You say “right-leaning,” I say “Alfredo Stroessner”

The phrases “right-leaning” and “left-leaning” have always infuriated me, for perhaps obvious reasons–it’s a symptom of the “one-the-one-side-on-the-other” pantomime of even-handedness by which American media depoliticize politics. That is, there are no real sides, and no fundamental disagreements; there is only a political blob called “the center,” on either bulging side of which different opinions may be found.

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 11.12.47 AM
New York Times, Sept. 13, 1992

My sense of this is that it’s a political fiction that dates to the 1990s, in large part because of Bill Clinton’s calcuated “post-political” stances. This is mostly  true, although the first decade of the 2000s is when the -leaning preface really takes off. It is also a feature of the Times‘ international reporting, where it seems to be a way to deal succinctly with the coalition politics of parliamentary systems. Israeli prime ministers, for example, routinely get the “-leaning” treatment, as do politicians in European democracies.

Left-leaning. The decade with greatest usage is 2000-2009.


Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 11.00.11 AM
Right-leaning. 2010-14 is the highest column here.

“Left of center,” though, has an older lineage, dating back to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt described himself that way (and his right-wing opponents countered with “right of center.”) Here, though, the phrase means “as opposed to far to the left”–that is, there’s a presumed socialist or fascist point of comparison here. “Left-leaning,” on the other hand, assumes that the profoundest way one can ever move in any political direction is to “lean.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 11.14.04 AM
New York Times, Jan. 17, 1937
Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 11.11.51 AM
New York Times, Feb. 27, 1938

A pioneer in the -leaning school of political analysis by miniscule differences is Cyrus Sulzberger, member of the family that has long owned the New York Times and a foreign correspondent for the paper. In 1971–when, as you can see in the graphs above, the

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 11.40.48 AM
“The Hope of Liberty,” New York Times, Apr. 14, 1971

construction was relatively used–he characterized the military regimes of South America along a “leaning” axis. “Left-leaning” military governments ruled Peru and Bolivia then; “right-leaning” governments held power in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, which was ruled at the time by Alfredo Stroessner, he of Yo el supremo fame, who ruled the country with a personality cult for 35 years, outlawed all political opposition, and ordered the leader of the country’s Communist Party dismembered with a chainsaw as he listened on the telephone. Right-leaning! Juuuuust a bit.



Keywords for the Age of Austerity 31: Austerity

Our last new entry for a while! Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism arrives in December 2018, but here’s an entry that I found on the cutting room floor. It’s a word I should’ve defined a while ago: 

Austerity (n.)

Economist Mark Blythe defines “austerity” as “a form of voluntary deflation in which the economy adjusts through the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending to restore competitiveness, which is supposedly best achieved by cutting the state’s budget, debts, and deficit” (2).  The word has come into wide circulation since the 2008 financial crisis and the global recession it triggered, when public debts increased as tax revenues fell. “Austerity” is used mostly by its critics, though the word is more common in Britain, for historical reasons that may become clearer below. In the United States, the cuts to public spending are described as “budget cuts,” framed at an individual level in evasive, wonky terms: as tax reform or entitlement reform, for example. My sense (though this is really a sense) is that public spending is more easily framed in technocratic terms in the U.S. than in Britain. There, the class politics of tax policy and public expenditures are more obvious, or at least less easily disguised in a language of pragmatic, non-ideological “good government.”

While the contemporary politics of austerity in the United States and in Western Europe is shaped by the financial crisis of 2008, it does not begin there. To Blythe, the economic defense for austerity policies is a dishonest “morality play” in which blame for economic crisis shifts from the banks that caused the crisis to the state (14).  The idea of a morality play—a didactic allegorical drama pitting good versus evil—is present in the very word “austerity,” with its suggestions of ascetic self-discipline following on gluttonous self-indulgence. Austerity’s moral dimensions are paramount, and they derive in large part from the word’s metaphorical reference to the human body. Along with nimble, robust, lean, and flexible, austerity is a bodily metaphor for national and global economies. Unlike these last, though, austerity is a term favored by its opponents, since the word lacks the athletic glamor of nimble or even the efficiency of lean production Austere bodies are spare and emaciated, and it is difficult to reconcile the bodily metaphor of austerity with the ideal of “economic growth” that remains the horizon of much mainstream writing in economics. The authors of a 2013 IMF working paper on the effect of budget deficit-reduction policies on increasing inequality preferred the neutral, rather dry term, “fiscal consolidation.” (Note how this author puts “austerity” in scare quotes, unhappily conceding the term’s popularity.)

