Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tiger President?

It may be mere coincidence but the central tenet of President Obama's State of the Union address last week--we must compete in the global marketplace!--found an uncanny echo in the viral controversy surrounding Amy Chua's bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Not that Mr. No-Drama resembled in tone the psychopathic Ms. Chua, or that his eminently sensible prescriptions verged as hers do into the abusive or deranged. And yet, as Elizabeth Kolbert cannily observes in her New Yorker review of Chua's screed, all the to-do about Tiger Mothering may well stem from displaced anxiety about America's declining global fortunes. And if the success of Chua's draconian methods rests on the slender shoulders of her two young daughters, America's future, our President tells us, depends on the competitive abilities of our national offspring.

But does it?

Surrounded by his honor guard of corporate advisors, Obama clearly pitched his message
to a business-minded audience for whom merit-based reward is a pleasing message. Likewise Chua's bizarre ideas escaped into the internet via her op-ed abstract in the Wall Street Journal. Both play on the idea that good things come to those who work hardest--we earned that million-dollar bonus, that acceptance to Harvard. We paid the price. While Chua's social model is a steep-sided pyramid, with herself and her daughters at the apex, so is Obama's a thinly disguised brief for widening social inequality.

But what if the good society rests on other values? What if the well-being or quality of life indexes that a few economists are trying to craft would show that the engine that drives us toward the highest levels of satisfaction, personal and collective, has more to do with solidarity, belief in the collective enterprise, concern for the least advantaged, and less to do with the cultivation of exceptionally talented, 'creative' (and highly paid) individuals? While it is easy to measure the productive effects of creative entrepreneurs like Gates or Jobs, who can measure the demoralizing effects of gigantic Wall Street bonuses? Highly visible, unmerited earnings by the 'winners' in our Tiger economy are profoundly corrosive of public ethics, and the widespread demoralization that results is massively unproductive--just visit any standard workplace, where the talk turns more often than not to ways to game the retirement system in one's favor.

All of which is not an argument against teaching math more effectively in our schools, but it might question the use of competitive exams as a measure of our educational successes. Rather than worrying that those children in Shanghai-or Estonia!--will eat our children's lunches, we should encourage them to think collaboratively about how nutritious lunches might be afforded to children everywhere. I don't expect that sentiment would earn the respect of the crazed Ms. Chua, but I had hoped to hear something more like it from Mr. Hope.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Toward a durable, peaceful people's struggle ...

Back in the heady days of October, when the French high school students were joining older students and workers in the streets and a wave of protest was spreading across most of western Europe, a tract appeared, calling for "une guérilla sociale durable et pacifique." Now that wave of protest has evaporated like the bubbles in last night's champagne--just as the tract's author, a sociologist and activist named Philippe Corcuff, had predicted. In fact the whole premise of his manifesto was that the movement, rather than grow into the general strike that some were calling for, would dissipate as the Toussaint vacation intervened and the pension reform inevitably became law.

But although the issue of France's retirement age is settled for the moment, and the students are back in school, the larger questions that engaged protestors not just in France but in London and Athens, Barcelona, Dublin, Lisbon, and everywhere else where austerity policies are in the works, those questions are still very much with us. Here in the US as well, as a retrograde Congress takes office tomorrow, the politics of social regression are occupying center stage. In that context it was interesting to see that Corcuff renewed his call in an interview published just last week, long after all the chants and marches had faded away.

What is this "peaceful guerilla" that Corcuff proposes in lieu of a general strike? It is not one movement but many, protean, serial but persistent. It implies a climate of resistance that would maintain the momentum of the mass marches without imagining that such large-scale mobilizations can be sustained indefinitely, or that they are ready to grow into something more confrontational, e.g. the general strike. Local strikes, political theater, even civil disobedience--a checkerwork of such actions is what Corcuff imagines that will maintain the spirit of resistance to Sarkozy's politics of retrenchment and the gradual wearing away of the social security systems.

And why just in France? As the problem of increasing inequality and diminished resources for ordinary citizens manifests itself variously in all the advanced economies, might not the varied forms of resistance reinforce one another to produce a global "guérilla durable et pacifique"? After all, the financial class at the root of the problem has long since globalized itself. So even here in the reactionary hub of the Empire, resistance of any sort might add to the greater momentum sustained by countries such as France, Greece, even the UK. Such a perspective could be heartening to an American left that feels increasingly constrained by its rear-guard action against Mr. Yes-We-Can, the bankers' friend. Gestures of solidarity with the foreclosed, the unemployed, with immigrants and retirees without pensions--these ongoing, small, hardly visible but persistent efforts may be our national contribution to that larger struggle.