator imagines defending her own readers against the charge that they are wasting their time reading novels:
“And what are you reading, Miss?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.”
I teach Jane Austen, and I also work on Restoration and 18th-century literature, but I have recently spent a little more time doing research in the 21st century as a way to help me understand what to tell my fantastic students about what we are all doing here. Specifically, how and what do English majors do in the world? And the news is good. But first, let me ask, how many people here have been teased about being an English major, including having to answer the question “so what are you going to do? Teach?”* And how many parents here were at least a little concerned when your student “came out” to you as an English major?** Yes, yes, it is true, we like big books and we just can’t lie. And yes, it’s true that we know the difference between their, they’re, and there. (That’s not as good a joke as Derrida’s infamous “diff√©rance” address, in which he told his French audience that meaning in language comes from both difference and deferral, which sound exactly the same in French, but still, I know you get it.) And yes, sometimes we have been silently correcting your grammar. All joking aside, though, I’m here to tell you that all those people who were teasing you about being an English major were wrong. Very wrong. Just a few years out from graduation, English majors do as well in overall employment stats as math and computer science majors, and better than business majors, according to a Georgetown survey of recent college graduates. We also know that English majors get jobs that can’t be outsourced, jobs based around human interactions, critical thinking, and communication. CEOs like Bracken Darrell of Logitech are pleading for more English majors. Law schools love you all. And the journalism firmament is full of English major stars: Barbara Walters, Grant Tinker, Bob Woodward, and Andrea Mitchell, to name a few. And we win, because, Emma Watson.
So congratulations! Congratulations for seeing beyond the STEM mania of our age, which has been with most of you from the cradle. Congratulations on taking the time to read deeply and broadly, to cultivate yourselves as writers, and to engage with the astonishing array of human experience available to us through novels, essays, poems, blogs, and plays. By spending your B.A. this way, you just made one of the most economically savvy decisions you could have made in an age when we have to seek “robot-proof” jobs. You all have the soft skills that employers want. You’ll start companies we haven’t even thought of yet. You’ll write the scripts, video games, business plans, web sites, and novels of the future. And yes, hopefully sooner rather than later, you will get paid for it!
But wait, there’s more. You may not have thought about it this way, but by being an English major, you are also participating in one of the most urgent, life-giving, and promising projects of our age, something that goes beyond employment or financial success. I’m calling it the project of deep literacy. It involves listening carefully, thinking clearly, and writing with grace and honesty. As my students will tell you, I believe that English majors are going to save the world. I say it often, unapologetically, and without irony. And with the rest of my time today, I’m going to tell you exactly how English majors are going to save the world. Feel free to tweet the instructions at #utkenglish.
English majors will save the world because they write beautifully. Writerly elegance—the capacity to take someone’s breath away with a beautiful phrase, which Alexander Pope described as the ability to say “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”—is not about being decorative. It’s about bringing clarity, truth, and grace to the act of communication. It’s also about being honest. George Orwell argued in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Euphemism, phraseology, and inflated style, he argues, defend the indefensible by distracting us from matters of great concern. Orwell believed that thought could corrupt language, and that language could corrupt thought. In an age of “alternative facts,” it’s hard to disagree. But the creative and honest use of language creates the conditions for what Benedict Anderson called an imagined community, a group of people who share common dreams, who talk about the future, who communicate. In our age of fracture, when talking heads shout from their virtual boxes, we know we have a crisis on our hands. Political scientists may be able to tell us what went wrong, but it’s up to the poets, the essayists, the screenwriters, and all of us who care about clear, meaningful communication to give us some stories we can share, to model meaningful conversations, to check our facts and then speak the truth in love. Who knows? Maybe some linguist in this room will find a way to communicate with actual aliens and change the course of human history; or, maybe the movie Arrival was a parable about the transformational act of reading and listening well, the everyday miracle of language that can bring parties from the brink of war to the path of understanding.
Next, English majors will save the world because they are cultivating their capacity for empathy. Every time you read a novel, a poem, an essay, or a play, you engage with the idea of another consciousness, which serves as a cognitive spur to the radical idea Eve Sedgwick made her first axiom: that people are different from one another. Blakey Vermule recently argued in a book called Why We Care About Literary Characters that fictional characters
are the greatest practical-reasoning schemes ever invented. We use them to sort out basic moral problems or to practice new emotional situations. We use them to cut through masses of ambient cultural information. Our eternally premodern brains have simply not caught up to the speed and complexity of the vast moving world—so we use them in place of statistics as tools to muddle through.
