The Purpose of Higher Education


Mehmet_BioPic By Mehmet Kucukozer

The Behavioral Sciences Department (BHS) at Dutchess Community College (DCC), of which I am faculty, runs a seminar series each semester called A Conversation Across the Disciplines. The idea is to invite faculty of the various departments to speak and share perspectives from their respective areas of study on various topics of academic and social significance. We, the organizers, thought it would be timely to have an event on “the purpose of higher education,” as the State University of New York is pushing system-wide curricular reforms to which, as a member college, we are subject. We saw it as an opportunity to address some of the long-term implications of restructuring that emerge from the current drive to edit credits, courses, and course requirements.

As one of the invited faculty at the event providing a sociological perspective, I made the case that key ideas within the sociological tradition have served as vital philosophical and conceptual foundations for education, and that those ideas, perhaps more than ever, need to play a role in structuring the future of education. I draw on the seminal work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim who defined the critical function of education as developing engaged and active citizens for the formation of democratic societies. I follow up with references to the works of Howard Zinn and Paulo Freire in illustrating how Durkheim’s conception of education can be put into practice in the classroom. My hope is to spur further discussion and reflection.

To be sure, the influence of the sociological tradition in education during the twentieth century is well acknowledged.  It is indeed present in our college’s banner and motto: “Towards a Democracy of Excellence.” This echoes Durkheim’s view that education instills “the respect… for the ideas and sentiments which are at the base of democratic morality”[1]. At its core for Durkheim, education has a moral quality in developing the kinds of people who through obtained beliefs and knowledge can act in ways that benefit the public good[1]. As humans are inherently social beings, morality is measured by peoples’ participation in society. The important questions that emerge for us educators are these: To what extent is a democratic morality currently the foundation for classroom instruction? How is then such a system of education to be structured in the classroom?

Certainly, the twentieth century, being the most destructive period in human history, has brought to the fore significant concerns about the (moral) purpose of knowledge and thus education. Indeed, the great social historian Howard Zinn notes, “In 1937 sociologist Robert S. Lynd wrote a little gem of a book entitled Knowledge for What? In which he attacked the divorce of scholarship from the problems of his day… In the interim the world has experienced Auschwitz and Hiroshima and Birmingham, yet the accusation in that book against the world of scholarship remains exactly as true in every line”[2]. As these words were written close to fifty years ago, one can argue that this divorce is still in effect. Sociologists who explicitly look to apply their research to solving social problems are seen as doing something distinctive, and their work is labeled “public sociology.” In general, such scholars are known as “public intellectuals.”

How does education suffer if democratic morality is no longer the underlying principal? Democratic morality provides a basis for an intellectual orientation that can only fully develop if two key interrelated components are the focus of classroom instruction. These two components are developing a student’s (1) ability for critical analysis, and (2) his/her sense of agency to effect positive social change as citizen. The best illustration of this comes from an observation in which Zinn describes a classroom scene in one of the “Freedom Schools” set up by civil rights activists during the summer of 1964 in Mississippi:

One day, it was an editorial in the morning’s Clarion-Ledger, charging that civil rights workers were teaching people to break the law. “What do you think of the editorial? Is it true? If you could write a letter to the editor about it, what would you say?…Here’s paper and pencil, go ahead. We’ll pick out one or two and really send them to the editor.” This was not education for grades, not writing for teacher’s approval, but for an immediate use; it was a learning surrounded with urgency. And the students responded with seriousness, picking apart the issues: Are we for the law? When is civil disobedience justified? Then the teacher explored with them the differences between statutory law, constitutional law, “natural” law[3].

The style of instruction here is promoting critical thought and agency by sparking what Paulo Freire refers to as a dialogue between theory and practice[4]. Theory is understood as a framework for knowing and explaining the world. In this case, the students are learning and questioning the theory of law: What is its purpose? How is it structured? How does it relate to the concept of rights?

Theory serves as the basis for practice. Without knowing, one cannot act. Practice is action, or the (re)structuring of the social order in action. Education that focuses on the dialoguing of theory and practice forms what Freire calls the “ontological vocation” for students[4]. Through knowledge obtained in the process of learning, the student becomes a “subject” with the capacity to shape his/her world and thus create history. Thus students are imbued with a sense of agency, which constitutes the essence of democratic citizenship. In Zinn’s classroom observation, students are given the tools to act through their learning of law.

