Sunday, January 27, 2008


Now and then I Google myself, just to keep track, and this time there were a couple of entries that purported to be “biographies” of me that were assembled by automated web-crawling. To say they were sketchy would be tactful, but one goes to the trouble of labeling me politically. They decided I was “conservative.” They were quite wrong.

I’m radical. (Radical= going to the root) Or in some sorts of company I say “eclectic,” which doesn’t sound so scary but isn’t as truthful. It has something to do with resistance to the standing order and something to do with what Dean Barnlund at NU taught us at the end of the Fifties about “language and thought” or “discussion and leadership skills.” Then for a while it was mixed up with the Age of Aquarius and all that. Probably the most recent incarnation is the idea of “rhizomatous” thought as contrasted with “arboreal” thought -- the latter referring to thought “trees” that start with a premise and then reason by making distinctions, branching as it were, and maintaining hierarchies. Rhizomous thinking is in thickening or swellings along the roots, more humble and sometimes underground.

Politics means “having to do with the polis or public life,” of course, so one’s political position has much to do with public institutions. Looking back, I’m surprised at how much of my life has been dominated by institutions and what opinions that has prompted in me.

I shouldn’t have to quote to illustrate my own position, but Mencius (blog at posted this model comment on (whom Michael Blowhard of calls “horny braniacs.” What better recommendation, eh?):

"What needs to change in academia?"

I can certainly think of some more direct questions than that:

"What are these things we call 'universities'?"

"Where did they come from? Why do we have so many of them? How have they become so influential? What has their net effect on the society around them been? If you didn't have them, would they have to be invented? Or would you invent something else instead? Maybe something, like, totally different? If the latter, assuming that we just leave them alone and let them do their thing, how long will it take to turn into something different? And will it be the different thing you want? Or is it more likely to be some other, like, different thing?"

Shouldn't one at least consider the possibility that what we call a "university" is indeed a fundamentally malignant form of social organization, and the efforts of all right-thinking intellectuals should be devoted not to reforming the institution, but figuring out how to terminate it - or at the very least reboot it?

Thus I don't think the universities are reformable. And if they are problematic but not reformable, they are malignant.

Therefore, there is only one policy to take with the universities: sell the land and buildings, add the proceeds to the endowment, convert the whole thing to a mutual fund, and distribute its shares equally among the alumni.

The intensity of my agreement with this idea comes in part from my seminary deciding to identify with the Democratic party, mostly because anti-Bushian ideas are popular at present and the school needs to be popular in order to raise more money. In other words, they are not only twisting their theological purposes to political ends, but also for economics. How deeply fascistic they are.

I find that my politics these days are governed by several ideas:

1. At two hundred years of age, much of our bureaucracy, regulatory practices, justice systems, and so on are outmoded and ineffective, mostly dedicated to keeping the status quo. Exhibit A: Homeland security. (Our physical infrastructure is quite comparable.)

2. In our pursuit of commodification we have succumbed to advertising principles of glitz and shine, all appearance and no analysis, and cheap. Also, whatever sold before will probably be what will sell next time. (The Simple Simon concept of economics and movie making.)

3. Athletics have overgrown everything to the point of becoming rotten at the core, synonymous with drug use. This is on every level down to high school and below. I would separate all “school teams” from the public schools and assign them directly to the towns so they can pay for them separately from the educational enterprise. Suddenly we would have enough money for schools. And teachers would not be forced to pretend that concussed delinquents are passing their classes.

4. This country is simply too complex to be so big. I would divide it into super-states or regions: Pacific northwest, dry west north and dry west south, Mississippi basin, and so on. Much of what will challenge us in the coming decades will have to do the exhaustion of ecologies, which will be far easier to address regionally. On the other hand, there are global issues that must be addressed as a planet.

5. Corporations have abused their definition (a virtual “person”) so thoroughly that someone needs to come up with a whole new institutional/legal pattern. Don’t ask me. I’m still back there with co-ops. And who could impose any controls, since they are now bigger than countries and have their own armies?

6. We should give up our mania for travel as a marker for leisure and affluence. Instead, stay home and support theatre or art or dance. Learn a skill. Invest emotionally in a “home.” A culture is something you do, not something you tour.

Both rhizomatous and tree-like thinking must be grounded but it seems to me that our institutions have been seriously eroded, to the point of airlock.

1 comment:

wunderkind said...

Hi, I'm "anonymous" from your Michael Kitchen post of a few days ago, and I just wanted to say that I find your ideas and writing quite interesting and original, far above the norm for blogs. Also, hello to a fellow U of Chicago alum (though I don't know that I'm technically an alumnus, since I'm still a student). Every time I walk past the Meadville Lombard building, I'm tempted to pop inside--if the interior architecture is anything like the Chicago Theological Seminary, it must be beautiful (although most of the buildings around here are getting increasingly run-down and dirty, with apparently little effort being made to keep the campus looking as beautiful as it could be).