A Special Kind of Humanity in Dark Times: How Students at the University of Missouri Are Bringing the Neoliberal Power Structure to its KneesJim Burns I Social Economics I Analysis I November 10th, 2015
The ineffectual institutional response, or perhaps non-response, to the hostile climate at the University of Missouri throughout the fall: racial slurs shouted at the student body president and the Legion of Black Collegians; human feces smeared in the shape of a Swastika in a dorm; racist messages delivered through anonymity's best friend Yik-Yak; ideologically-fueled attacks by the state legislature targeting women's health services and scholarships for undocumented students; has claimed University System President Tim Wolfe and R. Bowen Loftin, Chancellor of the flagship campus (see Jaschik, 2015; Miller, 2015; Svrluga, 2015; Thomason, 2016; Woodhouse, 2015; Zirin, 2015). Under mounting pressure from students, the bad press generated by hunger-striking graduate student Jonathan Butler, and a threatened boycott by Black football players, Wolfe resigned on November 9, and Loftin will step down in January.
The little story of racism and other forms of institutional and systemic violence at the University of Missouri is actually the big story of a persistent history of structural racism, misogyny, homophobia and heterosexism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and anti-intellectualism writ large in contemporary neoliberal America. The current iteration of a long history of struggle at the University of Missouri over institutional oppression has occurred against the backdrop of a mindless, interminable presidential primary charade, replete with anti-intellectualism, coded and not so coded racism, homophobia, misogyny, chauvinistic nativism, and religious intolerance. Of the Republican Party, Noam Chomsky in a lecture at The New School (see Democracy Now!, 2015), explained that the party has driven itself to the hard right through its political mobilization of radical religious and nativist forces that have always existed in the U.S., but have hitherto occupied "lunatic fringe" status politically. The fringe now calls the shots in the Republican Party, which Chomsky characterizes as a radical insurgency rather than a political party. Thus, Ben Carson's shifting and increasingly questionable story of patriotism, bootstraps, and self-redemption from a life of violence coexists with his unfamiliarity with Article 6 of the Constitution, which prohibits religious litmus tests for public office, and his "theory" that the pyramids are actually ancient grain elevators. Likewise, Donald Trump's differentiation between the "good" and "bad" Mexicans, his boorish commentary on women's looks and menstrual cycles, and his affirmation of a New Hampshire supporter's question as to the timeline for "getting rid of the Muslims" only add to the violent spectacle. On a more sobering note, Chomsky convincingly argues that the positions of the other candidates, and I would argue many Americans who have unreflectively bought into the cult of American exceptionalism, are not all that different from the bombast, hubris, and idiocy troweled out by narcissists like Trump and Carson.
Slightly left of the hard right's radical insurgency, Hillary Clinton has engaged in her own historical restructuring as she attempts to present herself as a populist feminist. Her acceptance of neoliberal ideology, illustrated by her service on Wal-Mart's anti-labor corporate board, her support of her husband's draconian crime bill, and "ending welfare as we know it," produced devastating social consequences including the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, myriad issues associated with women's and children's rights and health, education, and the vicious suppression of organized labor (Young & Sierra Becerra, 2015). Considering her active role as a champion of neoliberal economic "development" and corporate profiteering in the toxic nexus of the corporate state as both a senator and secretary of state, Clinton's proclaimed feminism and populism rings utterly hollow. Even "populist" Bernie Sanders, who like Clinton, had some difficulty with the concept "Black Lives Matter," offers no real alternative as an establishment candidate running in an establishment party. And all the while, unaccountable corporate power, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fast-tracked by the Obama Administration, and which Chris Hedges (2015) characterizes as a brazen corporate power grab, continues to grow and spread like a cancer through every social institution in the U.S. and throughout the world.
And so, against the backdrop of neoliberal hegemony-freedom reframed as the individualistic pursuit of pure self-interest; citizenship reconstituted as consumerism; any form of dissent derided as unpatriotic, subversive, and dangerous; politics and the public good conflated with corporate power; education redefined as the accumulation of instrumental, commodified, economically useful skills; and the socio-political landscape mythologized as the great American meritocracy-students at the University of Missouri organized and forced a university system president and chancellor to step aside. Reaction to those resignations from the radical right came swiftly and assumed the predictable form of raced, classed, masculine aggrieved entitlement (Kimmel, 2013). Perhaps no better illustration of the historical White masculine fear of Black male bodies, White fragility (DiAngelo, 2011), and aggrieved masculine entitlement tinged with rage and violence exists than the racist rant offered by Texas-based radio talk thug Michael Berry (Media Matters, 2015). During his November 9 show, Berry, referring to the ethical position taken by Missouri's Black football players, cast the players' moral stand as "a few thugs" deciding "who your president will be." In misogynist terms, Berry derided President Wolfe's masculinity by comparing him to Neville Chamberlain and chastised: "when you pander to bullies, you feed that bully." Berry concluded:
"This will not be the last time this group of thugs flexes their muscles…The country continues to make a huge mistake on university campuses, workplaces, schools, the military. This is a country built on merit and accomplishments, and if you don't want to play by those rules, you don't get to be on the team. Shut up about race already."
Lost to Berry himself, I'm sure, is the irony of a racist bully characterizing the principled moral courage of young Black men committed to a just cause as bullying. In fact, Berry affirms the complaints voiced by the students at the University of Missouri and demonstrates his own hyper-masculinized, racialized, and classed fear, entitlement, and rage, which he directs at students of color who dared question the historic institutional practices and power relations-"the rules"- predicated on the systems of racial oppression from which Berry and his ilk have benefited. Berry's racist rant would make any antebellum slave owner proud in that he castigates Wolfe for essentially losing control of his Black football players, which Berry implies are nothing more than "property."