Within the sociological tradition, as put forth by Durkheim and echoed by others, the purpose of education is to foster an intellectual orientation for effective participation in society.  “Effective” comes from those who have developed the capacity to exercise a democratic morality, an ability to engage in an ongoing dialogue between theory and practice—more specifically, an ability to critically assess theory in terms of its moral application to social practice. This tradition of education is perhaps becoming more important as we sail into an increasingly uncertain global future.

[1] Cladis, Mark S. “Education, Virtue and Democracy in the Work of Emile Durkheim.” Journal of Moral Education. 1995, Vol. 24 Issue 1, p. 37, 16p.

[2] Zinn, Howard. “Nonviolent Direct Action.” Howard Zinn on History. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011[1966].

[3] Zinn, Howard. “Freedom Schools.” Howard Zinn on History. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011[1964].

[4] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (Trans.: Myra Bergman Ramos.) New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012 [1970].

Mehmet is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dutchess Community College, SUNY, currently teaching Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems, and Sociology of Religion. His areas of interest include historical comparative analysis of resistance movements, social change, and political economy.


How Liberals in the 1960s Laid the Groundwork for Killing Welfare in the 1990s

DB_BioPic By Darren Barany

The 1960s are often associated with the left counterculture and activism and movements for social justice of the period, e.g. the anti-war movement, the black freedom and civil rights struggles, the feminist movement, gay liberation, the various struggles for economic justice, etc. However, the American political culture shifted significantly to the right through the decade, particularly around issues related to anti-poverty policy, work, family, and the role of government in controlling poverty and inequality. The capturing of the Republican Party by the hard-line conservatism around the Barry Goldwater campaign via the formation of his sizable grassroots conservative base helped build a conservative political foundation on which future political and intellectual figures would acquire status and come to positions of power and influence (e.g. the election of Reagan in 1980). This base encompassed a white America which was resentful of gains made by the civil rights and black freedom struggles (and other movements) and which was distressed by the methods of direct action politics employed by them. Sweeping federal actions like the war on poverty and enforcing the integration of schools were seen as giving in to the pressure of riotous and unruly urban black activists.

Perhaps more significant than the rightward shift of the GOP at this time was the parallel shift among liberal intellectuals to the right, especially with regard to the US welfare state. This comprised the migration of an intellectually diverse array of leftish writers, researchers, and academics to the political right – New York-based intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer, as well as political figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While conservative intellectuals were mostly discussing policy in the economistic and abstract terms of the libertarian critique of big government which saw the welfare state as a slippery slope to full blown communism, these intellectual defectors from the left went on to produce a policy analysis which utilized coded references to cultural dysfunction and the “pathology” of the black family.

Respectable liberalism in the US would become a politics of compromise and appeasement, a liberalism which was “reasonable” as opposed to that of the “doughface progressive,” to use Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s distinction. The doughface was characterized as a naïve “wailer” who led him or herself to become the “accomplice of communism.” This movement of the left toward the “vital center” opened the way for the embracing of many conservative principles by American liberals. The effects of this transformation have extended far ahead through history and its legacy had become plainly evident with the signing of the Welfare Reform Bill of 1996 by the Clinton Administration. Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole allegedly complained that Bill Clinton was stealing his issues during the 1996 campaign which included measures like toughening criminal justice policy, cutting taxes, and rolling back welfare. Revealingly, these measures have proven recently to be somewhat bothersome for Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential primary run, as she supported these measures back then and now they inconveniently contradict her recently adopted progressive political persona.

The vital center approach to politics anticipated the neoconservatism of Kristol, Bell, et al. who had steadily retreated from their social and intellectual progressivism. Their position on anti-poverty policy articulated a necessity for limited government provisions but shied away from any type of social wage or income guarantee or anything seen as disruptive to traditional institutional or class arrangements. As the 1960s progressed, more and more attention, energy, and print was devoted to their skepticism of more progressive welfare policy and strategies which sought to enhance the collective political agency of the welfare poor. For example, strategies like the Community Action Programs (CAPs) implemented in the War on Poverty would be criticized as socially disruptive and as exacerbating perceived social and political crises.

