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On Graduate Student Unionisation

 That 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump speaks volumes about the state of American higher education. Now, let’s be clear: crisis-rhetoric is about the only way to talk about the American university system. All too often this crisis is imputed to a Closing of the American Mind, due to illiberal communists, feminists, Black scholars, undergraduate campus activists who can no longer tolerate uncomfortable disagreement and thus destroy the spirit of free inquiry from within. The very groups that have the least power in the university hierarchy. On the contrary, I would argue that there has been a closing of the American Mind on the elite private university campus. We’ve just missed whose minds have been closed, and look set to remain closed for a while now.

The University of Chicago is the prime site of many of these contradictions. It is in the midst of a $1.7 billion development plan, it has been borrowing close to $900 million in the last three years; the 2008-discredited credit-ratings firm Moody’s has cut the school’s credit outlook to AA-. The Board of Trustees have engaged in an expensive construction project to rapidly expand the undergraduate population and give them an “experience” to match or exceed the promised experiences of undergraduates of other elite universities. The idea behind all this seems to be: more undergraduates, more fees; more undergraduates, more wealthy alumni; more undergraduates more fees and more alumni, and we can safeguard and restore an endowment under an extraordinary debt load. To maintain this heavy level of borrowing and construction investment, the money needs to come from somewhere. The Trustees, those in charge of the allocation of the university budget, have decided that it will come from academic departments; the actual sites where teaching and research happen. To pay for a construction boom to raise the undergraduate population to save the endowment, the Trustees have decided to take money away from faculty, graduate students, and many other research-affiliated workers who are teaching actually existing undergraduates and doing the labour of what a university is supposed to do: develop the society’s collective knowledge for the common good. University workers are paying with their labour for what to all appearances, can be read as a debt-fueled Ponzi scheme to raise land prices in Hyde Park.

When capital becomes scarce, a private institution responds by increasing its rate of extraction of value from its labour. Faculty at the university have to increasingly take up administrative work as administrators in departments are laid off due to budget cuts, faculty have less time for teaching and research. Graduate students have to now simultaneously teach, take coursework, research, do the administrative work of organizing workshops and conferences, and accomplish all this in five years so that they can stand out in a labour market where few universities are hiring tenure-track faculty anymore. The undergraduate population is increasing as a lot of the buildings have now been completed, but faculty hiring hasn’t grown in proportion: graduate students and new cohorts of temporary post-docs pick up the teaching slack. This extraction of value can be witnessed most clearly in the experiences of over-work, stress, and anxiety shared by most in the graduate student community. Moreover, this extraction is differentiated by age, race, gender, and class. Women graduate students are picking up the administrative slack in their departments. Older, senior graduate students are taking up more teaching responsibilities, to make up for reduced stipends and fellowships in the advanced years of the PhD. Poorer graduate students are having to look for other jobs to stay in school, which has the effect of taking time away from research and thus slowing it.

This self-inflicted debt crisis has made teaching, research, writing, collaborating, and living harder for all of us on campus. The perverse way in which the University of Chicago views itself as the meta-University, the campus where faculty from all over the world come to visit to get their epistemic paradigms tested and where each disciplines’ best practices and practitioners can be found, forces us to internalize and take responsibility for this stress and over-work as a condition of excellence. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right. The university claims to be based on a trusteeship model of education. We will look after the faculty, the Trustees argue, so that the faculty can be best placed to look after the students. The students aren’t really workers, they are apprentices, caringly trained by faculty members. In reality, the only people being trained are the university’s accountants. Trustees have made things difficult for the faculty, and the faculty can’t but help relay some of that difficulty to their students – because a university has to be run while all this is going on. These issues have been made raised repeatedly by many voices on campus. Communication in this hierarchy is a one-way street.

Since 2007, the Graduate Student Union (GSU) at the University of Chicago has consistently articulated this critique and has organized to win many victories to make the work of education possible in an administrative environment designed to make it impossible. Salaries for TA positions have been doubled. Salaries for Lecturer positions have been increased by a third. Advanced residency tuition hikes have been frozen since 2010: an absurd practice where the university penalizes a graduate student for having spent too long on their research, when research of any kind takes time in ways that cannot be easily predicted. The parental leave policy for graduate students has been improved. All in all, the GSU has recognized that good research and teaching takes time, and to be asked to divide our labour in these many contradictory tasks means that we should be adequately paid for it. Insofar as the university has shied away from systematically addressing racism and sexism on campus, including cases of sexual harassment; the GSU, along with other campus groups, has consistently stepped up to support the victims whose dignity has been denied. In other words, the GSU has done its best to save the University of Chicago from itself.