The different reactions, choices, and feelings to which we become privy as readers don’t lead us to despair about our differences. Instead, we learn to celebrate them as what makes the story. That Iago is not Othello, that Gulliver is not Emma, that Sula is not Beowulf, and that Plath is not Wordsworth are all wonderful things to realize. And once we do realize it, we would not level their differences. Instead, we extend ourselves to meet them, not to strip out their complexities but to revel in them. And I realize I am breaking that first law of the New Criticism, treating a fictional character like a real person, identifying with them, imagining myself to be them. But this unwritten law, like the Prime Directive on Star Trek, was a rule meant to be broken. That imaginative identification turns out to be better than an HR course. It trains us to relate to people, to sort inferences, reactions, motivations, and choices. It is also the gateway to taking joy in our shared humanity, joy in the wonder of communication.
Finally, English majors will save the world because they are the masters of time. In the musical Hamilton, characters repeatedly ask Alexander Hamilton “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” English majors write like they’re running out of time, but they read like they own mountains of the stuff. You have rediscovered slow time in an age of instant gratification because you read. And by reading, you have cultivated your powers of attention, your patience, your own interiority. You know how to code-switch; you are digital natives who think fast, who move between tasks, and who are quite literally wired differently than people 50 years your senior. Critic Katherine Hayles argues that you can manage both “hyper and deep attention” in your reading and cognitive styles. You know how to concentrate, slow down, and read for details, but you also know how to meme, recombine, and think about networks of relations. These hard-won skills mean that you have the chance to live a life in the digital age that is not consumed by digital distraction. And here, I must confess my own susceptibility to the imbalance that faces us all, which my students already know, after watching me screech into my classroom, especially this semester, while I was also working on the CBT’s The Busy Body, a 1709 comedy by Susanna Centlivre that could have been named for me. I was often fresh from the email avalanche, or from my own online search for a video clip to show you, or from skimming a new essay from an online journal, or conferring on skype with my co-editors, or after getting a little lost in the digital Jane Austen manuscript archive. I get it; we live in a world that’s not paced for long 18th-century novels. But on the days when my digital distraction threatened to overcome my better angels and that precious, kairotic orientation to slow time, you all saved me. You did it by reading with me, by parsing lines of Rochester’s scandalous rage at authority, or by admiring the cool calculation of John Dryden’s couplets (Dryden who, according to Samuel Johnson, found the English language brick and left it marble). You did it by opening Pride and Prejudice to marvel at the precision of Elizabeth Bennet’s comebacks to Lady Catherine, that “obstinate, headstrong girl’s” refusal to be intimidated. Together, we got lost in it, and we watched the literary Davids of the world slay Goliaths with a few well-aimed words.
Inscribed on the tombstone of John Keats, the great Romantic poet, is the sentence: “here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats captured the ephemeral nature of our existence. We do not live forever; we will pass and be forgotten with the rest; we are mortal. But we also have words, and, with them, we leave our mark on the world in more ways that we will ever know; in Keats’s case, those words about the liquid impermanence of life were written in stone. Perhaps it was a twee, precious joke, but it worked. The sentence is still there. And the world knows his name, as it does Alexander Hamilton’s, Virginia Woolf’s, Ta-Nehisi Coat’s, William Shakespeare’s. Maybe soon, it will know your name, too. Write your way out.
Again, congratulations. Congratulations on making your life a powerful counter-argument to the cynical and demoralizing voices of our age, and congratulations on finding each other along the way. I am so, so glad to know that you are heading out there. History has its eyes on you.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Really Bad Friday


Good Friday, the Christian holiday with the searingly ironic name, is a theatrical affair in my church. We sit in an ever-darkening sanctuary, reading aloud the story of how a political radical, a teacher, and a pacifist in an age of empire got caught between his enemies and the state, faced a show trial, and then a grisly torture death. Crucifixion was a punishment Rome regularly used against political foes as well as petty criminals. It always flummoxes me when Christians emphasize the exceptionalism of Jesus’s crucifixion. In fact, it was a common-as-dirt strategy used by the empire to publicly humiliate challengers. Much like lynching, it instilled fear, divided communities, and drew crowds.
So on Good Friday, we tell the story of one particular crucifixion that happened during one particular Passover. It includes the shame of those whom fear overwhelmed into betrayal; those who traded their decency for the illusion of more power and safety; those who abused their offices and those who encouraged them to do so; and those left to watch it all through their tears, feeling helpless before the military regime now occupying their home. This is our liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, which means public service. We tell stories in public as a public service. Stories that remind us just how terrible people can be when they are anxious about their place in the power structure. Good Friday stories are not about winning; they are about loss, division, scapegoating, and being driven by fear. And as we tell them, the lights go out. First those already dimmed overhead; then, one by one, the candles; then the last pillar, the Christ candle, marched out by a somber priest who slams the back door so hard it makes everyone jump. But this is not a drill. It is not a rehearsal. It is happening.