The shifting political milieu corresponded to social and economic transformations which were unfolding during the decade, which preceded the economic downturn of the 1970s, and which fostered an atmosphere of white racial, patriarchal, and class angst. Changes related to the economy, residential displacement, and the transforming American family structure by the late 1960s were successfully framed in terms of individual behavior and work ethic, ethnic and racial identity, declining sexual morality and loss of tradition, and family disorganization. These changes produced greater demand for social services. However, black men and women were much more likely to face discrimination, live in poverty, and experience unemployment. This had a devastating effect on black families, and as fewer impoverished black households were inequitably excluded from receiving benefits, eligibility and participation in poor relief programs expanded. Moynihan, who (according to conservative policy expert, Karl Zinsmeister) was the “original sentinel of welfare-linked social decay,” observed these shifts and noted that AFDC went from being seen as widow’s program to “what in certain important respects became a Negro program.” These perceptions were highly detrimental to AFDCs legitimacy and legacy and contributed to the further stigmatization of AFDC mothers.

As the proto-neoconservatives made the gradual political and intellectual transformation from left to right or, as Glazer described it, going from being a “mild radical” to a “mild conservative,” their level of public exposure and influence was expanding. They exploited the shifting demographic composition of the welfare rolls mentioned above. Their analysis highlighted persistent reliance on AFDC due to chronic poverty, and the apparent increase in the proportion of children being born to unmarried parents was presented through language which constructed the welfare poor, especially black female headed families, as culturally/ behaviorally deficient. Terms like “dependency” and “illegitimacy” became common refrains in mainstream policy discourse. Their emphasis on behavioral dimensions of poverty and hostile response to the more progressive demands of the civil rights movement would resonate with the fear experienced by many whites who fit the now notorious “silent majority” archetype and further solidified the individual in the social imaginary as the main bearer of responsibility for his or her social position.

A soft progressivism was maintained. Bell in particular scorned McCarthy as an enemy of cultural freedom. Members of the group opposed the Vietnam War and Bell, Glazer, and Moynihan rhetorically defended the basic philosophical foundations of the New Deal, but were variably conflicted about the social consequences of welfare. For example, Bell accepted (and reinforced in his work) the myth of the meritocracy arguing that those in positions of power in the society have “earned their authority.” Glazer felt that the proposals of anti-poverty activists were too far reaching and could ultimately prove to be unachievable, damaging, and impractical. These refrains are currently quite familiar as the progressive presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders has experienced similar criticism from Hillary Clinton and her supporters, who are presented as more pragmatic, sensible, and cautious. Of the group, Kristol traveled farthest to the right on these issues, denouncing outright welfare’s social consequences as “perverse.” In particular, he bemoaned that it promoted the independence of single mothers to the extent that it made the “head of the household” into a “superfluous man,” robbing him of “his economic function.” Advocacy for methods of politics or particular causes which were too far beyond the status quo or too inconsistent with white, middle class values was often regarded as self indulgent, short-sighted, naïve, or ideological. Criticisms of welfare state programs, of the anti-poverty and welfare rights movements, and of the so called “negro problem,” while containing an air of “being honest about race,” was often itself suffused with racism, white racial guilt, and anxiety.

This wavering liberalism was an establishment liberalism fearful that the challenges confronted by the society could effectively and radically restructure the institutions of traditional power from which they had benefited. This conservative liberalism was a distinctly white, American liberalism and desperately tried to shed its critical orientation in favor of an unwavering and rosy perception of institutions, power, and authority.

Their discourse revealed an overt fear and traumatized consciousness – a sort of theory of society informed by post-traumatic stress. Kristol once famously quipped that a neoconservative is a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” In an infamous essay titled “My Negro Problem and Ours,” Podhoretz, after recounting several instances where he had been assaulted by and made afraid of black youths in Brooklyn during his childhood, warned of the “writers and intellectuals and artists who romanticize Negroes and pander to them, assuming a guilt that is not properly theirs.”

Bell and Kristol had founded The Public Interest policy journal in 1965, the year the famous Moynihan Report was released, and it decisively challenged the tenets of progressive liberalism and the perceived egalitarian impulse of the social sciences. Kristol once identified as a common thread linking neoconservatives “their dislike of the ‘counter-culture.’” An article in the Spring 1966 issue by Earl Raab, a high school friend of Kristol, challenged the achievements of the War on Poverty, which in addition to expanding economic opportunity, had been a “kind of sociological surprise ball.” The essay suggested that the War on Poverty was a clandestine part of the “Negro revolution, of the direct action demonstrations and anarchic ghetto restlessness.” The result was an anti-poverty program which unfairly targeted an urban, black population, even though they were only a portion of the country’s poor, and the article further warned that “the American Negro is not… going to be satisfied with mere equality of opportunity.”