Austerity’s links to morality and the body go back to the Christian ascetics’ righteous denial of worldly comfort. More than “frugality,” which suggests a kind of humility and prudence, “austerity” is righteous self-denial. After the devastation of World War II, Stafford Cripps, the socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer under the postwar Labour government, oversaw an “age of austerity” marked by rationing and widespread shortages. It also included the nationalization of key British industries like coal–measures reversed under the “austerity” policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government four decades later (though even then, it was her opponents that preferred the word, “austerity.”) A 1947 New York Times profile of Cripps portrayed him as “Austerity’s Prophet,” describing him as a deeply religious vegetarian ascetic, an “English Gandhi” ready to fit post-war Britain with its national hair shirt. Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 4.13.54 PM.png Think, today, of all the ways public-sector cuts to balance budgets are routinely described in the American media: a “bloated public sector”; “trimming the fat from the state budget”; cutting public budgets “to the bone” or, occasionally, “with a scalpel” instead of a hatchet, machete, or ax; and less gruesomely, “tightening our belts” and “taking a haircut”: all metaphors that imagine the national budget as a greedy body that must be whipped into shape or a fatty piece of meat to be distended. The only possible exception here is “haircut,” more cosmetic than surgical, perhaps because that term is often used to refer only to the relatively painless losses that private creditors are expected to take during “fiscal consolidations.”

Most people who use the word “austerity” today would agree that the only people never really required to undergo it are the already wealthy. Austerity, in other words, has a clear class meaning. A polity undergoes austerity to end up lean and nimble, always under some great political and economic pressure. This extends from the national to the local level. As John Summers pointed out in an essay on the aggressive wooing of the tech economy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is not enough for the private sector to embrace its own market-worshipping mantras. Instead, he writes, “the whole community must conform,” in the form of tax breaks for tech companies, the demise of rent control, and other assaults on public goods. Austerity is a discipline. Conform, or be disciplined.


Ruin Porn, Meet Revival Porn

I was never much for the phrase “ruin porn” at its height between 2008-2011 (too moralistic, I think), and media criticism of coastal publications stumbling through the Rust Belt often seems pointless–but sometimes I can’t help myself. Besides, in the case of Detroit, so much of the elite media narratives of “revival” have a way of feeding back in so many other facets of public life in the city. “Revival” is the framework in which most mainstream stories about Detroit are told–and they are typically told from places, like downtown and “Midtown,” where “revival” seems most visible.

The feature in question, “Detroit Was Crumbling. Here’s How It’s Reviving,” appeared in the print edition and website of the New York Times as a photo essay by Emily Najera with brief, ponderous observations by Monica Davey, the paper’s midwest bureau chief.

Davey often often finds herself in a poetic mood when she visits Detroit. She is the author of one of the most ludicrous pieces on post-2008 Detroit to ever see print: the notorious 2010 cold-weather-bites-man story, “Cold Leaves Detroit Unfazed.” Reflecting on one Detroiter’s stoic indifference to the winter wind, Davey’s piece concluded, like some bootleg Carl Sandburg on a deadline:

Most were preoccupied not by the temperature, but by the hints its stiff wind seemed to whisper about the long haul that stretches, inevitably, ahead. “This is kind of like a prelude,” Mr. Stevens said quietly. [Ed. note: the wind is a symbol, for the economy]