This is why I believe we should unionise. Collective bargaining means that there will be a legally enforceable system by which graduate students can participate in negotiating and designing the conditions of their labour: the labour of education and research, the labour that makes a university a university. If the Trustees want to go and build a $1 billion casino on campus to compete with a future Trump University, a legally recognized graduate student union will be able to fight their attempts to pay for it out of the graduate student stipend. Moreover, a legally recognized graduate student union will mean a significant reform in the governance structure of the university such that an necessary and powerful branch of its community will have representation and a voice on key strategic decisions. This brings us back to the crisis of the elite private university and the closing of the American mind.

At Yale, eight departmental units have voted for Local 33 to be their union and start bargaining new contracts. The university has refused to recognize this union and has refused to start bargaining. This is a “breach of their legal duties under federal law”. At Columbia, the students have voted 1602-623 in favour of unionisation, the university administration has decided to contest the election. Graduate workers at Columbia described this as “just another baseless effort by the University to ignore the democratic process”. What will the University of Chicago do to keep up with this closing of the ranks of elite private universities against the democratisation of their governance structure and the re-intellectualisation of their primary research and teaching workforce? Why can’t administrators see that a union might be a practical and feasible innovation in corporate strategy to ensure that a university can most effectively maintain its brand of being a university? What’s preventing them from entertaining such difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging thoughts about vital institutional reform in the face of grave institutional, economic and political crisis?

It is likely that the University of Chicago, along with Yale and Columbia, will employ considerable resources to delay union recognition, wait for Trump to replace Obama’s appointees in the National Labour Review Board, and so wait for graduate students to be de-recognised as workers with a right to collectively bargain. 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump, it is becoming clear that many elite private university trustees agree with him.

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On Safe Spaces

“So if someone tells us it is just to give to each what he is owed, and understands by this that a just man should harm his enemies and benefit his friends, the one who says it is not wise. I mean, what he says is not true. For it has become clear to us that it is never just to harm anyone.” Plato, Rep. I. 335e1-5

Amidst the Facebook maelstrom that accompanied the rather thoughtful and sharply precise letter sent by Dean Ellison of the University of Chicago, it was little-remarked that Plato’s Republic – the cornerstone of the Western political-philosophical tradition, a formative text for many undergraduates and professors here – begins with the violent establishment of an intellectual safe space. Indeed, Plato’s larger dialogical-philosophical project can be read as a thorough, culture-defining attempt to think through, to dramatise and vividly stage for his theatre-obsessed polis the simple question: what makes for a good conversation about the truth? What makes a conversation real? Where is it that conversations come to an end? Why do they do so? In what kind of spaces do we feel free to think? With what kinds of interlocutors can we feel out the good? What jokes, stories, poems, songs, and images do we tell each other as we try to describe to one another the indescribable truth? What compels us to talk to one another about the things that matter most? What compels us to keep silent?

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In defence of Jeremy Corbyn

“It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there, it’s not in the national interest and I would say, for heaven’s sake man, go!” David Cameron

For observers of British politics, it might not come as a surprise that the press and most of the politicians in the country have taken advantage of Brexit to launch a comprehensive assault on the very possibility of an anti-racist social democracy. There are multiple parties involved in this assault, making for a curious, yet on reflection entirely understandable, list of allies.

We had David Cameron, former Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party who by calling this referendum to resolve an intra-party dispute, had brought the very union of nations that comprises the United Kingdom into doubt. On his last outing at the Prime Minister’s Questions – an increasingly frivolous forum where one hears howls of laughter when a colleague brings up the rise in child poverty in the country – David Cameron spoke on behalf of the “national interest” to demand that the leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, resign.  “For heaven’s sake man, go.”, thundered Cameron, with cheers erupting in the hall and across the twitter feeds of English journalists. Not just journalists, but political and public figures across the political spectrum agreed. For the national interest, Jeremy Corbyn simply has to go. Cameron had honourably resigned upon losing the referendum. Why didn’t Corbyn?