Moynihan was a periodic contributor through the 1960s. He and other contributors to the journal had readily appropriated Oscar Lewis’ concept of the culture of poverty. The concept was constructed to illustrate that poverty did not merely correspond to economic hardship but also constituted “a way of life” for those living in adverse material conditions. Lewis hadn’t intended the term to be used as a means for placing the blame for poverty on the poor themselves. He wrote, “In the case of a relief system that barely keeps people alive, both the basic poverty and the sense of hopelessness are perpetuated rather than eliminated.” It is precisely the opposite inference, that benefits were too generous and therefore encouraged a permissive and deviant culture of poverty, which would constitute the misuse of the concept by the neoconservatives and become such an important feature of contemporary policy discourse.

The Negro Family, the Moynihan report’s actual title, provided a moral dimension to the critique of the welfare state. It culled from Lewis’ culture of poverty framework elements which underscored behavioral patterns among America’s poor that were considered out of synch with white, middle class values. This contributed to revitalizing old, stigmatizing distinctions, like worthy and unworthy, for the poor. While he didn’t use the term, culture of poverty verbatim, he described these behavior patterns for black Americans as a “tangle of pathology.”

In contrast to Lewis, Moynihan merely touched on larger economic and social forces like the legacy and effects of black slavery, discrimination, and poor economic conditions, and he emphasized that the “center of the tangle of pathology” was the “weakness of the family structure.” He argued that, “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.” A few years after the release of The Moynihan Report, he would describe the “crisis in welfare” as one where the “escalating violence” and “mounting dependency” in American cities was leading to a situation where “a massive withdrawal of support for programs to eliminate poverty” was taking place.

Contextualizing black poverty in behavioral terms helped to sustain the social stigma associated with poor black communities. By connecting the so called culture of poverty with welfare, Moynihan helped reinforce the stigma connected with receiving AFDC and other benefits. Perhaps seeing, like Lewis did, a “great potential for revolutionary protest” in the culture of poverty of poor African American neighborhoods, the neoconservative reaction ranged from cautious and skeptical to anxious and fearful, especially regarding the organizing efforts of the welfare rights movement by mostly poor, non-white women. At the heart of the “welfare crisis” was the loss of traditional authority, be it through the emergence of the “female-headed” family which signaled the decline of patriarchal authority over women and children or of CAPs indicating the decline of the authority of traditional agency representatives and bureaucrats over poor urban residents.

CAPs were a particularly hard pill to swallow for this group. Kristol, in an effort to express just how “frothy” the political climate was in the mid-1960s, wrote that “The centerpiece of the War on Poverty was the sociological fantasy that if one gave political power to the poor, by sponsoring ‘community action,’ they would then lift themselves out of poverty at the expense of the rich and powerful.” Moynihan saw CAPs as a significant failure of the War on Poverty. Through such measures, Moynihan (and the others) asserted that the New Left was using welfare as a political weapon. This was a sort of trademark in the analysis of the burgeoning neoconservatives. The dictum was: On the one hand, people need help, but on the other, those receiving relief are behaviorally deficient or are represented by activists who lack expertise and understanding and are too militant. At times, Moynihan interrogated racism and patriarchy in a namesake fashion, but he tended to use those same ideologies to make his points more popularly compelling. Finance Committee Chair, Russell Long, who was viciously condescending and bigoted in his comments regarding opposition to the 1967 reforms by advocates, was defended by Moynihan. Regarding the welfare rights movement and welfare mothers more generally, Long argued that if benefits weren’t structured just so, a poor welfare mother would sit around “drinking wine all day” without wanting to do more than “swat a mosquito off her leg.” He also asserted that instead of political engagement, they should “do something constructive” like “clean up the mess in front of their own houses.” Shamefully he referred to black welfare mothers and activists as “Black Brood Mares, Inc.” Moynihan blamed the mean spirited and racist tone directed toward them on the mothers themselves and the radical anti-poverty activists politically mobilizing them. He declared that “in truth their tactics have invited such racial slurs.”

