A good friend of mine, a Kiwi, sent me an update on Jacinda Ardern’s priorities for action in New Zealand. It’s known there as a “Wellbeing Budget.”
* Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.
* Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities.
* Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence.
* Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.
* Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.
I know: New Zealand is a small country on the other side of the world; a superpower like the United States has nothing to learn from Kiwis, right?
What struck me about these priorities is, well, that New Zealand has some. That they’re clear and concise and focused on well-being for children and teenagers and families. That they address poverty. And that climate change isn’t forgotten (“sustainable” and “low-emissions” economy).
What about America’s great leader, Donald Trump? What are his priorities for national well-being? Near as I can tell, these are Trump’s priorities:
1. Enriching himself and his family.
2. Avoiding impeachment, or exploiting it if he is impeached.
3. Getting reelected.
4. More golf.
5. Screwing anyone who resists him.
What about issues like “build the wall”? I don’t think Trump cares whether the wall is built; it’s merely a convenient issue to exploit as he rallies his base. What about ending access to abortion? Again, I don’t think Trump cares about this issue, except as it energizes a key component of his base. What about appointing lots of conservative justices and judges? Again, Trump cares only in the sense that such judges and justices will rule in a way that upholds his privileges.
My Kiwi friend’s list got me to reflect on the lack of consensus for action in the USA today among our “leaders”/politicians. (Well, there is bipartisan support for enormous military budgets, but that’s about it.) Put differently, most Americans express support for single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the richest Americans, climate-friendly policies, and so on, but our bought-and-paid-for politicians act against the people’s wishes.
Various power brokers may laugh at Trump’s vanities and object to his vulgarity and his selfishness and greed, but they also abet him because he serves to divide people while protecting elite privileges against reformers like Bernie Sanders.
I know one thing: the answer isn’t Joe Biden or any other DNC-approved candidate. The answer is a movement that unites behind a candidate that actually cares for people like us, someone like Bernie Sanders. Short of that, well-being will be in very short supply in America’s future.
How far we’ve come as a country. Consider the following proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for Memorial Day in 1955:
“Whereas Memorial Day each year serves as a solemn reminder of the scourge of war and its bitter aftermath of sorrow; and Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land… I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Monday, the thirtieth of May, 1955, as a day of Nation-wide prayer for permanent peace.”
Permanent peace? What was that hippie peacenik president smoking?
I find it remarkable that talk of peace in America has almost completely disappeared from our public discourse. Permanent war is instead seen as inevitable, the price of confronting evildoers around the world.
Yes, I know Ike’s record as president wasn’t perfect. But compared to today’s presidents, whether Barack “Kill List” Obama or Donald “Make Genocidal Threats” Trump, Ike was positively pacific.
Memorial Day, as Ike said, is a time for us all to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died for this country. But it’s also a time, as Ike said, to work to eliminate the scourge of war. For the best way to honor our war dead is to work to ensure their ranks aren’t expanded.
Sadly, as Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich notes at TomDispatch.com, those ranks do keep expanding. The names of our latest war dead are memorialized on a little-known wall in Marseilles, Illinois (including the name of Bacevich’s son, who died serving in Iraq). Like Ike, Bacevich knows the costs of war, and like Ike he’s not taken in by patriotic talk about noble sacrifices for “freedom.” As he puts it:
Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Those are strong words that all Americans should consider this Memorial Day weekend. As we consider them, let’s also recall Ike’s 1955 prayer for peace. And, even better, let’s act on it.
Read the rest of Andrew Bacevich’s article here at TomDispatch.
William Westmoreland (“Westy”) looked like a general should, and that was part of the problem. Tall, handsome, square-jawed, he carried himself rigidly; there was no slouching for Westy. A go-getter, a hard-charger, he did everything necessary to get promoted. He was a product of the Army, a product of a system that began at West Point during World War II and ended with four stars and command in Vietnam during the most critical years of that war (1965-68). His unimaginative and mediocre performance in a losing effort said (and says) much about that system.
