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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