This blame-the-victim premise underpins the entire framework and continues to shape the parameters around acceptable political discourse today, that people should just play the game politically and adopt the preferable cultural characteristics without asserting any kind of collective political agency or using disruptive political strategies. For the (formerly liberal) neoconservatives, and this is also an attribute of contemporary, mainstream liberalism, if socially subordinated groups do go the route of self-conscious collective political action, the bases and motives must be unjustifiable and ideological. Consider the recent patronizing and demeaning treatment received by Black Lives Matter demonstrators who disrupted Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaign events. During the now infamous incident in Seattle last year, Sanders stepped aside so Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford could speak, but his (mostly white) supporters responded with hostility with some shouting “All lives matter” and “Bernie matters.” More recently, when Black Lives Matter protester, Ashley Williams interrupted a Clinton fundraising event in Charleston, her actions were dismissed as “rude” and “inappropriate” by those in attendance and Clinton, without supporting the young woman or positioning herself in solidarity in any way, was clearly shaken and couldn’t wait to get “back to the issues.” Clinton was being asked to apologize for her role in supporting her husband’s 1994 crime bill which exacerbated mass incarceration, especially for minority populations, and for referring to kids in gangs with the racial code-word, “super-predators” in 1996. She also advocated and supported her husband’s welfare reform bill in that same year. The bill has had devastating consequences for poor families, but in the existing political culture it is still largely celebrated as a resounding bipartisan success. Despite Sanders raising this issue in debates with Clinton and on the campaign trail, the “ability to get things done” and “pragmatism” associated with the “New Democrats” still resonates with large swaths of Democratic voters across demographic lines. The entire US political spectrum, along with “the vital center” has shifted rightward over the decades. Therefore, the fetish of tepid politics illustrated in the policy analysis of the liberals who drifted rightward in the 1950s and 1960s and which offered that reasonable discourse be moderate and centrist, paved the ideological and political road which culminated in the end of welfare as an entitlement in 1996. The good news is that the edifice of the established liberalism of the white ruling class is showing signs of fracture with the ascendance of the Sanders campaign and its refreshingly grassroots democratic organizing and message. However, we will see if primary voters, the DNC, and the Democratic Party will permit such a challenge to establishment liberal politics to prevail.

Darren Barany teaches sociology at LaGuardia Community College and lives in Elmhurst, Queens. He has an MPA from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent research and writing looks at the ideology and politics of policy reform. He also frequently hurts himself while riding a skateboard.

The Greatest Political Upset in the History of US Presidential Politics is Upon Us…

Liam_BioPic By William J. Weikart

For at least the past couple months, I have been blathering (and sharing) non-stop on Facebook (FB) in support of the Bernie Sanders campaign. For those who have not yet blocked or deleted me, I thank you, and I empathize with your annoyance!

The vast majority of my FB connections are Sanders supporters, to the degree that my feed often feels these days more like a Berniebook. However, I have been in some public and private debates with a few intelligent and respected friends who are Hillary Clinton supporters. These debates are a good thing, because, as many have observed, the nature of social media networks can often become personal ‘echo chambers’ whereby one surrounds one’s self only with the like-minded (perhaps, reproducing and magnifying a social tendency already established). Arguably, we create a semiclosed communicative realm whereby reality itself (to be a bit hyperbolic) is only very partially represented…Plato’s cave allegory easily comes to mind.

As I teenager I was politicized by, among other things, listening to Jello Biafra spoken word cassettes (of course, the Dead Kennedys preceded that.) One phrase that stuck in my head was his repetition of what was apparently an old saying; “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

I first became aware of the existence of Bernie Sanders in around 1994. I was in college at a medium-sized university in South Carolina. I had been involved in campus N.O.W. (National Organization for Women), and became inspired to start my own campus organization that was somewhat broader in theme, and more properly ‘left’, as opposed to liberal. My friend Tyler Miller and I started the Socialist Student Union. It apparently still exists there, to this day, surprisingly. Our faculty sponsor, from the political science department (and also apparently still teaching fulltime!), introduced us to the name Bernie Sanders – a standing socialist (!) senator from Vermont! We were amazed…said advisor (a Maoist, back then – plus eventual mentor to a few of us) was praiseful of Sanders; but of course, not totally behind him 100%. I’d learn over time that, while he was positively enthralled to be our faculty support, he did not claim the term socialist (rather, communist, of course), for the main reason that, for him, the term implied that change comes only, or mainly, through “the ballot box” (voting).