I had these thoughts as I read Lewis Sorley’s devastating biography of Westy, recommended to me by a good friend. (Thanks, Paul!) Before tackling the big stuff about Westy, the Army, and Vietnam, I’d like to focus on little things that stayed with me as I read the book.
Visiting West Point as the Army’s Chief of Staff, Westy met the new First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. Westy thought this cadet wasn’t quite tall enough to be First Captain. It made me wonder whether Napoleon might have won Waterloo if he’d been as tall as Westy.
Westy loved uniforms and awards. Sporting an impressive array of ribbons, badges, devices, and the like, his busy uniform was consistent with his concern for outward show, for image and action over substance and meaning.
Westy tended to focus on the trivial. He’d visit lower commands and ask junior officers whether the troops were getting their mail (vital for morale, he thought). He’d ask narrow technical questions about mortars versus artillery performance. He was a details man in a position that required a much broader sweep of mind.
Westy liked to doodle, including drawing the rank of a five-star general. He arguably saw himself as destined to this rank, following in the hallowed steps of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley.
Westy never attended professional military education (PME), such as the Army War College, and he showed little interest in books. He was incurious and rather proud of it.
Interestingly, Sorley cites another general who argued Westy’s career should have ended as a regimental colonel. Others believed he served adequately as a major general in command of a division. Above this rank, Westy was, some of his fellow officers agreed, out his depth.
Sorley depicts Westy as an unoriginal and conventional thinker for a war that was unconventional and complex. Bewildered by Vietnam, Westy fell back to what he (and the Army) knew best: massive firepower, search and destroy tactics, and made-up metrics like “body count” as measures of “success.” He tried to win a revolutionary war using a strategy of attrition, paying little attention to political dimensions. For example, he shunted the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) to the side while giving them inferior weaponry to boot.
Another personal weakness: Westy didn’t respond well to criticism. When General Douglas Kinnard published his classic study of the Vietnam War, “The War Managers,” which surveyed senior officers who’d served in Vietnam, Westy wanted him to tattle on those officers who’d objected to his pursuit of body count. (Kinnard refused.)
Sorley identifies Westmoreland as the general who lost Vietnam, and there’s truth in that. Deeply flawed, Westy’s strategy was fated to fail. Yet even the most skilled American general may have lost in Vietnam. Consider here the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of 1964. He told McGeorge Bundy “It looks to me like we’re getting’ into another Korea…I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess…What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?…What is it worth to this country?” [Quoted in Robert Dallek, “Three New Revelations About LBJ,” The Atlantic, April 1998]
McGeorge Bundy himself, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, said to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that committing large numbers of U.S. troops to Vietnam was “rash to the point of folly.” In October 1964 his brother William Bundy, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, said in a confidential memorandum that Vietnam was “A bad colonial heritage of long standing…a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent—these are the facts that dog us today.”
Not worth fighting for, rash to the point of folly: Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam when the cause was arguably lost before the troops were committed? Traditional answers include the containment of communism, the domino theory, American overconfidence, and so forth, but perhaps there was a larger purpose to the “folly.”
What was that larger purpose? I recall a “letter to the editor” that I clipped from a newspaper years ago. Echoing a critique made by Noam Chomsky,** this letter argued America’s true strategic aim in Vietnam was to prevent Vietnam’s independent social and economic development; to subjugate and/or subordinate Vietnam and its resources to the whims of Western corporations and investors. Winning on the battlefield was less important than winning in the global marketplace. Vietnam would send a loud signal to other countries that, if you tried to chart your own course independent of American interests, you’d end up like Vietnam, a battlefield, a wasteland.
For sure, Westy lost on the battlefield. But did U.S. economic interests triumph globally due to his punishment of Vietnam and the intimidation it established? How compelling, how coercive, were such interests? Think of Venezuela today as it attempts to chart an independent course. Think of U.S. interest in subordinating Venezuela and its reserves of oil to the agendas of Western investors and corporations. There are trillions of dollars to be made here, not just from oil, but by preserving the strength of the petrodollar. (The U.S. dollar’s value is propped up by global oil sales done in dollars, as vouchsafed by leading oil producers like Saudi Arabia. Venezuela has acted against the petrodollar standard.)