Then we have much of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the group of Members of Parliament who won their seats campaigning for Labour in the last general election, but are now attempting to assert dominance over the broader Labour movement and party members who by and large prefer Corbyn to any alternative leader (Times/Yougov poll). The week after the referendum, the PLP voted 172-40 to pass a no-confidence motion in Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. Their leaders in the Shadow Cabinet (ostensibly appointed by Corbyn as an act of intra-party unity) had spent the previous weekend resigning periodically for maximum public effect. The Labour party is now in disarray. Corbyn has forced many Labour MPs to undermine their opposition to the real architects of the Brexit disaster, the Conservatives, by training their sights on him. For the national interest, for the country to have a functioning opposition the man who was apparently the cause of this disaster now has to go. For heaven’s sake, he has to go. This plea is now being seen across the British press as a question beyond narrow political concerns, a matter of basic human decency. Something to be done for the national interest. What nation are Cameron and the Parliamentary Labour Party speaking for? To what sort of nation does Jeremy Corbyn pose a threat?

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On Adolescence

A fundamental insight of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of our childhood. It is not a particularly difficult thought; does anyone remember a clear moment in their lives when they qualitatively stopped being children? When they experienced themselves as somehow distinct from how they experienced themselves as children? When they stopped being tired, hyperactive, confused, excited, desirous, angry, jealous, insecure, and arrogant? The wager of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of childhood, but only that we come to think that we have. As soon as we’ve done that, we close ourselves off to many possibilities and many of our own wishes. We become efficient but numb, perhaps even unhappy. It is at this point we might undergo therapy – to enter into a conversation with a trained analyst that might allow us to have a more honest and rich conversation with ourselves, our wishes, our pasts and our futures.

What was it like to be a child? What is it like to remain a child into one’s twenties, thirties, and forties? It was and is not to know what it is that we want, never completely knowing what it is we wish for when we wish for something. This is at once a rather convoluted but also a rather simple thought to understand. It is convoluted in that it assumes that we never really know what we want, when we think we want something, what we really want is something else that the first something stands for. It is simple because if one stops and thinks about it, that simply is how one comes to want and then not want things. Why am I in the mood for pizza one night and not another? When did I know that I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer? Why did I fall in love with this person and not someone else? Why did this relationship stop working? When did I realise I wanted to change careers? Why did I think I was ready to move? Why did I want that at that particular time? As soon as one puts these questions to one’s life, or to anyone else’s life, one finds that the answers sooner or later run out. “Because I just did.”

Psychoanalytic accounts of the mind pay close attention to these moments, the times when all one can say is “I just did that, I can’t quite say why. It was the right thing to do really.” The wager of psychoanalysis is that if one thinks about this moment long enough, and if one continues to describe and redescribe the process in which one came to want something through freely associating all of the thoughts, dreams, and intentions one had in the past – one will understand and be able to give some account of that wish. This account would be retrospective and incomplete by necessity. It would be structured by yet another wish that we are unaware of in the moment of reconstruction, but will come to the surface at a later point in our lives. We are always running behind the bus of our desires. Like bus schedules, our wishes are inexplicable to us. Yet they structure our actions – our actions make our wishes manifest to some extent, and the wishes become somewhat explicable. In their new explicability we find a new excitement and sense of power over ourselves.

“When I was finding myself in friendships with people who cheerfully abused me and took me for granted, I was merely repeating the friendships I had made in high school, and those friendships resembled my relationship with my best friend in primary school who constantly teased me excessively but seemed at the time to be the most dazzling personality I’d ever met… all this time I’ve been looking for his approval and didn’t know it!”

I was doing something knowable this whole time and I didn’t know it. The excitement of psychoanalysis lies in the thought, as Adam Phillips puts it, that we “suffer from a surfeit of meaningful intentions.” There’s so much thought and meaning put into every single one of our actions, our mistakes, our gestures, our laughs, our turn-ons that we can only be aware of a part of it at any point of time.

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Corbyn’s in the Thick of It*

It’s hard to estimate quickly or accurately the impact of a TV series on a political culture. But given how comment is free these days, I’d like to take a moment to argue that “The Thick of It” perhaps laid the cultural ground for a grassroots labour/left movement to take power back from the New Labour idiocrats. In its first run, Iannucci’s series marvelously described the Alastair Campbell method of government to much critical acclaim and, I think, to some popular enthusiasm. After all, it was brought back three more times in the coming years to address the ever-more cynical turns in the Brown years and of course, the Con-Dem coalition. What was the style of government that the series so effectively satirized and thus inadvertently inspired the Corbyn campaign this summer?