In Monday’s feature, Davey puts obvious symbolism to work again. Opposite a picture of Matty Moroun’s Michigan Central Station, she writes:

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 1.15.41 PM

The building, like the symbol, must wait. And here is the first problem: if buildings are  symbols, in a story about real estate they are not very reliable ones. That is, they are also property, wealth, and power, and none of that is typically visible on the doorstep of an abandoned house. Sometimes, as when their slum landlord installs windows to distract from his neglect of the structure and its neighborhood, the symbolism is quite calculated–but there’s not a lot you can learn about Michigan Central Station’s abandonment just by looking at it. You wouldn’t know, for example, that the station is owned by a Grosse Pointe trucking magnate, Matty Moroun, who owns the city’s only bridge to Canada. Nor would you know that controlling the station and its rails allows Moroun to ward off a planned expansion of the rail tunnels that link the U.S. and Canada–tunnels that compete with Moroun’s current monopoly on truck traffic over the border. So much for symbolism. (See pp. 184-188 in the link.)

Most of Davey’s piece focuses on Brush Park, a neighborhood of Gilded Age mansions north of downtown. Much of the district had long fallen into dereliction by the turn of the last century, which lent a macabre appeal to the ornate gabled houses that remained. Davey interviews one new resident:

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 1.12.16 PM

“Economic indicators”? Who talks like this?

“Revival,” though, is mostly a story of “economic indicators”–bloodless numbers on spreadsheets. It’s more a story about symbols and buildings, in other words–and less a story about the people who inhabit and own them. Najera’s accompanying pictures of Brush Park seemed to answer the “ruin porn” photos of a decade ago–pictures which, in the national media, illustrated headlines of financial ruin with visible “symbols” of decline. Najera’s Brush Park pictures, by contrast, show rehabilitation. What they don’t show, oddly, is any more people than ruin pictures typically did. One of her pictures is clearly a calculated response to one of Andrew Moore’s pictures from his widely discussed (and widely panned, at least by me) 2010 book, Detroit Disassembled. On the left is Moore’s photo of a Brush Park townhouse; on the right, Najera’s 2018 response.


See what she did there? The blur of a passing automobile–one of the only hints of human presence in Najera’s photos–fills in for the steam of urban decline. The glistening windows fill in the darkened cavities of abandonment. But for pictures ostensibly depicting revitalization, there isn’t much in the way of vitality here.

Davey’s accompanying text included some expected to-be-sure paragraphs on parts of the city left behind, but the story is framed as an uplifting story of a fragile revitalization. What it shows, though, is that revitalization narratives are not the reverse of ruin porn’s aestheticization of poverty, they are its twin. Neither kind of story has much room for people–at least most people, anyway.

Capitalism with a Human Face

When the University of Chicago economist Theodore Schultz began developing the concept of “human capital,” he felt obliged to directly address something that no longer seems to trouble the concept or those who use it. On the first page of his 1961 article “Investment in Human Capital,” Schultz began by gingerly addressing the concept’s potentially offensive sound. “Our values and beliefs inhibit us from looking upon human beings as capital goods, except in slavery, and this we abhor,” he wrote. The clarification was necessary because for Shultz and human capital theorists after him, human capital actually offers us a path to freedom. As Schultz argued, “by investing in themselves, people can enlarge the range of choice available to them.”[1]

As Mike Konczal has observed, the ring of slavery lingered around the phrase as it came into broader circulation in the mid-1970s. He quotes the economic historian of slavery Robert Fogel, who observed somewhat archly then that

economists have extended the use of the concept of capital beyond its usual application to machines, buildings, and other inanimate objects. They have applied the concept of capital to the wealth inherent in the capacity of human beings to perform labor, calling such wealth ‘human capital.’ This extension of the concept seemed odd at first because it was applied not to explain behavior in nineteenth-century slave societies but in twentieth-century free societies.[2]

No one apologizes anymore for human capital. In fact, “human capital” is now a nearly  touchy-feely counterpoint to mainstream economics’ emphasis on impersonal metrics of growth. It celebrates, as Schultz argued, a broadening of human choices in the market; in human capital, there is agency, opportunity, respect. Human capital puts the “humanity” in “capital,” as it were.