Westy was the wrong man for Vietnam, but he was also a fall guy for a doomed war. He and the U.S. military did succeed, however, in visiting a level of destruction on that country that sent a message to those who contemplated resisting Western economic demands. Westy may have been a lousy general, but perhaps he was the perfect message boy for economic interests that prospered more by destruction and intimidation than by traditional victory of arms.
**For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world. As General Smedley Butler said, sometimes generals are economic hit men, even when they don’t know it.
As a general rule, it’s a lot easier in U.S. politics to sell a war as containing or defeating communist aggression (or radical Islamic terrorism in the case of Iran, or ruthless dictators in the cases of Iraq and Libya) than it is for economic interests and the profits of powerful multinational corporations. For the average grunt, “Remember Exxon-Mobil!” isn’t much of a battle-cry.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961. He had wanted to add Congress as a key player in and contributor to the Complex, but why alienate Congress, he decided, when he was already taking on the military, industry, and universities/research labs. Ike did his best to rein in the Complex while he was president, but since then it has galloped freely under the not-so-steady hands of subsequent presidents.
Recently, I re-read a diatribe about the Complex that appeared a decade after Ike’s farewell speech. “Playing Soldier” is its title, written by Frank Getlein, a journalist for the Washington Star (1961-76). His critique, sadly, is even more relevant today than it was in 1971.
Here are six insights from Getlein:
Military veterans, Getlein suggests, are not “pushovers for the panic approach from the Pentagon” because “They have seen it all from the inside. They know that the military machine is a fraud, that the military mind is deliberately deluded most of the time, that the military capacity for incompetence is infinite. They know all these things and they have suffered because of them.”
Getlein says America’s wars are “Like the amoeba, they go on forever because they have no form.” To illustrate this argument, he tackles the war of his day, Vietnam:
“Like soap opera, the Vietnam war is endless and hard to follow … Characters come and go, like joint chiefs moving in from the field and out to retirement, or like commanders in chief, for that matter, explaining that their only desire is to get our boys back but we have to keep our boys over there in order to protect our boys who are over there. It’s the same language, the same incredibly circular reasoning that follows doomed heroines every day from career triumphs to mysterious ailments to adulterous temptations. There is no more reason to imagine the war in Indochina will end than ‘Edge of Night’ or ‘The Secret Storm’ will end. All three have within them the seeds of immortality.”
Noting America’s linguistic turn to deny wars, referring to them instead as “police actions” (Korea), “advisory services” (Vietnam), and “incursions” (Cambodia), Getlein notes “We have thus eliminated wars completely except for the people who have to fight them and the people who have to suffer them being fought across their fields, through their villages, and over their dead bodies.”
Getlein notes the emergence of a national security state as a fourth branch of government, one characterized by a hidebound bureaucracy that wages war ineffectively due to its inherent inflexibility, but one that is also deeply socialistic. Indeed, he cites “the biggest triumph of Creeping Socialism yet [is] its all but complete takeover of military procurement.” The national security state represents a “vast” system of “socialist disbursement of federal funds,” all in the nebulous cause of “defense” rather than for the older, more focused, cause of war. From this rigged socialistic process, predictable results ensue, including “shoddy” quality of materiel and “amazing escalation” in costs.
Worst of all, according to Getlein, is that “The purposes of the state have been subsumed in the purposes of the military establishment.” While the military is supposed to exist to defend the state, defending the military and its power and prerogatives has become the new priority, synonymous with the health of the state in a process that is antithetical to democracy.
