Camden, NJ, Chris Hedge’s “indictment” of academia, and poverty reporting

I recently became rather annoyed at Chris Hedges pointing his finger at academics as liberals who have abandoned working people and progressive causes. This NPR story was circulated via the delightful Frank Popper via Facebook, which started up the usual whine that “professors have all this power and they don’t use it, or one proffie was mean to me once, so clearly academics have abandoned The Cause.”

Sure, yeah–universities are corporate–heaven knows I work at one. And there are plenty of academics that are only out for themselves. But what annoys me about Hedges–and the response–is that it’s so knee-jerk, one-dimensional and stereotyped. Can professors be abusive? Sure. Why would they as a group be any different than any other people when they hold the position of “boss”? People are people, with human failings, in every context. If we weren’t all working at essentially the same place with essentially the same people, Dilbert wouldn’t be as funny as it is.

But when you want to rage against the machine, you might want to ask: is the person/institution you are raging against capable of

  • putting hundreds out of work to give themselves supra-normal profits with one decision?
  • stealing people’s pensions and impoverishing elders?
  • torturing and killing your family and neighbors?
  • writing $163 million dollar checks like it’s nothing to get yourself elected into a highly influential public office?

My colleagues and I certainly make a comfortable living, but we had to save to buy our small houses and condos–we are, simply, not in that league, except for those who came in with family money.

I’m not saying big-money universities are good thing or that they have clean hands. I’m also willing to believe that higher education should take their lumps at budget times with everybody else: I’m unprepared to put higher education before foster kids in the state’s budgets, at least not without more study.

I AM saying that Yale and Kansas State are worlds apart in the influence they hold, and treating them like they are the same–or that they are in the same power universe as a Goldman Sachs or the Meg Whitmans of this world strikes me as being both inaccurate and a bit self-serving of Hedges. After all, if everybody BUT you has abandoned the poor, then suddenly you are very very important as the Voice of The Poor. There’s a little too much “don’t blame you, don’t blame me, blame the guy the behind the tree–those other people, the media, academics, Rush Limbaugh” about Hedges, who lined his nest quite comfortably I suspect when he was part of the mainstream media, whom he says is Part of the Problem, at the New York Times.

And that’s the irritating thing. Hedges, Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein make a pretty comfortable living being “the voice of the poor.” Now, I think Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, is excellent. But if I’m in moral hazard territory because I make my living researching poverty rather than solving poverty, I kind of have to wonder whether what they are up to is really all that better than what I do or don’t do.

Here’s an example of how Hedge’s arguments are rather self-serving and contradictory:

In this issue of the Nation, Hedges has an article about Camden, NJ: City of Ruins. Nice enough piece, only there is little of substance that hasn’t already been said by an academic, Howard Gillette, Jr., in his book published five years ago: Camden After Fall. (If you haven’t read it, drop what you are doing and read it right now, along with American Project by Sudhir Venkatesh)

So the question: are academics really the craven sell-outs who don’t grapple with hard issues and poverty, or does Mr. Hedges need to read more?

At some point, all of us who write about poverty and inequality run the same danger: leering instead of doing. I’m all for people writing about Camden–the more attention it gets, the better, unless the attention is on the leering side, which Hedges’ piece comes pretty close to doing in the way he trades on the images of strong, spiritual black women.

Every year or so, some senator decides he’s going to live on food stamps–and finds out that living on food stamps sucks. Quelle surprise. Or some some supermodel puts on a fat suit and discovers! OMG! That being pretty has given her unearned perk after unearned perk. Or somebody decides to live among the homeless, and discovers that homeless people are human beings (wow!) and have souls but live hard. Why can’t we believe it when the single mom on food stamps tells us that it’s not enough to sustain a family? Surely, single moms do say such things. It’s pretty simple to me: it’s not that we don’t believe her, it’s that we don’t care to intervene either publicly or privately, and after the senator’s “discovery”, we go back to business as usual. Ditto with all those other examples: we go back to stepping over homeless people, etc.