For example, the World Bank advertised an event on education and third-world development entitled “Building Human Capital: A Project for the World” under the hastag #investinpeople. The program’s title evokes philanthropy, rather than profit. As part of the same impetus to develop a high-tech labor force, the World Bank also advises African nations to invest more in their own human capital, a historical irony probably unappreciated by many at the World Bank.

But this historical indifference makes sense: human capital is all about the future, and it has no truck with the past. In his book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris defines the phrase as “the present value of a person’s future earnings, or a person’s imagined price at scale, if you could by and sell free laborers—minus upkeep.”[3] Gary Becker, the other University of Chicago economist most famously linked to the human-capital concept, defined it as the non-material assets—education, skills, satisfaction and what he called “psychic income”—that a worker gets from and brings to their work. It’s a way of valuing the cognitive, emotional, and technical skills that you learn at work, in school, and in what you might call “life,” if you believe in the existence of something like a “work-life balance.” The attraction of human capital was that it could give workers a way of valuing aspects of themselves that otherwise go overlooked and unappreciated. This is its insidious appeal: human capital gives workers credit for “investing in themselves,” and gives us the assurance that doing so will pay off later.

Screen Shot 2018-04-22 at 6.10.35 PM
“It may seem strained, artificial, and perhaps even immoral…” Another apology for human capital from Gary Becker, “An Economic Analysis of Fertility,” 1960

Another example of the “strained,” artificial,” forward-looking language of “investing in people”–children, in particular–comes from a recent ad campaign by United Negro College Fund, entitled Invest in Better Futures. The UNCF has one of the most famous slogans in advertising history, of course: “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” The new campaign answering an unasked question about the old phrase: what, exactly, is the economic reason that minds should not be wasted?

To answer this question, the campaign’s title, “Invest in Better Futures,” puns on the two meanings of “futures.” The first is the financial plural: “futures” are a contract based on the future value of a particular commodity. And the second, of course, is the colloquial notion of individual lives unfolding over time. A 2013 ad begins by asking viewers, in the voice of an aspiring college student, “What if you could invest in the future of kids, like a stock?” (The scriptwriter then hastily adds, as if realizing the rhetorical corner she has stumbled into: “not the kind of stock that’s about making money.”) The idea of the campaign was to rebrand the charitable donation the UNCF routinely solicits as a philanthropic “investment” in “the future.” To compete the metaphor, the campaign website features a faux-stock-market ticker-symbol. It also offers a legal disclaimer that no financial return could be expected by speculating on the futures of Black students.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 9.50.10 AM

As a UNCF press release explained, “Economists were consulted for the campaign and developed an algorithm to show the social return of donating just $10 to UNCF, including the impact on earnings, crime savings and health savings.” The UNCF balances its presumed audience’s faith in algorithms and the experts who develop them with a set of fears: a collapsing job market, the social burden of the unhealthy, and crime. Here, the answer to the question, Why exactly is a mind actually a terrible thing to waste? is made clearer: to increase earnings and save public expenditures. At one level, this is all just branding, to promote the same scholarship work that the UNCF has always done.  And perhaps a social-service organization cannot be blamed too much for tactically appropriating our era’s lust for the economization of everything. But nothing is “just branding,” and this argument for education funding is sad, to say the least, and its central metaphor’s historical resonances troubling, to say the least. “My name is Syndi,” one young woman, a UNCF beneficiary, announces, “and I’m your dividend.”

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 9.50.50 AM






[1] Frederick W. Schultz, “Investment in Human Capital,” The American Economic Review 51: 1 (1961) 2

[2] Robert Fogel, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995) cited in Mike Konczal, “Human Capital and Slavery,”, April 6, 2008.

[3] Harris, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (New York: Little, Brown, 2017) 22.