In an amusing passage, Getlein suggests America has “become a military state out of the sheer [selective] incompetence of the military”:
“They [the generals] come before us … and confess, more or less annually, that the problems they are paid to handle are beyond their handling and therefore they need more of everything: more men, more rank, more science, more research, more think tankers, more paper condottiere, and, always and everywhere, more money. Like some hopeless, drunken uncle, they seduce us by their inability to make anything work and come around every year to pick up the handout and blackmail us into raising the ante. The American soul has always been a soft touch for a hard luck story, but surely this is the first time … when the panhandler, down on his luck, was invited in to run the show.”
“War may be hell, but peace is no bargain either, from the point of view of a military man,” Getlein wittily notes. The solution is “Permawar,” or permanent war, of which Vietnam was an early example. Whereas many Americans saw Vietnam as an “utter failure,” it was a telling success for the military-industrial complex, Getlein argues, given its vast expenditures and long duration for what was advertised initially as a “brush-fire war.” “Future possibilities of Permawar exist,” Getlein notes, “in the Middle East, in Africa, and, most of all at the moment, in Latin America.” (He mentions Chile; today we’d say Venezuela. And who can ignore the Trump administration’s saber-rattling with Iran and across the Middle East today?)
Even without actual shooting wars, however, Getlein notes how Permawar will continue “without respite or truce in the think tanks, the executive offices and the congressional hearing rooms. The real Permawar is the one of ever-new, more elaborate, more lethal, more expensive, more absolutely essential, weapons systems.”
The result of militarized socialism, socialized militarism, and Permawar? “Our country has become a military dictatorship in its own peculiar American way.” Frank Getlein wrote that sentence toward the end of the Vietnam war. What he said back then is even more accurate today.
Addendum 1: From the Kirkus Review of Getlein’s “Playing Soldier” in 1971:
An entertaining blitzkrieg on creeping or galloping militarism in America. According to journalist-commentator Getlein it began after World War II when the “cheery and modest, honest and limited” War Department was rebaptized the Defense Department thereby acquiring “a permanent all-season hunting license with no place out of bounds.” The inventive Americans outdid themselves acquiring a “nonprofit empire” just as the colony biz was becoming obsolete. Learn how Vietnam is a spectacular success as a “permawar” designed not to work. Meet the paper condottieri, the “contemplative military” (Kahn and Kissinger) who subsist on hypotheses. (“What if the Russians or the Chinese . . . come up with the incredible new weapon of knocking off edges of the moon and so timing the knockoffs that the eastern half of the United States can be thickly covered with moondust?”) Getlein is here to show you how the Pentagon has ‘gone Red’ via non-competitive, no-bidding contract letting under the insufficiently vigilant nose of Reverend Carl MacIntyre, yet. But don’t be fooled by the author’s avowal that Vietnam is “not moral tragedy but slapstick farce.” His true mentors are C. Wright Mills and George Orwell and the caricature, through a glass darkly, of a hardening “crypto-military dictatorship,” is razor-edged.
Addendum 2: A Recent Description of the Pentagon and the Complex (MIC)
“The Pentagon Syndrome,” Harper’s, May 15, 2019 (“The Military-Industrial Virus:
How bloated defense budgets gut our armed forces,” by Andrew Cockburn)
“This entire process, whereby spending growth slows and is then seemingly automatically regenerated, raises an intriguing possibility: that our military-industrial complex has become, in [Chuck] Spinney’s words, a “living organic system” with a built-in self-defense reflex that reacts forcefully whenever a threat to its food supply—our money—hits a particular trigger point. The implications are profound, suggesting that the MIC is embedded in our society to such a degree that it cannot be dislodged, and also that it could be said to be concerned, exclusively, with self-preservation and expansion, like a giant, malignant virus.”
Addendum 3: Every Democratic Senator Supported Trump’s Vast Military Budget in 2018
Senators voted 93-7 for the Pentagon’s $674 billion spending bill in 2018. The seven Senators who voted against: six Republicans and Bernie Sanders (Independent). Military dictatorship is bipartisan in America.
Is the American male dead? I’ve seen enough articles and books espousing a “war” on men and boys, amounting to a concerted attack on masculinity, to suggest that males are, if not dead, very much in decline in America, threatened by a “feminized” society that devalues manly virtues.