That strikes me as a much bigger, more authentic source of trouble than whether proffies are doing right by the poor. No, proffies aren’t. Most of the rest of the world isn’t, either. So what is academia? Is academia represented by celebrity scholars like Joe Stiglitz, or people, like my colleague David Sloane, who has worked for years with poor neighborhoods to virtually no celebrity–but to fairly substantial efficacy?

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3 Comments

Filed under environmental justice, Poverty

3 responses to “Camden, NJ, Chris Hedge’s “indictment” of academia, and poverty reporting

  1. Excellent analysis, Lisa. Let me discuss a small but vital part of it.

    Hedges’ piece and, I suspect, the book from which it comes are a nicely typical example of journalism about academia. One can’t really disagree with its points, but one has the feeling there’s a lot more there. Journalists are rarely actually inside academe and so have to report it as hearsay. Academics in my experience mostly lack or suppress the descriptive/analytic powers to convey what they see happening in their workplaces in any but the most general terms–e.g., tenure is foolish, the university is getting more corporate, students are bad and getting worse, TAs get exploited, administrators are dense and mercenary, pay is inequitable, etc. These themes have become cliches.

    As an alternative to this kabuki, let me describe specific kinds of experiences I see a lot, but that rarely show up in journalists’, academics’ or adminsitrators accounts:
    1. Right- or more usually leftwing bigotry to the point where it becomes part of the intellectual air one breathes. A few years ago I took part in a search that produced a candidate who was mildly libertarian. S/he was treated as a Martian. The questions at the presentation were patronizing, extended to actual laughter. The initial daylong interview schedule ended at midday, sending the candidate home early.
    2. The vacuous meetings, where nothing of substance gets discussed and everyone–EVERYONE–would rather be somewhere else. Precisely because the meetings are so comprehensively boring, no one ever admits it at them, though there is plenty of backchat afterward. Somewhere there must be a Balzac of American boredom, perhaps whiling away time in the Ohio Public Roads Department or a backwater of the Gates Foundation or maybe even a university, who could convey all this. We need this person to emerge soon.
    3. The public corridor conversations about students in general, which are public, deeply insulting, and clinical. They seem to get worse when students are in earshot.
    4. The lack of knowledge about popular culture, which of course is most of it and the part likeliest to last. (Shakespeare in his time was popular culture, as was the Bible.) I have run across professors ignorant of Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, American Idol, Saturday Night Live, etc., far into the night and keeping on ’til morning. They invariably have firm opinions about where America or the world is going or should do. It is hard to argue with them because, well, they don’t have much of a fact base and don’t care about it anyway. The comparison with Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck seems inevitable.
    5. It’s startling how much overt anti-intellectualism exists at the middle and top ranks of American universities. I know deans who couldn’t tell you two coherent sentences about what most of their professors do or why they do it. But they can give you precise figures about the grants (some of) them bring in. They actually remark on how dull the professors’ work is, not that they’ve lifted a finger to try to find out about it. Most professors themselves are remarkably ignorant about what their colleagues do and feel no guilt about it.
    6. The mistreatment and bullying of graduate students: an endless topic. One of the (many) low points of my graduate experience was submitting the first draft of my thesis to a committee member, who sneered at me that it read like “a long piece in the New Yorker,” as if that was bad. This fellow told me that I should “look to my education,” his phrase, then refused to be part of my committee. He was for some time quite well-known, and one of the joys of my adult academic experience has been watching the utter eclipse of his reputation. Another faculty member then took me on as a project, told me that part of my problem was that I “wrote better than 95% of our graduate students,” thus arousing controversy others avoided. He gave me tips on how to make my writing better while academically grounding it so as to anticipate people like his grump colleague. My savior died recently, got remarkable obituaries and had a spectacular memorial service, which I went out of my way to attend.
    7. There’s a softness in intellectual culture as universities purvey it. That is, one can get away with studying topics or subjects (in our field e.g., zoning, Chicago, Robert Moses) without having any actual ideas about them. All you have to do is write about them, and after a while you doesn’t even have to do that. One of the results is large numbers of high-status mediocrities who’ve never really done or contributed much and who, like the I-want-out committee member described, typically find their reputations slipping by late middle age and mercifully don’t get to see them disappear posthumously. Other results: dull papers in dull journals, both with microscopic readerships; ditto for dull books published by dull university presses; vacuous presentations at conferences; a general sense that almost anything is good enough for academic work if only it is sufficiently pedantic or obscure; and ceremonial for-wider-consumption overpraise for ordinary work
    (“This pathbreaking idea,” when no one can credibly tell you what the idea is, much less what the new path is or what old path it supplants.)