Syllabus: Good Grief: Humor and Tragedy in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature

Charlie_Brown_cryingThe German critic Bertholt Brecht wrote that “One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.” In this class, we will test this thesis by exploring the use of humor to tell stories of personal or social trauma in modern U.S. literature. We will also see how some critics have approached the mystery of what makes us laugh, and why laughter and tears seem to run so close together. We’ll consider multiple genres and modes of literary humor, like satire and parody, and we will consider what, if anything, is distinctive about “American” humor.

Required Readings

Besides the readings on Blackboard, these will be available for sale at Barnes and Noble on campus. Buy them there, or wherever you prefer to buy books.

Paul Beatty, ed. Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor

Fran Ross, Oreo

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Course Schedule  

All readings should be completed before class on the day noted. Readings marked with an * can be found in Hokum. Readings in italics should be completed by graduate students in the class, and are optional for everyone else.

Jan. 9

Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt: From an Interview,” New York Review of Books, Oct. 26, 1978

E.B. White, from the Preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor

Carter Revard, “The Secret Verbs”

Patricia Lockwood, “Is Your Country a He Or a She in Your Mouth?”

Peanuts, October 19, 1975

Jan. 11

Sigmund Freud, “Humor”

* Sterling Brown, “Slim at Atlanta”

* W.E.B. Du Bois, “On Being Crazy”

To watch in class: Drunk History, “Harriet Tubman”

Jan. 16

Simon Critchley, On Humor, chapter 1

* H. Rap Brown on the dozens, pp. 56-59

Yiddish Radio Project, “A Selection of Curses”

To view in class: Joan Rivers—a selection of her red-carpet insults

Jan. 18:

* Paul Beatty, “Introduction,” Hokum

Writing workshop

NB: Mon, Jan 22 is the last day to withdraw from classes with tuition cancellation.

 Jan. 23:

Henri Bergson, “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” chapter 1, sections I, II, and V

Watch in class: excerpts from Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

Your assignment: bring in your favorite GIF for analysis

Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy Has Issues,” Critical Inquiry 43:2

Jan. 25:

Eric Lott, Love and Theft, pp. 3-5, 15-21

The Daily Show, “Reminder: Race is Not a Costume”

Chappelle’s Show: “The Racial Draft”

WE1 due: Why should Henri Bergson laugh at your GIF?

Jan. 30

* Bert Williams jokes

* Zora Neale Hurston, “Possum or Pig?”

* Elizabeth Alexander, “Talk Radio, DC”

Quiz on literary terms and concepts

Feb. 1

Joel Chandler Harris, Legends of the Old Plantation (excerpts)

Charles Chesnutt, “The Goophered Grapevine,” “Po’ Sandy”

Feb. 6

Chesnutt, “Dave’s Neckliss”

Glenda Carpio, “Black Humor in the Conjure Stories”

Feb. 8

Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison”

Feb. 10: WE2 (Why must Charlie Brown never kick the football?) due on Blackboard

Feb. 13

Dorothy Parker, “Interview,” “Love Song,” “Resumé,” “Little Words”

Watch: Saturday Night Live, “Debbie Downer: Thanksgiving Dinner”

Feb. 15

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 20

Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 22

Heller, Catch-22

Feb. 27

Flannery O’Connor, “Everything that Rises Must Converge”

WE3: Keyword analysis due in class

Mar. 1

Fran Ross, Oreo 

Mar. 6

Fran Ross, Oreo

Mar. 8

* Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots”

“The Ballot or the Bullet,” King Solomon Baptist Church, Detroit, MI, April 12, 1964 (please listen to the recording here).

