On Jared Kushner’s New After-School Project, The White House Office of American Innovation

Per the New York Post: “Jared Kushner will be announced Monday as the head of the newly formed White House Office of American Innovation, which is being called a strategic consultant SWAT team meant to make government more efficient.”

Nobody even told me the White House Office of American Innovation was hiring. I have a cover letter all ready to go and everything. 

I initially fixated on that bizarre and somewhat vile metaphor of the innovation “SWAT team.” But apparently the “innovation SWAT team”idea  was actually coined in the Obama administration, making the authoritarian cast of Jared’s new after-school project less Trumpian than it sounds, and more like routine neoliberal governance, in the same league as the “innovation czars” and unaccountable economic advisory boards that are business as usual at state and federal government. And obviously there’s nothing very new about “running the government like a great American company” and valuing “efficiencies” and “nimble power centers” and “flexibilities,” and you know Hillary Clinton would have pursued something that at least sounded similarly awful.

But when the Obama administration pursued these sorts of ideas–pursuing “innovation” through semi-privatization of governance–it gave it a much more convincing technological basis borrowed from Silicon Valley, which was part of its appeal (though not to me, obvs). It was also, to give them credit, almost certainly way more competent. I prefer Jared’s inept project because it looks so nakedly, clumsily ideological; from these early reports there’s barely any pretense of meritocracy or “accountability,” and no particular interest in technology at all. They use the wrong business buzzwords, borrowing from Dad’s building industry background. As Trump said in a statement, the government is beset by “congestion… leading to cost overruns and delays.” And then there’s the odd list of initiatives, headlined by the opioid crisis, which Jared is apparently going to tackle with ideas from other real estate tycoons and investment bankers. The meanness and graft that always lurks closely behind “innovation” discourse in government is just so much more out in the open here. I can’t even say the mask is slipping, because it’s not clear they will try to even wear it.

Bodies on the Gears at Middlebury

My piece defending the activist students at Middlebury College from the wailing mob of pious national journalists working the “free-speech-at-elite-colleges” beat was published at Inside Higher Ed.

From all the talk of campus “civility” to the “freedom of speech” controversies at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere over the past couple of years, one of the ways conservatives and elite liberals on campus and in the media police campus activism is by invoking a fantasy of the campus as a neutral sanctuary from the world of politics outside. This notion of campuses as sanctuaries from the “real world” only makes sense if you are either 1) connected to real-life campuses mostly through the gauzy haze of Ivy-League nostalgia or 2) cloistered in an elite institution yourself, where it is easier to indulge the fantasy of academia as a leafy idyll, rather than a workplace like every other.

For an example of the second, see what may be the least convincing of the hostile criticisms of the Middlebury activists, by Danielle Allen in the Washington Post. Allen is a classicist who has taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and it definitely shows. She laments the pollution of the “sacred groves” of academe–yes, “sacred groves”–by illiberal, angry protesters. The essay hinges on a truly outrageous comparison between Murray and the Little Rock 9 who integrated public schools in Arkansas’ capital city in the aftermath of the Brown ruling. The content of Allen’s comparison is very superficial–she brings it up in the opening paragraph as a hook and then never returns to it. It amounts to the fact that both Murray and the integrationist students faced a “shouting, shoving mob.”

Allen invokes another historical reference, Abraham Lincoln, when she describes his 1862 Morril Act that established land-grant universities, which disseminated her sacred groves across the nation. What she learns from the Morril Act is that “democracies are necessarily contentious but can survive only if they can channel contestation into peaceful forms of behavior.” Now, if you want to make a claim that important democratic social change comes only from reasoned debate, you can go right ahead, but you could certainly choose better analogies than the Civil-War United States and the Civil Rights movement.

What Allen wants from protest, in short, is that it conform to the standards of the classroom. And what this shows is an impoverished understanding of the history and strategy of political protest. It’s a familiar argument over all, though, since some version of this “sacred groves” business is used to discipline every campus movement that manages to unsettle business as usual, as protest must do if it is to avoid becoming a charade. I first encountered this sort of argument during the TA unionization efforts I was involved with an NYU. It’s not an argument that will go away anytime soon, but I’m grateful for the students who don’t buy it.

Allen writes that “the supreme academic aspiration is to defeat bad arguments with better ones.” I don’t know that I agree, since I’m not one for enumerating virtues, and in any case I prefer to think of college and universities as workplaces first. But in the spirit of the aspiration, here’s my argument.

Continue reading “Bodies on the Gears at Middlebury”

The Pivot to Presidential

Much coverage of Donald Trump’s speech to Congress–which I didn’t watch, I was working–revolved around whether or not he “pivoted” to “presidential,” as the AP’s analysis put it. Just as much coverage made the more reasonable argument that he wasn’t actually “pivoting,” he was only “pirouetting” as the New Yorker‘s John Cassidy wrote. Much of the pre-game punditry focused on disproving in advance the anticipated “pivot” praise.