The Alastair Campbell recipe for good, “communitarian” government:  try to say and do what you think the press wants you to say or do, and if they disagree, quickly change what it is you said and did and bully, cajole, confuse them into agreeing with you shortly – or at least, not disagreeing. As a politician in The Thick of It (TTOI), and in Blair’s cabinet, you have to be on top of the “narrative” – a chant of ephemeral truisms by the paid commentariat which seems reasonable enough insofar as it generates the impression of a thousand heads nodding at once. Viewers of The Thick of It and attentive followers of British politics soon realise that these heads are all nodding off.

The narrative. As Ian Martin (writer and swearing consultant for the show) argues in his recent op-ed, for Blair’s cabinet, ruling meant hewing as closely to the opinion polls in every policy, using statistically significant focus groups to ensure that any new policy would go “down well”, and fundamentally, saying whatever you need to say to stay in power. Of course all politicians have done this throughout history, Corbyn is doing it now too, insofar as he thinks he knows what to say to get people to vote for him. I don’t think he does, people just want someone, anyone, who isn’t a second-rate telemarketer to be their leader.  What enraged Martin and Iannucci, to the point that they created this masterpiece – was simply how empty, sad, and nihilistically destructive Campbell’s approach was to the British public sphere. Campbell, Blair, and the Fleet Street editors had apparently decided that the big questions in politics were over, history had ended and so had politics – what was left was spectacle: scandal, “effectiveness”, making a statement, looking presidential.

It’s hard to describe Campbell and Blair’s impact on the public debate without going into a vicious fury at the needless damage done, perhaps as Iannucci and Martin did in writing the glorious curses in the show, but one could start by hazarding a contrast with the great British political satire of the 1980s: Yes Minister. The civil servant and the minister in the show share many agreeable conversations over glasses of port in fine mahogany-panelled rooms as they try to negotiate the demands of their party, their consciences, and the rules. The tone is always congenial, and the insights of the civil servant (the unforgettable Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne) approach but never quite reach the quality of universal truths of the human condition. Their conversations and repartee, their failures and successes, describe a polity that is understandable and debatable – a political establishment that knows its faults, preserves them, works around them, and sometimes, despite itself, even addresses them.

TTOI by contrast presents a maelstrom of contradictory orders within 3-member departmental teams, botched press announcements, threats, anger, violence, and shining mediocrity (pl. the Westminster class) that is rather proud of what it is capable of. Their conversations, obsessed with whether a policy follows a party line and whether that party line reflects well on the party in the press, present a political world for which society is unknowable and unchangeable. The best we can do is get the opinion polls and try to announce a brand new policy that makes everyone happy and costs nothing. Most government plans are half-baked and rescinded once the news of their ineptitude has quickly spread – the writers are at pains to make clear that the press, Westminster, and perhaps Whitehall have little understanding of the issues that affect modern Britain, the days of the wise and wry Sir Humphrey Appleby are, alas, long gone.

It has been about ten years since the first season of TTOI. If at least some of the Corbyn-maniacs haven’t seen the show and been convinced of the need for a revolution in how Britain does politics then I, like Alastair Campbell before me, will eat my kilt. For instance, many on social media quickly leapt upon Ed Miliband’s sagacious move to set his promises in stone thus giving the world a half-memorable tombstone for a rather forgettable candidacy, as an incident straight out of TTOI: hopeless leader, ravenous press and all. News this week that the Department of Work and Pensions fabricated success stories in its leaflet on sanctions for benefit claimants could very well be a plot point from Iannucci’s show too. What Iannucci and his team of writers intuitively understood, and what the reasonable center of Labour don’t understand right now, is that this kind of petulant, showy disregard for the concerns of the people and for the patent truth is unsustainable. I think The Thick of It made the argument that this method of government – and this kind of journalism – is not only unsustainable, but fundamentally illegitimate. As it permeated the public consciousness through the notorious “left-wing” BBC – whose political creativity is bound to be circumscribed by future governments – the media and political class laughed uproariously at themselves (much as they have laughed at Corbyn’s leadership bid all summer), not realising that they too might soon find themselves in, well, the thick of it.

*This post was an attempt at a kind of humour. Its serious point, whatever it was – was developed, or perhaps repeated, from this insightful post by Timothy Burke on Sanders,Trump, and Corbyn.