In a fundamentally oppressive and unjust social, political, and economic system in which everything and everyone is cast as a commodity, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the University of Missouri story lies in what it took to get the attention of President Wolfe, Chancellor Loftin, and the country about the continued pathetic state of American race relations and the systemic oppression targeted against people of color, women, and many others in the halls of corporate universities. The students at the University of Missouri rightly connected the university's institutional apathy about their concerns on campus to the institutional hostility in the aftermath of the summary public execution of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Amidst continuous student protests and their moral appeals to the university administration to act on the racism firmly embedded in the university's culture, what finally forced the university system's hand was the threat posed to the institution's coffers by a boycott by Black football players. The players, viewed by the university as nothing more than commodified gladiators whose value lies in their ability to produce revenue-generating, on-field, socially-sanctioned, hyper-masculinized violence, threatened to derail the football season and cost the university money, lots of money.
The prospect of a deeper and much wider dialogue brought about by the actions of the students at the University of Missouri and the faculty who are supporting them is positive, and several issues are particularly salient in the discussion. First, we must recognize, understand, and have some very complex and difficult dialogues about the systemic and institutionalized context through which individuals perpetrate all forms of violence, including physical, emotional, sexual, racial, gendered, classed, and cultural violence. Racism, homophobia, classism, gender discrimination, and other forms of oppression are systemic issues related to institutional practices and power relations that have historically privileged some and marginalized and excluded many more. Yet even attempting a dialogue about the historic institutional power structures that have produced racial oppression is extraordinarily difficult in a country, and in universities, that have de-socialized themselves and view every issue as an individual problem rather than as the product of numerous complex and intersected discourses. As Giroux (2014a, b) has argued, our descent into neoliberal individuation and the commodification of social spheres has produced a cruel narrative of hyper-individualism similar to what Gorski (2011) calls deficit ideology, which deflects the attention of those privileged by the system from systemic injustices and instead casts a punitive gaze at those who have been victimized by systemic oppression and have little political power to offer a counter-narrative.
Second, universities have become increasingly corporatized, adopted administrative structures that cast many university presidents as CEOs who negotiate "compensation packages" complete with bonuses, deferred compensation, and golden parachutes, care more about garnering patents and trademarks than conducting research in the public interest, and rely on Wal-Mart-style contingent academic labor. In a sad commentary about the corporate ethos of American colleges and universities, and, by the way its PK-12 education system, the actions of Missouri's Black student football players suggest that, like corporations, an effective strategy to gain the attention of increasingly inattentive university CEO's as well as anti-intellectual governors, state legislators, and their corporate overlords, lies in taking actions that threaten university "revenue streams." Threatening the university's bottom line drew attention, for example, to that fact that only seven percent of the student body is Black, while 58 of the university's 84 scholarship football players (nearly 70 percent) are Black. As Zirin (2015) notes:
"There is no football team without black labor. That means there aren't million-dollar coaching salaries without black labor. There isn't the weekly economic boon to Columbia, Missouri, bringing in millions in revenue to hotels, restaurants, and other assorted businesses without black labor. The power brokers of Columbia need these games to be played. Yet if the young black men and those willing to stand with them…aren't happy with the grind of unpaid labor on a campus openly hostile to black students, they can take it all down, just by putting down their helmets, hanging up their spikes, and folding their arms."
Third, and perhaps most important, the actions of those Missouri students protesting for justice demonstrate that students possess the political power and agency to demand institutional change, both at the university and in broader social contexts. Particularly when groups of university students, faculty, staff, and other community members recognize that the struggle for justice is everyone's concern and is never done, disparate groups can and must build broad coalitions-otherwise known as social movements-which have historically served as the only way to hold institutional power accountable. In the context of a corporate-political class who have turned their backs on any notion of a just, democratic, sustainable society and a political system that views more and more people as dispensable in what Hedges (2012) calls capitalism's sacrifice zones, the students at the University of Missouri have shown us that we can reclaim universities as the curricular and pedagogical spaces where the formative culture of just, democratic, civic life can re-emerge in our "dark times" of which as Hannah Arendt (1968) wrote:
"The public realm has been obscured and the world become so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty. Those who have lived in such times and been formed by them have probably always been inclined to despise the world and the public realm, to ignore them as far as possible, or even to overleap them and, as it were, reach behind them-as if the world were only a façade behind which people could conceal themselves-in order to arrive at mutual understandings with their fellow men without regard for the world that lies between them. In such times, if things turn out well, a special kind of humanity develops." (pp. 11-12).
Neoliberal globalization, as John Ralston Saul (2005) writes, has defaulted on all of its promises. Rather than broad-based prosperity, neoliberal economic "development" has disrupted local economies, gender relationships, and political systems, created impoverished disposable people, redistributed all forms of wealth upward, and destroyed local environments. Rather than spread democracy, we see increasing political corruption, repression, and violence. Mass corporatized education systems, marketed as an investment that will pay-off like a hot stock, have instead bankrupted many students and families and turned university faculty into contingent labor in a service economy in which organized labor has been eviscerated. Students at the University of Missouri protesting for racial justice have exposed the lies inherent in platitudes offered by corporatized institutions about diversity, inclusion, and equity and shown us what Arendt's (1968) special kind of humanity looks like: they demonstrated a curriculum and pedagogy of moral courage in pursuit of a truly just, equitable, and inclusive society. Their example, and others like it, should strengthen our resolve, particularly those of us who have benefitted from our privilege, to bear witness to and affirm others' struggles, and most importantly embody our commitment to the never-ending struggle for justice, equity, and true democracy.
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