An article at the National Review, “Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity,” suggests that men as men have an “essential nature,” one that is “physical, aggressive, violent,” but that these traits are under attack as wider American society works to deny men their “inherent masculinity.” The article further argues there aren’t enough male role models in the lives of young boys – especially fathers and father-figures. This is a well-worn argument on the vital importance of the nuclear family with a man like Ward Cleaver in charge of it. There’s nothing wrong with that, except not all fathers are patient, kind, and intelligent mentors like Ward on “Leave it to Beaver.” Sadly, more than a few drive young boys to be aggressive and violent in selfish and dangerous ways.
Leaving that aside, it seems odd that this narrative of the decline of masculinity persists so strongly in Trump’s America. Now there’s a man! He’s physical, aggressive, unafraid to boast of pussy-grabbing or the size of his penis. He’s urged his followers at rallies to get physical with protesters. He supports torture and even hints at shooting immigrants as a rational “get tough” policy. Posing like Winston Churchill, he scowls and frowns in a simulacrum of manly determination. If the president is America’s chief role model, Trump’s doing his best to project masculinity as he understands it.
Indeed, you might argue Trump won the presidency in part because of his unapologetic “masculine” posing. Contrast this to Hillary Clinton, often portrayed as a “ball-buster,” an emasculating female. (Indeed, I had a Hillary nutcracker, a novelty gift from a friend.) Male voters (joined by a majority of White women) in 2016, perhaps looking for a “real” man to vote for and turned off by an alleged nut-cracking harridan, broke for Trump.
Trump’s win—and continued tolerance of his bullying, boastful, and bellicose manner—give the lie to the decline of masculinity narrative in America. Why does it persist, then? Because it’s yet another way to divide us. Consider similar narratives of an alleged war on Christianity, or that higher education is driven by hegemonic liberal/leftist agendas. In fact, Christianity is more powerful than ever in America—just look at Mike Pence and the influence of evangelicals in the U.S. government—and higher education is increasingly about serving the needs of business, industry, and the military-industrial complex.
But truth is unimportant when the object is stirring up divisiveness. Tell American men they’re threatened: that radical feminists, effete city dwellers, Ivy League elites, and other disreputable elements are out to get them. Then urge “threatened” males to vote for retrograde (fake) tough guys like Trump. It may not be the most subtle tactic, but it works.
In this narrative, masculinity is defined in “can-do,” action-oriented ways. Man as Alpha male, as doer, as fighter, whether in a bad way (as a killer) or in a good way (as a protector). It’s warrior-and empire-friendly. And indeed U.S. foreign policy today is distinctly masculine, with loads of emphasis on domination, on bossing other peoples around, simply because we’re bigger and badder than them.
What’s truly worrisome is not false narratives about masculinity’s decline but how it’s narrowly defined in violent and aggressive ways. We forget that macho posturing by America’s “leaders” has created enormous problems. Just think of George W. Bush and all his macho strutting before and during the Iraq war.
America needs fewer calls about putting on “big boy” pants and more emphasis on engaging in negotiation and diplomacy, along with action to end America’s chaotic and unwinnable wars. America is already carrying a big stick. It can afford to speak softly instead of shouting.
News that the Army is moving to a new, retro, uniform modeled on World War II-era designs got my military friends buzzing. Not so much about the “new” (old) uniform, but all the badges, ribbons, tabs, and related baubles and doodads that adorn U.S. military uniforms today, a topic I’ve written about before at TomDispatch.com and here at BV.
First, the new uniform. World War II was the last “great” war America truly won, so it’s hardly surprising the Army is reaching back to the era of the “greatest generation” and the “band of brothers.” Why not tap nostalgia for that “good” war, when Americans banded together against the Nazis and the Japanese? It’s also consistent with Trump’s message about “Making America Great Again”; we can even substitute “the Army” for “America” and keep MAGA.