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Syriza and the Burial of Hector

Homer’s Iliad concludes with a singularly affecting scene of reconciliation. Priam, king of defeated Troy and father to dead Hector, makes his way to the enemy camp and surprises all-powerful Achilles by falling to his knees and kissing the hands “that were dangerous and manslaughtering and had killed so many of his sons.” (XXIV. 478-480). No one can quite believe it.

“As when dense disaster closes on one who has murdered

a man in his own land, and he comes to the country of others,

to a man of substance, and wonder seizes upon those who behold him,

so Achilles wondered as he looked on Priam, a godlike

man, and the rest of them wondered also, and looked at each other.” (XXIV. 480-484).

The Trojans and the Greeks have fought a cataclysmic war – one which promises to be remembered for thousands of years. Out of anguish at the loss of his beloved Patroclus, Achilles has killed the best Trojan warriors, among them their champion, Priam’s son – a favourite of Zeus – Hector. Still unable to come to terms with his loss and unable to sleep:

“in longing for Patroclus, for his manhood and his great strength

and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships

he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters…”

Achilles, crying, further desecrates Hector’s corpse, to punish the already dead murderer of Patroclus: dragging it around his campsite in a chariot. It is unclear what Achilles is thinking as he does this, it seems a mindless act of grief. Homer describes it as a “standing fury” (XXIV. 23).

Priam has lost his dearest son and his city is destroyed: his “wish is to go sooner down to the house of the death god.” (XXIV.246). Achilles too has lost everything in Patroclus. He is in a state of blind fury, capable of anything, all-powerful in the narrative. Imagine how much you have to have lost to be ready to supplicate the murderer of your son. Not just any murderer but Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks.

Narrating this scene, Homer adds wonder upon wonder. Everyone looks at each other in shock at the sight of the aged Priam on his knees like a servant to Achilles. Once Priam finishes his opening speech, Achilles breaks into tears and weeps “for his father, now again for Patroclus” (XXIV.510-511). They cry so loudly that “the sound of their mourning” moves through the house (XXIV.512). Achilles calls on Patroclus to forgive him for returning Hector and thus pardoning him in some way. Priam and Achilles are holding hands and crying out loudly for their dead comrades. A deep sympathy holds them close and they tenderly care for each other. Achilles reminds Priam to eat, and the two great warriors dine together after having earlier lost a taste for food in their grief. As they finish, they continue to look at each other in silence, admiring each other’s bravery, listening to one another’s words (XXIV.632-4).

Priam knows well – as Hector mentions in book VI to his wife and child – that the Trojans will soon be taken captive and the city itself will be lost, doomed to be remembered solely in the form of verse. But of Achilles, the greatest of these victorious Greeks, he gently asks for a bed to get some rest (XXIV. 637-8). Achilles, in turn, promises Priam that he will hold back his people for as many days as is necessary for an honourable burial of Hector (XXIV. 657-658). Another moment of wonder for the listener. A truce that is offered by the one who insulted Hector’s corpse to honour the very same man himself? An enemy king being offered a bed to sleep in and guaranteed safety in a hostile camp?

It is striking that the one of the greatest war epics ends with the funeral of the slain antagonist. It is even more striking that the funeral is made possible by a touching and extraordinary, indeed divine, reconciliation between the victors and the vanquished – between the all-powerful and the powerless, between Achilles and Priam. Achilles needed to grieve with Priam so that he could mourn appropriately his own loss. Seeing Priam’s grief for Hector mirrored in his own grief for Patroclus made him recognise the importance of a fair burial for his enemy. He came to see the importance of letting something go so that he and his enemy’s family can continue to live. The wrath which is sung in the opening lines is finally laid to rest in Achilles’ relinquishing of Hector’s corpse. It is only in mourning with a wise and powerless king who similarly is distraught at losing his loved-one that Achilles’ wrath subsides and he is able to rest once more. Taking Priam’s wrist to give him comfort, reminds Achilles of the comfort of loving again. Shortly after doing so, he goes to bed, Briseis at his side (XXIV. 671-676).


Why did Homer end his magnificent epic with such a remarkable scene of reconciliation? When Troy is about to be smashed apart, why did Homer give such a voice, and such indispensability to Priam – as the singular mediator, the only possible event, that could give Achilles succour from his grief? I can’t possibly do these questions justice in a brief post, but I think he caught onto something it is well worth keeping in mind as we consider the happenings in the EU today. Concluding the Iliad this way, Homer reminds us that power exercised in pure vengeance, without regard for the humanity of the antagonist is worthless, shameful. Just because the Trojans were defeated and Priam was unarmed does not mean that he deserves to be killed on sight. Achilles treats him with the respect he would give his own father: he relents on his unreasonable demand to continue to desecrate this enemy corpse, he offers him shelter, offers him terms which allow a glorious burial for his loved-one’s murderer, takes the hand of Priam. Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, acts not to eliminate the possibility of Trojan dissent once and for all in killing Priam there and then – but treats him nobly, as family.