I did not agree with this as being the main, or only, way that significant change comes to political, social and economic systems; nor that the term socialist necessitated or implied this feature. I took the term socialist in a far more vague and general sense. In fact, communists, socialists and anarchists, to my budding political mind, had more in common than in difference. I’d go on to take an interest in anarchism. I’d move to New York City for graduate school in 2000, and try to link up with Direct Action Network, which I had heard about, through my connections with the then-called “anti-globalization” movement (a term that has faded fast). At the beginning of, and through most of, my graduate schooling, I was strictly about grassroots and streetlevel political movements, mainly of the anarchist persuasion. The presidential elections were always, to me and my peers, in the words of my old mentor, a theatrical-symbolic battle between “tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum”, or “opposite poles of the same stupidity”. The point here is that, in our fairly closed two-party system, the differences between the two parties (and, candidates, by extension) are very small.

To a left radical, the point is that both of the parties are of the capitalist system, and neither have any capacity to fundamentally change capitalism or go beyond it. The term “radical”, that mentor would say, means that one aims to “get to the root of” a problem, rather than treating mere symptoms, placing bandages. If one merely rips the visible top off a weed, without tugging it out fully, down through its (hidden) roots, then it will grow back. Today I realize that everyone wants to get to the roots of problems, of course — we simply differ on what we think those roots are (or what the main problems are, to begin with). But surely we are not all radicals. Of course, to the Marxist, the root(s) (almost) always lie in the economic structure.

Today, as a byproduct of my exposure to some of those old so-called “postmodern” philosophies so popular in the 80s and 90s, and vastly unpopular in the wake of 9/11 (2001), I still reject much binary thinking. Binary thinking is the notion that two main essences exist, in most or any fields, and are opposite. An example of a binary structure is the two party system in the USA (of course, the Democrats and Republicans are far from opposite; but they do retain some typical differences, sometimes quite important). Another is the binarythat change comes either through street activism (eg, direct action – from outside the “system”) –Or through voting and elections (the inside of the “system”). The former advocates are often typically self-described revolutionaries (radicals, wanting to eradicate capitalism); and the latter, reformists (those wanting to soften the blunt or harsh edges – or symptoms – of capitalism).

The worst aspect of binary thinking, aside from typically reducing complexity, and a multitude of variables and/or actors, is the either-or logic. When one or the other of two supposed opposites always wins, or ascends, often much of the middle, grey area is neglected or reduced away.

I’d go through a lot of activism and organizing here in NYC, mostly just as a non-central participant though…I’d eventually burn out on “activism” of that sort. One major reason was the fighting between, and even among, sects, or ideologies. Also there were very long meetings, endlessly, with said fighting; and a seemingly never-ending influx of newbies who needed to be caught up. The left seemed to have a deep self-loathing issue(s).

OCCUPY, or, Occupy Wall Street[1], was a grassroots political movement that came about here in NYC in 2011. By this time I had really grown skeptical and tired of street protesting as a main format for movements. But OCCUPY of course grew huge, spread widely, and arguably affected public discourse around structural inequality, in the slogan “We are the 99%”, as opposed to the 1% at the top of the income pyramid, who control a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, and hence power. OCCUPY had vague and diffuse demands but the movement pretty inarguably influenced public discourse, at the very least, around finance capital, inequality, bank and corporate power.

I want to completely agree with the position that says OCCUPY opened up public discourse (eg, the 1%) to the degree that a Sanders candidacy could even be thinkable, let alone this unfathomably successful. I was a naysayer at the start of OCCUPY (I remember the day well; I was not there…I was highly skeptical). Now I know a bunch of old leftist friends who, like I was then, are naysayers about Bernie now. Makes me sad, but I understand…I have never taken an interest in electoral politics until this year. The above all goes to show that ye olde inside/outside (“the system”), from above vs from below, are largely false dichotomies. One need not necessarily choose, and perhaps, should not.

With my own semi-involvement with the Sanders campaign (just mainly as an independent advocate, armchair analyst, and “clicktivist” (ha), I have interestingly had to take up debates with people near me but to either side of me, politically: those centrists, to my right, who defend Hillary Clinton, typically on grounds that she is more electable and/or has a more achievable set of goals; and those radicals and activists to my left (arguably), who think that organizing around Bernie Sanders is a huge waste of time and resources.