I haven’t blogged since right before the election (“Dear …..”), my 11th-hour reach across the aisle bid to consider relationships beyond the blue and red feed. See how well that worked? After, when I tried to write, my pen only poured out anger and pain until the ink gathered into pools of despair. I didn’t know what to do, but I was pretty sure we didn’t need any more of that on the interwebs. Besides, I didn’t know what story to tell, or how to make sense of the story I found myself in. The Friday after the election at the grocery store, I felt like I was in a zombie movie. To each face I wondered “are you…?” Would you hurt me for your gain? Lock me up? Betray? Exterminate? Crucify? I was a stranger in my own country, living in occupied territory. I stumbled through 2016, alternately cursing my naivet√© and hoping I’d wake up from the nightmare. I found little things: a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” t-shirt; an “I Can’t Keep Quiet” pickup choir; de rigueur FaceBook venting; my students, who give me hope every day; putting my representatives on speed dial. I changed grocery stores and now make a point of small talk and hugging cashiers. Then, I threw myself into making a play (already on the schedule when Meryl told us what to do with our broken hearts). For me, it was equal parts research, escape, survival, therapy, and public service. The Busy Body, a 1709 comedy by the now mostly unknown Susanna Centlivre, gave us all some desperately needed laughs, many at the expense of Sir Francis Gripe, a grabby, greedy, oversexed old man with big hair. Sometimes, history falls in your lap. It was glorious.
But sometimes, the story gets dark, and you can’t just ignore it. People and reefs and species die and they don’t come back from the dead. This year, for me, Easter, particularly in its commercialized, pastel, sticky-sweet form, feels too much like what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, distracting us with an empty “It’s phenomenal; you’re going to love it.” Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis a month before their regime fell, believed in resurrection and the power of Easter, but I think this year he’d be on my side. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still holding out for rebirth, spring, new life. But the darkness around us is deep.
 After Jesus was on the cross but not yet dead, the same mob that had just colluded with the authorities to get him up there wanted to make a correction. They asked Pilate to change the sign above his head (allegedly written in 3 languages) from “king of the Jews” to “He who said he was king of the Jews.” Pilate’s reply, “what I have written, I have written,” was both nonchalant and exactly to the point. You see, Pilate didn’t give a shit about what they wanted because he didn’t have to. The Romans already controlled the discourse: what got written, which bodies lived or died, which would suffer and which would luxuriate. They were the champions of law and order, the leaders of Western civilization, and they made the rules. Jerusalem was their town now, and they didn’t have to put up with some radical riling up the masses. They could just crucify him and shut him up. It was all perfectly legal, a trial and everything. Besides, no one will ever remember, and his rattled, loser followers will never get their story together.
The scale of the struggle over who tells the American story is overwhelming, more than any one person can manage, so I’m focusing on the stories about higher education, vouchers, and education funding. The carefully scripted and stoked rage at government in general and public education in particular (“broken,” “crooks,” “failing”) was crafted by those in power who do not want people to ask too many questions. A well-educated electorate might begin to parse their news sources and notice how they’re being played by a system fed (for now) by low wages and crushing personal debt; by oil executives looking at profits over public welfare; or by powerful insurance companies whose incentive is money, not healing. Those with less or a lesser education also tend not to vote. Civics at the high school level, dubbed the “quiet crisis in education” by the not-exactly-liberal Sandra Day O’Connor, has been all but ignored; consider whose interests this neglect and cynicism serves. Furthermore, if you twist the story of America to say that corporations are people, and that their rights are violated by campaign finance reform, environmental protections, or banking regulations; that American values are only those of capital and that greed is good; that immigrants and poor people are the problem; if you make the bottom line sacred and self-evident, you might get people to identify with the empire and betray themselves and their children’s futures. In this landscape, racism, misogyny, and homophobia are easy triggers, and scapegoats are plentiful. Who wants to be identified with weakness, especially when the powerful mock it? By contrast, an education broadens views, recovers disappeared histories, encourages empathy, and fosters critical thinking in ways that are inconvenient for those in power. The history of slavery in the U.S; the scientific reality of melting ice caps; the alarming consolidation of wealth in the hands of the very few—these stories may not serve the current empire, but they are true and the fight to tell them is coming to a school board or legislature near you. You better get down there. This is not a drill.