    I’m sure others can add further items, but that seems like enough from me for the day.

  2. The problem as I see it through the eyes of one of capitalism’s victims, is that you fail to understand the significance and depth of the consequences of middle-class directed policies centering on “managing the poor” have had on real poor people’s lives.

    I agree 100% with Hedges on his indictment of what he calls “the liberal class.” He is not singling out academia, although the academicians from 1980 onward were the architects of the current social holocaust. Congressmen are almost always with few exceptions, lawyers. And it was academicians who produced them.

    Academicians like Bart Stupak, or Newt Gingrich (an economics professor and right-wing sexist and racist bigot who bleated about the “nanny state” when it came to poor single mothers on AFDC while his constituency of defense contractors got more “welfare handouts” than any other group of people in the nation); Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation who crafted the national “abstinence-only” sex ed program, and other “experts” with PhD’s at the Cato Institute were allowed to call the shots beccause the traditional liberal institutions purged leftist scholars like Michael Parenti for challenging the rising corporate state and its shills in academia who should have been the ones run out on a rail instead.

    As a woman from very deep poverty who grew up in a Philly ghetto, I am more of a poverty expert than national poverty-pimp-in-chief Ruby Payne or any upper-middle class academician who thinks that they know it all because of temporarily “slumming it” — or by constructing a superficial “poverty study” as an “outside observer” looking at life through middle class lenses, infused with personal value judgments and middle class self-importance and self-entitlement.

    Yet it is never my voice, or the voices of others from the impoverished underclass, that are heard in the national discourse on poverty solutions and the problem of systemic barriers of classism that maintain and feed the problem. Why is that?

    Answer: Poverty policy is dictated by upper-middle class academicians employed by think tanks, “experts” who are more concerned with maintaining their social status and privileges than they are with any real and humane and sensible solutions to poverty — which is a result of the ineptitude of capitalism itself.

    Sociology professors at Harvard, Princeton, and George Mason form official “commissions on poverty” specifically to create, shape, and influence public policy while deliberately excluding the testimonials of anyone in poverty from their panels and paid research positions.

    They used their positions of privilege and power to deliberately shut the poor out and have censored our voices and excluded us from the great table of diversity.

    They serve an economic and political elite that wants to keep the status quo, so they embrace and parrot harmful ideologies embodied within the language of the “culture of poverty” claptrap that brought us Welfare Reform and a slew of “Conscience Clause” and fetal personhood laws resulting in poor women being exposed to unwanted pregnancies and then forced to give birth. And these “experts” from the Ivory Towers of academia did it for no other reason than personal gain and professional advancement.

    Any middle/upper-middle class prince of mediocrity who makes excuses for that, and for the irreparable harm this caused simply because “everybody else does it too” is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. That “everybody else does it” argument didn’t cut it when you were 10, why do you think it should fly now that you’re over 21?

    Any academic apologist espousing such a “value” system is merely a prince of mediocrity: one more indifferent, self-absorbed, self-indulgent middle class consumerist automaton who sat back and said “Oh, well, life’s not fair” in response to rising misery, poverty, hunger, homelessness and crime in the face of disappearing opportunities and vanishing hope of equality for women.

    The complicity of the liberal class with the plutocracy for the sake of power and conservation of privilege (neatly excused by “pragmatism”)is precisely what contributed to the rise of a fascist and misogynistic Christian Right which is now in a position to turn America into a fascist hellhole that would make Hitler’s Germany look like child’s play.

    Jacqueline S. Homan,
    Author: Classism For Dimwits
    Divine Right: the Truth is a Lie
    Eyes of a Monster
    Nothing You Can Possess

  3. Excellent post. One of the rarest things in American politics: an individual poor person taken seriously. Mostly the poor have these distorting human mouthpieces involuntarily inflicted on them. An awful sight.