Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Emory Reax (Updated)

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The already notorious In Praise of the Three-Fifths Compromise piece from Emory’s president has spawned a number of good “teaching moment” pieces from a number of young academic bloggers, as well as a quasi-retraction from Wagner himself. (Don’t call it a gaffe!) First, the retraction; I’m glad this is up so quickly, but it importantly misses the mark.

In retrospect we can fairly ask ourselves, would we have voted for the Constitution—for a new nation, for “a more perfect union”—if it meant including the three fifths compromise? Or would we have voted no—that is, voted not to undertake what I hope we see as a noble experiment, however flawed and imperfect it has been.

To locate this question in the agency of a privileged class—should we have voted for this?—replicates again the error of the original piece, in which the suffering of the disprivileged is bracketed in the name of the “higher purpose” of the elites. It’s a profoundly anti-democratic narrative, in which decision-makers take notice of the consequences of their actions only from 10,000 feet (if they deign to notice at all). This is the angle Natalia Cecire takes up in “Race and the Privilege of Innocence”:

Wagner apologizes for his “clumsiness and insensitivity,” framing his column as a bumbling, stumbling error, a sort of intellectual version of a lack of motor skills. He seems bewildered that anyone could take him to be suggesting that slavery was okay, because that wasn’t his point. But the fact that it wasn’t his point is the point. It only makes sense to view the 3/5 Compromise in a purely formal register—as an example of compromise rather than a famous historical instance of wealthy white men bartering with one another over the political value of black bodies—if you can only imagine yourself as one of the barterers and not as one of the bartered, if slave history is not your history. Wagner was thinking of “compromise” as such, from the point of view of the people in a position to compromise: the wealthy white male landowners who had a legal say in this country’s founding; he is, as it were, innocent of blackness. Circulating in a universe in which enfranchised whiteness is the norm and disenfranchised blackness is not on the radar except as an abstract concept to be bartered over, Wagner demonstrates a basic unawareness, compounded by his after-the-fact bewilderment that others don’t share it.

Tressie McMillan Cotton takes up the difficult task of pulling out the metaphor to the context of cuts to the liberal arts to which it is meant to apply:

What Wagner revealed with his slavery allusion, I believe rather unintentionally, is how ideologues in  higher education debates conceive of the spoils. If slaves were a means to an economic and hegemonic end, then education credentials are not conceptually altogether different to those with the authority to have the debate.  That distinction matters. As the 3/5ths compromise was for slaveholders an ideological debate as opposed to the material reality of the enslaved, this higher education debate a matter of something altogether more than just an ideological battle over who will control the means of production, whether that be cotton or sheepskins.

And Aaron Bady twists the knife on the figure of the CEO university president:

James Wagner’s casual and apathetic ignorance about slavery is one thing, and his assault on the liberal arts is another. I want to be clear about that: I am not equating them with each other, even if there is a certain overlap (as Tressie McMillan Cottom argues). But the kind of thinking that allows a person to value “compromise,” as such, is the kind of mind that doesn’t care very much about what is being compromised. The kind of mind that can cut a university’s education studies division, physical education department, visual arts department, and journalism program—sacrificing core functions of the university in order to save money so the university can “continue”—is also the kind of mind that could see slavery as the unfortunate broken eggs that were needed to make the national omelette. There is nothing surprising about this, in other words. This is what we should expect when a university president is essentially a CEO. And the easiest response is simply to shrug our shoulders. Can we expect better? Should we be surprised?

UPDATE: Two more good ones. Chris Taylor:

Ultimately, antebellism gears us up for political war only to tell us that the battle has already been decided—there’s no longer any politics, no longer any open struggle through which the future will be decided. Instead, we’re invited to invest political meaning in the technologies of neoliberal governance, in what Wagner calls “the rich tools of compromise.” We need to read Wagner’s choice of example, then, as the end result of an attempt to derive a political feeling from the withdrawal of the political. Ultimately, that’s what all antebellism does: it allows us to feel political even as we abandon the political—or, rather, even as the political abandons us. “Compromise” both names this withdrawal of the political and invests our acquiescence to it with a pseudo-political affect. It does not so much describe a peaceful, pacifying working relationship between willful and opposed political subjects (Republicans and Democrats, say, or partisans of the humanities and the sciences) as it does the conformation of varied and antagonistic political wills to an exorbitant, apolitical logic (i.e., neoliberal capitalism). We don’t compromise so much as our possibility for political action has been compromised. It is our recognition of the compromised nature of any political action that is supposed to subtend all contemporary politics—indeed, it’s supposed to pass as politics.

and Noelle McAfee:

As shocking as Wagner’s invocation of the 3/5 compromise to make a point is, let’s not lose sight of what is so troubling about the point he was trying to make: that maybe the value of the liberal arts should be compromised. If there’s a debate on the value of the liberal arts, let’s have that debate.  But rather than do so, the Emory University administration has been unilaterally deciding the outcome of this question.  The vast majority of programs chosen for closure in the recent cuts at Emory have been in the arts and humanities. Rather than any open opportunity to come to a collective compromise, the process for the decisions (consulting a committee sworn to silence, which never kept minutes, and hugely underrepresented faculty in the humanities) compromised any chance that those targeted in the humanities could have their say.

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  1. [...] here; a thought-provoking Marxist analysis from Chris Taylor here; Brekke here; Gerry Canavan here. Best tweet I have seen goes to Tressie (@tressiemcphd): “Wagner asks would “we” [...]


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