Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Three-Fifths Compromise

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.

Compromise, In Its Majestic Equality…

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Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

President of Emory (and former dean/provost/interim president of my beloved alma mater) really steps in it, authoring a column that praises the Three-Fifths Compromise in the name of draconian cuts to humanities programs. This was all any academics were talking about on Twitter this afternoon; a tiny sample from my corner of the web.

Literally Every Weekend Link There Is

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* It’s official: J.J. Abrams will ruin Star Wars (more).

* More drone fiction, please. Tweets not bombs. Lip-syncing the poetry of empire.

Žižek vs. Zero Dark Thirty.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

* Anti-war activism at the University of Wisconsin, c. 1940.

* Stunning read on living as a victim of child abuse from the New York TimesThe Price of a Stolen Childhood.

* David Foster Wallace and depression, in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

* Steve Benen and Maddowblog has been all over the Republican vote-rigging scheme, even going so low as to cite one of my tweets. What The 2012 Election Would Look Like Under The Republicans’ Vote-Rigging Plan. Scott Walker, of course, is rigging-curious. And a delicious little bit of schadenfreude.

It is a sin against the new world of mediocrity to be distinct or distinguished.  We are in the chain-store, neon-lighted era.  Almost every city looks the same.  The same people all dress the same – kids as Hopalong Cassidy, men with loud sportshirts and Truman suits, women in slacks.  Sometimes you can tell whether a trousered individual is a man or a woman only by the width of the buttocks.  Only a few cities have individuality.  They are the seaports, New York, New Orleans and San Francisco.  Boston reeks of decay, and is not genteel.  The rest are all Cleveland.

* Today in legal hyperformalism.

Would you believe me if I told you that President Obama is in constitutional trouble—with hundreds of decisions of the National Labor Relations Board from the last year now potentially invalid—over the meaning of the word the?

* When The Shining had an optimistic ending.

* So we’re going to destroy the world: Australian shale oil discovery could be larger than Canada’s oilsands.

* The trouble with English.

None of these past challenges compares with the one under way now. While other humanities disciplines—philosophy, linguistics, and modern languages, for example—have relied upon a range of foundational practices at the modern mass university, many English professors have depended on literature (narrowly defined), written discourse, and the printed book as the primary elements in teaching and scholarship. But hidebound faculty members who continue to assign and study only pre-computer-based media will quickly be on their way toward becoming themselves a “historical” presence at the university.

That’s why I specialized in iPad-2-era Twitter-based fan-fiction, and frankly I’ve never looked back.

* Mainstreaming MOOCs.

* Open, New, Experimental, Aspirational: Ian Bogost vs. “The Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age.”

* New research indicates tuition has little correlation with educational outcomes.

If markets are efficient and if markets make things better, then there is no explanation for why we have the worst media in the world rather than the best. The problem is that markets don’t really make things better or more efficient. They make things cheaper and they’re responsive. That’s why we get the news we want rather than the news we need.

Child labour uncovered in Apple’s supply chain.

* n+1 visits MLA.

* Defending freedom: A St. Paul man who recently purchased an assault rifle out of fear of an impending gun ban threatened his teenage daughter with it because she was getting two B’s in school rather than straight A’s, according to a criminal complaint filed Friday.

For The Sixth Time In One Week, Man Shot At Gun Show.

* Adam Mansbach: My fake college college syllabus.

* Copy Of The Scarlet Letter Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins.

* Debunkng the “the Soviets used a pencil” gag. The more you know!

* Occam’s Razor suggests it must be Cory Booker who is putting these people and animals in danger in the first place.

* More on the Arizona “loyalty oaths” issue, with a religious freedom focus.

* New Mexico Bill Would Criminalize Abortions After Rape As ‘Tampering With Evidence.’ Republicans, honestly, we have to talk.

* Seriously, though, I could fix the whole damn system if they’d listen to me.

* Even the Pentagon doesn’t know what the the point of the draft is supposed to be.

* Xavier and Magneto Heading to Broadway for Waiting For Godot.

* And a little something just for the Harmenians: “I wanted a memorable Harmontown show in Kansas City, and for my sins they gave me one.” Dan Harmon predicts pain.