It has gotten me to thinking about the binary scheme that is often referred to when analyzing one’s voting tendencies: 1. Voting one’s conscience and 2. Voting pragmatically. I’d like to expound around each a little bit and hope that we can move beyond a binary of one-or-the-other, here.

Voting one’s conscience, I think (hope), means voting in accords of one’s political values. Now, not everyone is super-aware and clear of what his/her core political values are. That’s certainly ok and sometimes even good (to fend off dogmatism). I think I am personally fairly clear on this, and so, from the get-go, it is hard for me to conceive of voting for anyone but Sanders (though he is not the messiah to me, nor is Hillary the devil, as one person framed it). However, for others less certain, sometimes choices are made at the last minute. Similar, and related, to the spirit of anti-intellectualism in the USA, many citizens here will claim to “not do politics”, or hate politics. It seems to me that Donald Trump appeals to many in this camp on sheer virtue that he is entertaining (I agree, to an extent), and he is easy to understand (he speaks in often very vague and excessively casual terms – about “winning”, for example). But he is also a megalomaniacal racist, misogynist, bully, and apparent liar. As many have pointed out, many of his political positions are appalling, but perhaps what makes him most dangerous is his affect – his explosive temper, his callousness…

Those people who are typically more politically engaged should not act like gatekeepers around the spheres of political discourse. If someone is coming later in life to political thinking, others should be glad they are at least engaging, and be patient when contradictory impulses are espoused, and the like.

The comedian and actor/writer Louis CK recently publicly decried Trump but followed up, rather blandly, by saying he likes both Hillary and Bernie, but ultimately thinks that the Republicans should “have their turn”, so to speak, after 8 years of Obama – just, not Trump. This is a disappointing and fairly naive political view to many, but I’d further extend his own prescription and say that we have not had a president anything much like Sanders since the 1960s, or really, the 1930s. So by his logic, ‘tis Sanders who really is badly in need of “a turn”. Alas. I am glad that comedians like CK, however, are popularizing political awareness in a way that does not alienate many who are usually alien. He is a bridge-builder, for sure, and he likes to listen to all sides.

Many Clinton supporters seem to back her based on the more pragmatic side of the criterion: that she is more electable, and/or, can get more of her claimed legislative goals accomplished. However, I would ask these folks if their core political values are also in line with Clinton. She seems to certainly NOT have inspired people anywhere near the level of intensity (at least, if not numbers) as the Sanders campaign has. I’d urge people to first consider their core political and ethical values and see how they match up with any given candidate. After this, we can and should certainly, assess feasibility and strategy…but with a firm observance of the Spinozist dictum that “we do not yet know what a body is capable of”…

Much of the left in the USA in my lifetime has exhibited what I would call a profound psychic investment in it’s own failure. By this I mean that, we would not know what to do with ourselves if we actually won. That we are so used to playing the critic, the outsider, the underdog, the subaltern…that to lose this status and identity would be too bewildering, vertigo-inducing. We need that opposition, those oppositional politics, to even be. This is an extension of binary thinking into dialectical thinking: that all progress comes from the struggle between two opposing forces. My favorite countermetaphor is: I’d rather go under or around a wall, than slam myself into it endlessly, until I get through it.

The energy and inspiration that Bernie Sanders and this movement have mustered are inspiring me to become re-interested in politics and the left (certainly not just electoral politics), after a lengthy period of cynicism and lethargy and despair. I suppose this holds for many; and so, as the public dialog is further expanded…Bernie has, in many ways, already won, regardless of the outcome.

The polls for Super Tuesday 2 states (who vote today!) are showing narrowing gaps for a surging Sanders[2]. Also many polls show Sanders having better odds and a better spread of beating Trump[3], should he be the nominee for the Republicans. We have seen how polls can be very misleading (the Michigan primary, having had Clinton up by 20 percentage points and a 99% chance of winning); but most have not been this off. I’d point out that Sanders has, of the three (also Clinton and Trump), shown the most pronounced surge-potential as of late, and maybe through this entire primary season. I think there is still growth to come.

Here’s to a rapidly morphing political landscape, and to new potentialities!



[3] general_election_trump_vs_sanders-5565.html

Liam Weikart is a pool player who lives in Brooklyn. He is writing a sociology dissertation on experimental music in NYC since 2000.