If I have any advice that might be worth heeding by the Eurogroup’s democratically elected leaders and their electorates, it is this. Read book XXIV of the Iliad. Please understand that punitive power will do no good, and that the humanity of your putative antagonist is well worth respecting at whatever trivial costs or adjustments that you will have to make. See Tsipras with the affection and sympathy that Achilles grants Priam. It sounds unreasonable and impossible. How hard do you think it would have been for Achilles at the height of his grief to see the father of his loved-one’s killer?

Priam, king of a soon-to-be-devastated land, only asks for dignity and some say in how the devastation shall proceed. Since 2010, the austerity imposed on Greece – and not just Greece, but also the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Latvia, many of the EU member states – has been the equivalent of dragging a corpse around by a chariot to satisfy an overpowering grudge. I understand that many are uncomfortable with the war metaphors used by Syriza and other commentators. I use them because like wars, they describe unnecessary collective suffering and death imposed by the good will and intentions of the few.

Austerity has failed comprehensively. This is easy to see in Greece where a quarter of the people are unemployed. Government cuts on all public healthcare have led to a resurgence in malaria. Greece has lost 25% of its GDP under the governance of the Troika. Writing in The Nation, Sarah Leonard reports the following:

 “A third live below the poverty line; 300,000 are without electricity. About 800,000 people lack health coverage. Infant mortality shot up 43 percent between 2008 and 2011.”

On the Troika’s own terms, with its plan to reduce Greece’s debt, “the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 115% to 165%”.

Unlike Achilles, who understood that he needed to relent in his punishment of Hector’s corpse, the Troika refuse to take responsibility. As Waldman notes:

“When the levee broke, instead of acknowledging errors and working to address them as a community, Europe’s elites — its politicians and civil servants, its bankers and financiers — deflected the blame in the worst possible way. They turned a systemic problem of financial architecture into a dispute between European nations.”

The Troika has made no plausible economic argument for the conditions that they seek to impose on Greece. Commenting on the variety of economists from different schools who have thoughtfully criticised the Troika’s policies, Munchau in today’s FT notes that: “there is no reputable economic theory according to which an economy which has experienced an eight-year-long depression requires a new round of austerity to bring about adjustment”. To turn to another moderate Greek political economist, Aristotle, this lack of plausible argument fails the necessary conditions of a human community.

“Speech is for making clear what is beneficial or harmful, and hence also what is just or unjust. For it is peculiar to human beings, in comparison to other animals, that they alone have perception of what is good or bad, just or unjust, and the rest. And it is community in these that makes a household and a city-state.” (Politics I. 2. 1253a15-18).

The European leadership more generally, the heads of states and their respective political parties, have imposed a rather foolish austerity on their own electorates, and the possibility of a better deal going to one of their fellow peoples (the Greeks) has caused a kind of resentment against Syriza which is quite out of proportion to the situation (suggested to me here: ). This is a systemic problem and will require a fundamental change in economic policy not just for the Greeks, but for all of Europe.


The Greek vote for OXI (No) today has not been for an exit from the European community, much less the European Monetary Union. It has been a rejection of a failed and largely incoherent economic agenda. The Greeks have bravely demanded that Europe can collectively work out a settlement that can simply ensure some kind of sustainable economic growth across the board. Syriza is a coalition composed largely of former Communists and other radical-leftist groups in Greece, but its demands are quite capitalist, and in that sense, quite conservative. It does not want to leave the Euro; it merely wants an economic plan which stimulates economic growth rather than needlessly depress it. If you listen closely to Varoufakis’ last interview before his resignation this morning, you will note that he only seeks proposals that are viable, not redistributive. No rational business can invest in Greece if the threat of default hangs in the near-term future. Tsipras’ insistence and promise of a new deal within 48 hours, a time period that has already begun, signals his willingness to “save capitalism from itself” (as Varoufakis put it in a famous talk).