For Trump, this mythical “great” America seems to center on the 1950s, whereas for the Army it’s WWII and the 1940s. Still, these MAGA uniforms and hats seem to say the Army and America are currently not great, and that the path to greatness is a retrograde one, a return to the past. (That return apparently does not include a revival of the draft and America’s citizen-soldier tradition.)
But it was an image of Dwight D. Eisenhower that got my military friends buzzing. Ike led the invasion of D-Day and was the architect of victory in Europe as supreme allied commander, yet you’d never know it from his simple, almost unadorned, uniform. Consider the image below of Ike that accompanied the story in the New York Times:
As one of my military correspondents, a retired command sergeant major who fought in the infantry in Vietnam, wrote to me:
[Ike was] A man from a cow town in Kansas, Abilene, who was a lower rung grad at West Point and came back from WW I as a Major. Twenty years later as a LTC enters WW II and comes back a Five Star General, one of only about five ever made and he has two, count them, two tiny rows of ribbons, no hero badges, not even a bolo badge to show what a great marksman he is, no para wings, no ranger tab, no CIB/EIB and FIVE, COUNT THEM, FIVE STARS on his shoulders. He also ran for, won, and was a pretty damned good [Republican president] for eight years. The Generals we have had since, starting with Westy [William Westmoreland] were all losers although they all had badges, ribbons, medals, patches all over their sorry asses BUT no VK medals, no VVN medals, no Victory Medals from any damned place I can think of. Well, maybe Grenada or Panama, or a bar fight in Columbus, GA. Home of Ft Benning… Something to think about, eh?
All those “bells and whistles” on military uniforms today “are like Vanity License Plates for one’s car,” this same command sergeant major noted. Speaking of vanity, a retired colonel told me there’s a company “that’ll miniaturize your ‘rack’ so you can wear your ribbons on your lapel—all of them—when you separate [from the military]. LOOK AT ME: I’M A HERO!”
One thing is certain: We have a ribbon- and badge-chasing military. (General David Petraeus was the worst.) People literally want to wear their “achievements” on their sleeve — or blouse — or jacket, even after they leave the military. Military members chase these baubles. They “achieve.” But what about quieter achievements that you can’t wear? How about integrity, honesty, commitment, fairness? What about intelligence? Dedication to the craft of arms that doesn’t involve getting a fancy badge like jump wings from France?
The Army’s retro-chic uniforms won’t be of any value if we keep valuing the wrong things. A Boy Scout military that keeps chasing merit badges for the sake of promotion of self is a very bad thing, irrespective of uniform design.
Yet there’s another side to all this. As my colonel-friend put it:
Here’s the real cost of this ribbon chasing. There’s an enormous number of man-hours expended on writing and chasing the paperwork to award these doodads… At a time when the military is allegedly overtaxed and burned out, why are they wasting so much effort on this nonsense? Why are some units hiring editors to keep the decorations moving? In survey after survey, AF pilots cited decorations and other administrative nonsense, not deployments, as the reason they don’t want to stay in. But since generals groom and promote only those who think like them (having selected them when they were captains), nothing changes. “You have to take care of your people,” they say, and if you listen to E-9s [the senior enlisted] people are happiest when they get doodads.
As another close military friend put it: “And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous number of ribbons and badges today. A captain today will have as many ribbons as a circa-1944 two-star [general]. [In their new retro uniforms,] they’ll just look like extras in a war movie.”
In sum, a jury of my peers has come back with a verdict on the Army’s new retro uniform: Love the look, but can you please bring back as well the humble citizen-soldiers of Ike’s era, the ones who won wars without all the gratuitous self-promotion?
Perhaps the profession that requires job security more than any other is teaching, especially college teaching. Tenure traditionally meant that a teacher/professor could be terminated only for moral turpitude (e.g. sexual abuse of students), blatant racism, unfair or unjust grading, gross incompetence, failure to obey basic institutional rules such as not showing up to class on time, or not teaching the subject matter he or she was hired to teach. Nowadays, however, “Just Cause” is often grounds for termination of a tenured faculty member. But “Just Cause” in any work contract is far too flexible an instrument for employers and far too vague for employees who rightly worry about job security.