Workshop on outlines: please bring a reverse outline of WE3

March 13-15: Spring break

Mar. 20

Mandatory screening: When Jews Were Funny (dir. Allen Zweig)

Mar. 22: No class meeting: final paper rough drafts due

April 3

Zweig discussion; begin The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 5

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 10

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

April 12

Lauren Michelle Jackson, “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs” Teen Vogue

Brandy Monk-Payton, “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness,” Feminist Media Histories

April 17

Sianne Ngai, “The Zany Science,” from Our Aesthetic Categories

“Parks and Recreation,” from season 2, episode 10: “Leslie Gets Grilled by Local Sheriff”

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, “Ernestine the Telephone Operator Calls General Motors”

Excerpts from I Love Lucy, “Job Switching”

April 19

Luis Valdez, Los Vendidos

final project workshop


Close-reading exercise #1: GIF analysis

Length: at least 1 double-spaced page

In “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” Henri Bergson repeats a central image ofhis theory of what makes us laugh: “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” We laugh, he says, “when a person gives us the impression of being a thing.” Write a one-page analysis of a funny GIF that relates Bergson’s criteria to explain what about it makes you laugh. You may, if it helps–and if you know–consider the source material for your GIF. You may also consider it in context, i.e., as a reaction to a particular social-media conversation.

Writing exercise #2: Charlie Brown’s football

Length: At least two double-spaced pages 

This exercise continues to practice the skill we developed in WE1: using critical tools to analyze cultural texts. In this case, I want you to make an argument not just about why Charlie Brown’s endless struggle against Lucy and her football is funny, but what the significance of the humor is. Is this cartoon about gender politics and sexism, and if so, how do you read Lucy’s character and her motives? Is it a nihilistic warning against ambition and the inevitability of our disappointment, or a sympathetic portrayal of an indomitable underdog? Consider one of the theorists of humor we’ve discussed already (Arendt/Brecht, Freud, Critchley, Carpio, or Bergson) and make a concise, detailed argument about what Charlie Brown’s struggle is, why it is important, and why it is important to address it in the form of a joke. For this assignment, closely analyze the plot and language of at least two Peanuts cartoons—you are encouraged to read as many as you can find, of course.

Close-reading exercise #3: keyword analysis

Length: at least 2-3 double-spaced pages 

This paper develops close reading skills by focusing your attention on a very specific piece of textual evidence. Here I want you to narrow your focus to a single word. Identify a keyword from any of the primary texts we have read thus, and use it to make an argument about its significance in the text. You might prefer to focus on a poem, which because of poetry’s economy of language and its emphasis on wordplay often rewards a close reading of a particular word or specific line, but you can also examine one of the prose works we’ve read thus far.

What is a keyword? Think about the word “key” in both of its senses: as something of great importance and as a tool that opens up a room to closer examination. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “keyword” in these ways, as “a word serving as a key to a cipher or the like” and as “a word or thing that is of great importance or significance.” The literary scholar Raymond Williams described keywords as “binding words,” terms that draw together related concepts and themes.

The word you choose may be important because it establishes a central metaphor or symbol. It could be important because other terms refer back to it. It may draw your attention because it is a particularly ambiguous term, whose meaning demands interpretation; conversely it might stick out because it only appears inconsequential or straightforward on first glance. It might be used consistently, or its meaning might change in an important way which your paper might trace. You are free (indeed, encouraged) to quote from the text, even parts of the poem that do not include your keyword, as long as you explain why you are doing so.

The keyword you choose may be simple, or complex; it could be a multisyllabic word or it could be a little tiny pronoun. It could be repeated (in which case you would want to discuss the repetition) or it could only appear once. You should provide a dictionary definition only if a definition will help you get at something not immediately apparent in the text. If you do, cite the Oxford English Dictionary. Your paper should use your keyword to help you answer an interpretive question, which will be in first paragraph.


I came across a 2013 article from the New York Times old Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, about the paper’s use of the word “entitlements” to describe Social Security, Medicare, and other federal “outlays,” to use the more technical language that once drove coverage of tax policy. Sullivan agreed with a reader that “entitlements” is a partisan, sneering term for federal retirement benefits. It suggests that beneficiaries are claiming an unearned privilege.

So I looked into the word’s history in the New York Times, and it may not surprise you to learn when “entitlements” entered the political lexicon.

Continue reading “Entitlements”