The clock is ticking. The intellectual bankruptcy of the EU leadership’s economic argument is evident to everyone but themselves. Aware of its weak bargaining position, Syriza has repeatedly proven itself willing to make significant concessions to ensure some kind of moderate-Keynesian deal. A lack of prudence and statesmanship, a lack of awareness of the nobility that must be exercised by the powerful has prevented the Troika from acting justly and also successfully, handing Syriza easy ideological and moral victories in its cartoonish intransigence.


Socrates’ wager in the Republic was that:

“no one in any position of rule, to the extent that he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous for his subject- that on which he practices his craft….” (Rep. I. 342e6-10).

It is for the enterprising reader of the Republic to determine whether he succeeded. Inasmuch as he wished for the city that he made in speech to be taken as a model for anyone “who wishes to look at it and to found himself on the basis of what he sees…” (Rep. IX.582b2-5), perhaps the current crop of politicians can find a rather old model. May they learn from the Greeks the necessity of collective deliberation for successful democratic politics, the respect and dignity accorded to one’s antagonist which makes one whole, the prudence and intelligence to be a statesman who delivers prosperity on the basis of truth rather than a demagogue and rhetorician who offers flickering shadows in a cave.


Postscript: This was written on July 5, in the heat of the moment shortly after the referendum. A week is a long time in politics and if the leaked document linked here is correct, and if I am understanding it correctly (both rather extravagant premisses that the charitable reader must grant) it appears that Syriza’s proposal to the Eurogroup is a rather comprehensive capitulation to the demands of Ordoliberal austerity: privatisation, breaking trade unions, and cutting already meager pensions. This is not what the Greeks voted for. Unlike Priam of Troy, perhaps they had not realised that they were defeated. Tsipras will bring about an honourable burial just yet, and Merkel herself might allow him to do so with a generous “humanitarian aid” package. An Iliadic ending would be just this: a funeral.

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Mo’ Diversity, Mo’ Problems

TV Review: Fresh off the Boat
Premiered February 4, 2015 on ABC

I watched the pilot of “Fresh off the Boat” with apprehension, and it was disappointing. Sure, there were some poignant scenes like the bully teasing Eddie about his chow mien lunch, and how his parents stood up for him before the principal of the school when Eddie was called a “chink,” but Eddie Huang’s on-screen family bore numerous other frustrating inaccuracies.The polished look of the mother with impeccable makeup and outfits, along with her not-quite-right Chinese accent, and the lack of any accent at all on the father’s end didn’t quite click in my mind. Scenes like the juxtaposition between the mother and her rollerskating suburban plastics made me cringe, and my suspension of disbelief wasn’t strong enough to overrule the casual, conversational references made to American personalities (sure, a kid who adores Biggie might make constant allusions to the rapper, but his immigrant parents from another culture certainly wouldn’t drop something like “that’s so like a sluttier Madonna”). Not to mention the terribly spoken Mandarin on the show. However, thankfully, the show grew on me and the second episode was much better than the first. I was especially won over by the contrast between the tiger mother and the father wearing rose-colored lenses, where Constance Wu’s character’s stereotypical Asian stinginess and strict parenting clash with Randall Park’s character’s romanticism, rooted in his faith in the American dream and the goodness of people.

An aside: my thoughts on the accuracy of “FOB” come with a caveat, since Eddie Huang’s experience wasn’t quite my own. I can identify with some of the experiences portrayed in the show, but coming from a part of the US where Asian Americans are pretty dominant (the SF Bay Area), I certainly do not fully understand being the token Asian in a white community. So I leave some wiggle room in my judgement for those whose experiences might have more fully mirrored that of Eddie’s.

As referenced above, “FOB” is based off Eddie Huang’s memoir, reflective of his life as a first generation Taiwanese American, growing up in Florida with parents who struggled to keep their restaurant afloat. Since the show is clearly representing his situation, it is interesting to see what he thinks of it. His first reaction is that it is horribly inaccurate as well:

I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?

However, his opinion evolves:
After 18 months of back and forth, I had crossed a threshold and become the audience. I wasn’t the auteur, the writer, the actor, or the source material. I was the viewer, and I finally understood it. This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble right now. You can’t flash an ad during THE GAME with some chubby Chinese kid running across the screen talking shit about spaceships and Uncle Chans in 2014 because America has no reference….

… It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. Those three minutes are the holy trinity Melvin, Randall, Constance, Hudson, Forrest, Ian, and I sacrificed everything for. Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word. We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad…

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