Job insecurity prior to acquiring tenure and tenure granted with a “Just Cause” basis for termination of employment work to stifle academicians’ free expression of creative ideas, theories, and perspectives in and outside of the classroom. Any psychiatric or psychological clinician knows, or should know, that the threat of losing one’s livelihood produces stress and anxiety. Going to work each day, knowing your job is “contingent,” can become a dreaded and stressful experience.
Not only does academic tenure reduce or eliminate anxiety and stress: It ensures the free expression in the classroom of controversial and unorthodox ideas and pedagogical methods. Colleges, all schools for that matter, should remain faithful to the ultimate purpose of education, to bring students out of darkness—e-ducare in Latin. It therefore should be difficult to dismiss a teacher/professor once that person has acquired tenure.
Alas, much has changed in the groves of academe. “Make America Great Again” has come to mean—long before Trump—make life easier for administrators of educational institutions, especially those who primarily view education as preparation for the world of work. Colleges and universities are top-heavy with administrators. In fact, it’s easier to find employment as an administrator than it is as a full-time faculty member.
Colleges are also becoming increasingly technocratic in their organizational structure. Form is becoming more important than content. The typical teacher/professor is expected to be virtually robotic in his/her performance. (God help a member of a college faculty nowadays who does not know the finer points of PowerPoint or refuses to use technology at all in the classroom.) Scores on multiple-choice faculty evaluations are more valued than what students are learning. The goal (often unstated) of pedagogy is to prepare students for becoming employees who will fit neatly and quietly into niches in the business and corporate world. Professors are subtly urged, sometimes threatened, to become unindicted co-conspirators in what appears to be the ultimate purpose of education in contemporary American society: to produce graduates who will unreflectively accept the status quo.
Today’s system of compromised tenure limits the ability of teachers/professors to encourage students to question and challenge the status quo. At its best, traditional tenure promoted an atmosphere in the classroom where teachers felt free to discuss contemporary political, social, and science/technology issues. Job security encouraged teachers to provide the cognitive tools for what Neil Postman called “crap detecting” (critical thinking) in his book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” Education for Postman included the ability to distinguish reality from propaganda—and it often worked. For example, college-educated students were more likely to resist the draft, protest the Vietnam War, and oppose Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. In short, they questioned authority because they had the tools, mindset, and commitment to do so.
In his 1923 book, “The Goose Step: A Study of American Education,” Upton Sinclair had this to say regarding colleges and universities: “Suppose I was to tell to tell you that this education machine has been stolen? That a bandit crew have got hold of it and have set it to work, not for your benefit, nor for the benefit of your sons and daughters, but for an end very far from these? That our six hundred thousand young people (supposedly in higher education) are being taught, deliberately and of set purpose, not wisdom but folly, not justice but greed, not freedom but slavery, not love but hate.” Worshiping or conforming to a socio-economic system based on the values and goals of capitalism is the leading obstacle to an education that promotes democratic and humanitarian values, according to Sinclair.
Sinclair further argued that college professors should not “merely have job security” but also should have “collective control of that job.” He insisted that the faculty “must take from the trustees, and from the man they hired, the president, the greater part of their present functions.” Sinclair’s message is telling: It’s undesirable for democracy for administrators to treat professors as employees who are readily dismissible.
“Readily dismissible” is an apt description of adjunct/contingent faculty today. The number of adjuncts teaching college courses now outnumbers full-time tenured faculty. On the adjunct level there is no job security from semester to semester. The academic goosestep is always outside the door.
Teachers on all levels of formal education have vital roles to play in getting all of us to question authority. How can they do that, however, when their jobs can be eliminated by administrators whose first loyalty is often to an establishment that sustains that authority? To challenge hegemonic social systems and structures, teachers and professors need job security. They need tenure. Is that why they’re not getting it?
Richard Sahn, a retired professor of sociology, taught at the collegiate level for four decades.