And in case you were wondering what an average boob in Miami thought about the speech, here’s Rolando Valdes, who’s in sales, who praised Trump, saying “today he acted like a politician.”

Valdes seems to be saying that Trump pivoted from authentic outsider to compromising politician which, incredibly, he means as praise. And Valdes may be just a boob from Miami, but his comment echoes other pundits‘ praise for Trump’s “presidential” demeanor (equalled perhaps by the furious denunciations for the praise for his presidential demeanor) . In Trump’s case, where “presidential” more than ever before means a character one plays on TV, how can a “pivot” be anything other than a “pirouette”–that is, a circular, stationary dance, which goes nowhere, and ends up where it started? (Obviously, the short answer is, “because the capitalist media.” But read on for the longer answer.)

The “pivot” was a mainstay of Very Serious Analysis of the Obama administration (with its pivots to Asia, Cuba, “the economy,” and so on), which may explain its appeal to a class of political analysts who know no other way to discuss national politics except in the style of a never-ending sporting event with clear rules of which they style themselves the referees. Cassidy’s error is in treating “pivoting” and “pirouetting” as substantially different things, as if changing your public messaging or political branding amounts to something more substantial than a showy about-face. But at least he’s skeptical. What’s remarkable overall is that a political figure, like Trump, who people regard as either 1) a thoroughly fabricated TV character, incapable of authentic conviction or 2) a thoroughly authentic guy, who “says what he thinks” could ever be thought capable of a “pivot,” which is used to mean either 1) an authentic shift in one’s ideas and focus, worthy of a statesman or 2) an inauthentic dance, performed for the cameras. If he’s a phony, then all he does is pivot, and who cares; if he’s authentic, then any pivot is a betrayal, immediately exposing him.

While Trump takes the fiction of the public “pivot” to absurd new heights, the contradiction he highlights is inherent in this and many of the keywords for the age of austerity, which celebrate 1) zealous moral commitment (the Way of the Entrepreneur) and yet also 2) an acquiescent flexibility to the demands of the market, a willingness to turn your zealous commitment on a dime as trends demand.

As I wrote in a longer entry on the topic, a person “pivots” by moving right or left while they remain stationary. In basketball, you can’t move your “pivot foot” after you pick up your dribble. A second baseman turns a double play by pivoting from his right to his left without leaving the base. Alternatively, the pivot is, as the OED says, “any physical part on which another part turns”–a tool in the manipulation of some larger object. This is how the word used to be used metaphorically, in political journalism that referred to various countries as strategic “pivots.” Taiwan and Japan, for example, were often described as “pivots” in Cold War Asia. Political parties could also occupy a pivot position, exerting leverage one way or another, as when a 1967 New York Times report on French elections described the Socialists as a pivot between left and right parties. This is more in line with the conventional definition of “pivoting” as stationary movement, which provides leverage for shifting direction one way or another.

Until the late 1990s, “pivots” were mostly found in the sports section. Its recent explosion in political journalism is borrowed from business jargon, where it translates roughly as a “rebranding.” In its political lobbying, the Catholic Church is said to “pivot” from “social issues” to inequality and the environment. Eastern Europe, wroteScreen shot 2015-07-06 at 10.58.09 AM Frank Bruni in 2003, “pivoted” in a secular direction after 1989. In 1999, Bruni–a pioneer of pivotology–used it to refer to political candidates’ practiced, canned redirection of journalists’ questions. “Mr. Hatch can pivot from just about any subject to a pitch for his campaign’s Internet site,” Bruni wrote. Here, one “pivots” from one question to another if you can’t answer the first one. Bruni rightly regards it as insincere, a pirouette. But I suspect many political journalists like the word as much as they do because it calls attention to the rhetorical dancing politicians do to flatter journalists. And as Adam Serwer pointed out on Twitter, the journalistic praise for Trump’s “presidential” bearing last night came largely from the fact that he refrained from insulting journalists.

So “pivots,” being essentially media exercises, are inherently superficial and highly personalized forms of accounting for political processes. Observing pivots are also masturbatory exercises in professional self-regard. For a charismatic figure like Trump, all he ever does is “pivot.” And for a certain class of political journalist, who treats the “pivot” as a performance of serious statesmanship, Trump can never authentically “pivot,” and analysis of him amounts to little more than the futile exercise of pointing out his hypocrisy. The point isn’t that Trump’s public statements don’t matter, that they are “distractions” from the Real, etc. Rather, when Trump can be praised for embodying the empty-suit conventions of political seriousness that he is otherwise credited with rebelling against, then these conventions–always empty signifiers, even in more normal times–are plainly defunct as categories of analysis now.

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